UK's first dementia dog gives couple 'their lives back’

Pilot scheme in Scotland sees specially-trained pet partners helping care for the elderly

Adam Withnall
Monday 15 July 2013 11:57 BST
Maureen and Frank Benham with Kaspa
Maureen and Frank Benham with Kaspa

Man’s best friend has been lending a helping paw since time immemorial, and most people will be aware of the roles they play as guide dogs, sniffer dogs, even search and rescue dogs.

But have you ever head of a dementia dog?

An elderly couple in Scotland said they have been given their lives back after they were partnered up with two-year-old golden Labrador Kaspa – who is one of the first dogs in the UK to receive special training to assist dementia-sufferers.

Kaspa’s skills include fetching medicines when a reminder alarm goes off, waking up his owners at the right time and carrying items between them.

Mr Will, 79, was diagnosed with vascular dementia three years ago, and his wife Mrs Will, 66, took on the role of carer.

And she explained how challenging her husband’s condition became, saying: “We've been married 48 years but often I've sat and looked at him and thought, 'I don't know who this person is'.”

That all changed with the arrival of Kaspa. As well as helping out around the house with his practical training, the family pet has relieved a great deal of stress for the couple and encouraged them to get out and about.

Mrs Will said: “Kaspa has totally given us our lives back. Ken is much happier because he's got the dog and we can go out now. We can go shopping together, we can even go on holidays.

“We are a lot more relaxed since the dog came because if Ken gets in a mood and angry, the dog comes and nudges him and he forgets his problems. I've got a good bit of him back again.”

The team behind the project said that carers find they spend less time giving reassurance to their partner because the dog provides a ”calming“ new focus.

Speaking about the first time the couple went shopping with Kaspa, Mr Will said: ”I was tensed up and after two or three steps he just brushed against me and looked up as if to say, 'am I doing OK?' and the stress just went.“

Kaspa was joined in his training by Oscar, a two-year-old golden retriever who now helps another Arbroath couple, Frank and Maureen Benham.

Mrs Benham, 69, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and her husband said: "Maureen and I can't imagine going back to what it was like before we got Oscar.“

The Dementia Dog project was originally a brainwave from a group of product design students at the Glasgow School of Art. The programme’s director Gordon Hush said they had exhibited “the ability to re-design experiences”, above and beyond “the traditional domain of material manufacture”.

The project got started with the help of Alzheimer Scotland, Dogs for the Disabled and Guide Dogs Scotland, as well as with funding from the Scottish Government and UK Design Council. It is expected to be rolled out further, and another two dogs have already begun their training.

Helen McCain, training director at Dogs for the Disabled, said: ”Oscar and Kaspa have settled in well to their new homes and are already making an impact on the lives of their new partners.

“This new project has provided us with an opportunity to bring together our skills and experience to help with a different kind of challenge. We really believe that the dementia assistance dog could make a significant contribution to the Government's national dementia strategy.”

Alzheimer Scotland called it a “ground-breaking project”, and Logan Anderson from Guide Dogs Scotland said: “The Dementia Dog pilot has shown, not just how the dogs have provided practical benefits to those living with Alzheimer's, but also the mood-enhancing and emotional benefits as well.“

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