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Phil’s story: support of a highly trained assistance dog

Pets as therapy and assistance animals for people living with dementia.

Pet therapy

Pet therapy has grown in popularity since the 1990s and some of the known benefits for older people include:

  • Improved joint movement and motor skills
  • Improved independent or assisted movement
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Improved verbal communication and interactions with others
  • Decreased depression, isolation and loneliness
  • Reduced anxiety.

Types of pet therapy can range from occasional interactions between an individual or group with a pet and pet trainer (Animal Assisted Activities), through to daily reliance on a pet, such as the use of a highly trained assistance dog.

  • Animal Assisted Therapy is delivered by qualified professionals (including allied health workers) to either individuals or groups. Animals are incorporated into the assessment and/or treatment process. Goals are identified for each individual involved and the process is documented and evaluated.
  • Animal Assisted Activities include therapeutic animal visits by a trained handler to people in hospitals and aged care facilities to alleviate stress, improve wellbeing, provide a distraction for pain management and to provide therapeutic relief.
  • Assistance Animals (often dogs) are trained to perform one or more tasks to help their handler better access public life and manage their health condition (including physical, cognitive and emotional conditions). People with dementia living at home can consider applying for a trained assistance dog (see for example Phil Hazel’s experience below). Assistance or service dogs are trained to complete a range of helpful tasks to enable you to continue to be independent for as long as possible.

For further information

Phil’s experience with his assistance dog, Sarah

Phil Hazel was in his mid-50s when he received his dementia diagnosis (read Phil’s diagnosis story).

About 12 months after the diagnosis, his psychiatrist suggested he look into an assistance or service dog. After completion of their training, service dogs are allowed anywhere except zoos, court and operating theatres. Phil’s golden Labrador, Sarah, has even stayed in hospital with him.

It cost $43,000 over two years to train Sarah. It was a very stringent training regime with exams every three months, in the lead to the public access test to become licenced. Phil has had Sarah since she was 8 weeks old. At the start, a trainer came three times a week, at a cost of $120 an hour, to train the handler and the dog. The public assess test is gruelling, but Sarah passed first time. She must complete the final exams every two years now to keep up her licence.

Labradors are mainly used as assistance dogs as they have high acceptance rates among the public. Phil has noticed some fear of dogs among groups. He adjusts if he notices this, and tries to reduce other people’s anxiety, for example, by waiting and taking another lift.

Sarah must be the happiest dog in Sydney! She gets excited when she sees her jacket, as it signals work mode! Sarah has very high skill levels, and accompanies Phil everywhere, in taxis, on walks, and on planes where she has a window seat and won’t move.

They took two flights together before Sarah graduated. First when Sarah was 9 months. She barked a couple of times as she was stressed but did not move. On their second flight, Phil took her with him when he went to the toilet and put her in the down position. But she went into business class, so he had to explain she was still in training!

When Phil first got Sarah he was not on the NDIS. He now hopes to get another pup in a couple of years and anticipates the NDIS will pay. Sarah gives Phil the confidence to do things on his own. She comforts and cuddles him when he feels uneasy, apprehensive or disorientated.

To learn more about Phil and his experience with assistance dogs, watch this Dementia Alliance International webinar.

Managing changes

Read more about strategies and advice to help you when out and about:

Getting services

If you are under 65 years old, ask the GP or specialist about therapy options and apply for services through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

For more information about services that people with dementia can use, including the NDIS, read 5.3 Plan to use services.