We spoke to dog handler Carla Mounsey from The Dementia Dog Project to learn more about the project and the ways in which dogs can help patients living with dementia.
What does your role involve?
My main role is to work with my two Community Dogs Billy and Quill to deliver Animal Assisted Interventions to people living in the wider community with a diagnosis of Dementia.
But as a development project my role can be quite varied, one day I might be speaking to young offenders in prison the next, could be at a talk for health and social care professionals or visiting dementia groups across Scotland to promote our work. But that's why I like it, no two days are the same.
Can you tell us a little bit about the Dementia Dog Project. When was the organisation set up? In What ways can dogs help patients suffering from dementia? What services do you offer?
The Dementia Dog Project all began as a design concept at The Glasgow School of art. Alzheimer Scotland tasked the students to come up with a concept that would benefit people living with Dementia...and the Dementia Dog idea was born.
The project itself isn't a charity but the result of a collaboration between two chairties, Alzheimer Scotland and Dogs For Good. Both charities have exceptional and long standing reputations in their own right, but combining the expertise of a leading assistance dog charity with a leading Dementia charity has created a groundbreaking project that will look at ways in which trained dogs can help those living with a diagnosis of Dementia.
How many dogs do you have at the moment working with dementia patients In Scotland?
Currently we have placed eight assistance dogs with families across Scotland. The basic criteria for having a Dementia assistance dog is that the person with the diagnosis lives full time with a carer, this is normally a husband and wife team, but not always. The reason for this is one of welfare, the welfare of the person AND of the dog. We must ensure that the welfare of the dog is taken under serious consideration while not overburdening person with the diagnosis, therefore each assistance dog lives with a "team"
As the criteria for an assistance dog can be quite small, the project expanded to include the first Dementia Community Dogs. Community dogs work with a designated handler (That's me) and utilising the practice of Animal Assisted Interventions we work closely with health and social care professionals as well as the person with the diagnosis to create a series of goal focused interventions that promote independence, social contact, confidence, building and managing routines and much more.
The basic idea is...
Jill has lost confidence to continue doing every day things that she used to find easy. Jill has stopped going to the shops for her weekly messages and feels she is loosing some independence as she has to ask family or friends to shop for her. We team her up with Billy our Dementia dog and create activities she can do with him that increase her confidence, building over six sessions to the end goal of being able to shop alone again. After six weeks with the dog Jill is confident enough to walk to her local shop and pick up a few bits each week.
How long does it take to train an assistance dog?
Both our assistance dogs and Community dogs spend two years training, beginning basic socialisation at eight weeks old. Although like any dog, training is for life and is something to be maintained throughout the dogs lifetime.
Are certain breeds easier to train than others?
Mostly we use Labradors or Labrador crosses. However not always, one of our community dogs in Scotland is a CockerPoo.
What are the most important traits for a dog that’s going to work with dementia patients?
There are certain characteristics that make good assistance dogs, but mostly we look for dogs that are enjoying their role each day regardless of what that may be. A love of people is a key trait but also a calm confidence, a willingness to learn and an eagerness to carry out tasks. It is important to us that the dogs enjoy their lives and we always use positive training methods.
Our community Dogs are extremely people focused as they work with and meet lots of different people each week, they also need to be confident in lots of different environments as we hold sessions in people's own homes and in the local communities.
If i have a relative with dementia and we’d like to apply for an assistance dog how do we go about it?
We have placed our first run of assistance dogs and are looking at further funding options to continue this section of the project. The two community dogs will be working with individuals throughout Scotland until late next year, and we are still open to Community dog referrals.The best way to find out more is to look at www.dementiadog.org
or follow us of Facebook at Dementia Dog Project
In what ways can the public get involved ?
As a new project we are trying to focus on raising awareness and creating funding opportunities. The public can help us greatly by raising our profile and sharing the amazing benefits that our dogs provide.
Any top training tips?
My top tip for training is to get a book on dog communication and body language. Once we break down the language barrier between us and our dogs training and day to day life become much easier.