An incident on his bike was the catalyst for John Wood getting a service dog. Wood, a lifelong teacher, artist and avid motorcyclist suffering from an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease at age 46, was on his way back after hearing his wife sing in church when he went astray. It was late in the day in the suburbs of Detroit, and he was suddenly disoriented.
But when he asked the people sitting on their porches for help, they hesitated. Wood is 6’3 and 240 lbs. “I was this giant creepy guy who asked people for a strange request,” he said.
Eventually, another cyclist helped him to a police station. “I was driving home in the back of a police car,” he said. “It was a horrible experience of bad and incomprehensible people.”
After hearing this story, Woods’ doctor announced, “John, you need a constant companion who is really sweet: a service dog. If you have a friendly dog with you, people will see the dog.
That was exactly what happened when Wood was mated to Ruby, a long-haired Chihuahua.
“One of the things about Ruby is that she’s always cute, she’s beautiful … people stop their cars and ask what kind of dog she is,” he said of Ruby, who has now been with Wood and his family in seven years.
She also performs important tasks. Wood has fainting disorder, which can come on suddenly. Ruby helps with that.
“She would notice when I was fainting and she would bark,” he said. “The more time we spend together, the more we get to know each other, and if I need help, she barks.” People come to help him where they have previously ignored him.
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Train your service dog
Mark and Brenda Roberts from Alma, Michigan have always been dog lovers. But it was a few years after Mark was diagnosed with vascular dementia in the early 60s that the couple decided to buy and train a service dog.
Mark, now 70, knew one thing. No labrador for him. He wanted a dog that would sit on his lap, a fur ball that he could cuddle. The couple chose a Bichon Frize puppy, named her Sophie, and a new relationship began.
The couple knew a local dog trainer and asked him to help them train Sophie. Brenda says that they went this route instead of buying a fully trained service dog because they themselves would participate in the training and get to know the dog from a young age.
They also wanted to save money. Buying a fully trained service dog can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service dog as a person who performs tasks for a person with a disability, tasks that directly help with that disability.
Sophie has been trained to track Mark for scent if he gets lost, but her most important daily task is to pick up his medicine from a bathroom cabinet. Every night at 8:30 p.m., the couple’s Alexa device announces, “Sophie, go get it,” and Sophie goes to the bathroom to pick up Mark’s medicine.
She also has a GPS with her, which, since Mark and Sophie are never apart, says Brenda, who still works full time where Mark is. He continues to drive on local roads and can often be seen at McDonald’s, MCD,
at church or at the dog trainer.
Both Brenda and Mark say there are also less tangible benefits. For Brenda, it was the joy of training Sophie and loving her together.
“It was like having a child, a joint project to work on,” she said. “We had a bathing night, we nursed her, we trained her … it gave us a non-dementia-related activity to do together.”
Mark agrees, “It brings Brenda and me back to life,” he said. “It gives us something to socialize with other people. We meet a lot of exciting people and dogs.
In addition, however, Mark says that having Sophie with him all day not only eases his anxiety and gives him companionship, but can help him keep his thoughts straight. He always worked with his hands, but it got harder as his dementia progressed.
“If I have to make something out of wood, I talk to it and give it the goals and stuff, and having them written down helps me not to write wrong goals,” he explains. “[By addressing Sophie] it does not leave me immediately.
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“An unusual and new kind of service dog”
Assistant dogs like Ruby and Sophie are exceptional.
According to Chris Diefanthaler, CEO of Assistance Dogs International, “dementia assistance dogs are a rare and new type of service dog”. Of all the members of his organization worldwide, only a few claim to train this type of service dog.
Especially in the United States, this is an area that few people know about.
Jennifer Lutes is the Associate Director of 4 Paws for Ability in Xenia, Ohio. She says dementia assistance dogs are her new training area.
“We adapted the need to the circumstances. One of our volunteers contacted us to adopt a dog for his wife with dementia. The organization has made three placements in the last two years.
Lutes says the true cost of training a service dog is between $ 40,000 and $ 60,000. His organization, which is mainly funded by donations, charges the client $ 20,000. She says many families raise money for their dog through crowdfunding campaigns.
It takes about a year and a half of training to get a dog ready for placement, and Lutes says their journey begins when they are toddlers.
“Dogs undergo a health and behavior program to even participate in [training] program … puppies come home with a volunteer trainer and they learn socialization and good manners. They get this basis for continuing education, ”she explains.
Lutes says she has occasionally been contacted by an adult child who asked about the possibility of a dog helping a parent living alone. Lutes tells them that any service dog for a dementia sufferer should be able to receive commands from a home caregiver, as well as the person with dementia. A dog cannot replace a human caregiver.
She gives another warning to anyone considering a service dog: “Dogs need care, time and energy,” she said. “If you’re too stressed for it, a dog may not be right for you. A dog also needs to practice his skills. Sometimes people are not aware of it. They see a dog in public, and it is polite in public, and they do not understand what it took to get there.
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A bridge to the outside world
But Lutes agrees with Brenda Roberts that a service dog can be a huge blessing, and not just for the person with dementia.
“From my perspective, that means Sophie has to do things for Mark, that it’s one less thing I have to do as a caregiver, and from her perspective, he’s independent,” Brenda said, adding that her husband is also more social, than he otherwise would be. .
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John Wood says his Chihuahua Ruby also provided a bridge between him and the outside world. His presence has drawn friendly comments and made him more confident when he is on the go.
“You hear about Alzheimer’s and people think you drool in a chair,” he said. “But there is a way to share who we are. We do not have to be hidden away and have service animals, and this partnership allows for regular activities that would not otherwise be possible for me.
When Wood is cycling these days, Ruby is strapped to his chest.
Ashley Milne-Tyte is a freelance journalist based in Long Island. She has a background in radio and reported her first stories about older people while working for Marketplace, the public radio business program. She has since written and hosted the podcast Tight knit, a series in eight parts about caregivers. She is also the creator and animator of The great experience, a podcast on women and work. You can find it at ashleymilnetyte.com.
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