Contact with canines helps dementia

Five police officers recently showed up at my daughter’s house in Maryland because her two well-trained German shepherd dogs were accidentally loose in front of her yard. The older dog is a trained search-and-rescue animal. And the younger dog is a companion, literally “shepherded” by the older animal.

But a neighbor–who we suspect may be senile and is demonstrably hostile–reported “dangerous” canines on the loose. (This neighbor also has a 30-year track record of lying to police and other public officials to make trouble. Perhaps you have one of “those” neighbors too?)

So, five uniformed police and animal “control” (their favorite word) officers showed up at the scene. They held the dogs captive in cramped cages for two hours while they conducted an “investigation.” The cramped cages would certainly qualify as animal abuse by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. But the officers’ behavior reminded me of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau investigating the pet monkey. “Eeze theese yoar moan-kay?”

Amazingly, we learned that in the state of Maryland, a person can make a “statutory contact” claim even when the animal hasn’t made actual physical contact. The offended party need only claim they had a “feeling” the dog was going to harm them.

That’s like someone writing a “lettre de cache” to King Louis as depicted in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. You might have thought the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights put that kind of abuse to an end by now.

But as I said, my daughter lives in suburban Maryland. On the outskirts of Washington, D.C. So it’s no surprise that any common sense flew out the window in favor of an overbearing, autocratic government, and mindless bureaucratic mentality.

Of course, as I mentioned, this neighbor very well may suffer from dementia, which is linked to irrational behavior and bouts of anger. So the great irony here is, she or he probably would benefit from real contact with a canine. In fact, a wealth of evidence shows that contact with dogs helps slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And it can even help patients live longer independently.

You see, most forms of dementia don’t have a sudden onset. And in the beginning and middle stages of the disease, people can still have a useful, functional, and somewhat independent life if they have enough support and social interaction.

So, in many places, experts train dogs to work with early-to-mid-stage Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. The service dogs help patients find their way home after going for a walk across town. The dogs remind patients to take their meds. Since dementia and Alzheimer’s patients often lose track of the time, the dogs also remind the patients when to eat and go to sleep. The dogs can also trigger an alarm if the patient falls or chokes.

This added support allows the patient to remain independent longer. Plus, according to one expert, dogs help patients maintain a “psychological anchor” to reality. Even in early-stage dementia, patients can feel cut-off from family and friends. But dogs can fill that void and help provide social support.

In the later stages of dementia, dogs can help support waning social skills. At these later stages, patients often don’t recognize their own family. But they can often recognize and even interact with a dog.

Even in the very last stages of the disease, dogs can provide comfort. I remember seeing a German shepherd approach an elderly, non-communicative man sitting alone. The man wound his fingers in the dog’s fur and hugged her. Very often, dementia patients will see the dog as someone with whom they can interact without any worry.

Thanks to all of these potential benefits, it’s becoming more common to find four-legged friends visiting Alzheimer’s and dementia units. Some facilities now keep pet coordinators on staff to aid in the care of residents’ pets. And this practice of exposing dementia patients to dogs is yielding some wonderful results.

In fact, one study compared degrees of social interaction in adults with dementia. Patients exposed to dogs had more interactive behaviors–albeit some interactions were directed at the dog rather than at a person. Plus, they had less agitation, increased physical activity, improved eating habits, and increased feelings of enjoyment and pleasure.

Dog therapy also seems to help alleviate “sundown syndrome,” in particular. When the sun goes down, dementia patients often become confused and agitated. But exposure to dogs during this time of day seems to lessen the outbursts…without a single antipsychotic drug.

Of course, not every dog is suited to interacting with dementia patients. Training is a requirement. Therapy dogs need to be calm and extremely obedient. They need to sit, stay, do tricks on command, and introduce themselves by putting a paw or head gently on a knee. And they should be able to resist food and attractive aromas. Therapy dogs also need to be comfortable with hospital equipment, which is a real challenge, since many humans are not comfortable with it.

Of course, big pharma and the rest of the mainstream medical world will continue to dither about which drug works best to sedate Alzheimer and dementia patients. I have no doubt about that sad fact.

But the animal-assisted therapy movement is gaining momentum. And the research is only getting stronger for the benefits of exposing dementia patients to dogs. It’s just proof, once again, of the age-old adage: Dogs really are man’s (and woman’s) best friend.

For more natural approaches for preventing dementia, I recommend reading my report The Insider’s Answer for Dodging Dementia. Subscribers to my Insiders’ Cures newsletter get this report for free. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.


  1. “Assistance Dogs for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Patients,” Psychology Today ( 1/21/2014
  2. “Using a therapy dog to alleviate the agitation and desocialization of people with Alzheimer’s disease,” J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv 1999;37(4):16-22