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Service Dogs for Elderly Adults: Everything a Caregiver Should Know

By Rebecca Schier-AkameluFebruary 28, 2022
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Service Dogs for Elderly Adults: Everything a Caregiver Should Know

If your senior loved one has a visual impairment, hearing loss, or other disability, you’ve likely looked into many ways to make their lives easier. For animal lovers, a service dog can provide assistance in ways that are wonderful and perhaps even a little unexpected. It’s important to remember that service dogs fulfill a specific task – their highly specialized training makes them much more than a typical household companion.

From training to costs to time commitments, many factors affect the decision to get a service dog. If you’re thinking about how to get a service dog for the elderly loved one in your life, read on to learn more about these incredible animals and the many benefits they offer.

Defining a service dog

A service dog can be any size or breed of dog that is trained to perform a specific task relating to a person’s disability, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The following are just a few examples of the types of tasks a service dog can help with:

  • OlderReminding someone to take medication
  • Alerting someone of an upcoming panic attack or seizure
  • Alerting a deaf person to important sounds
  • Guiding a person with vision impairments

Differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs

The ADA sets important distinctions between service, therapy, and emotional support dogs. This makes sense when considering what these dogs are trained to do:

  • A service dog is specifically trained to work with one person.
  • Therapy dogs often work with many people and require a handler to be present.
  • An emotional support dog for elderly people provides assistance to someone with a mental health disorder.

Emotional support dogs differ from service dogs in that they are not trained in specific tasks. Because of this, they are not considered a service dog under the ADA.

With many senior living communities offering pet-friendly options, you may also notice therapy dogs visiting assisted living residents. Therapy dogs and the elderly residents are a perfect match, with seniors experiencing benefits including decreased isolation and stress reduction. However, since therapy dogs work with many people, they do not fall under the category of a service dog.

Benefits of a service dog

Like other dogs, service dogs provide many of the same benefits of dog ownership, including an increase in exercise as well as physiological benefits, such as stress reduction from petting a dog. Another surprising benefit for seniors includes a decreased reliance on health care services, with dog owners requiring fewer doctor appointments and fewer hospital visits, as noted in the Journal of Aging and Health.

Caregiver benefits

As a caregiver, you’re likely looking for a service dog to make your loved one’s life easier, but there are benefits to caregivers as well. In addition to a loved one’s health concerns, caregivers often experience their own health problems and an increase in stress due to added responsibilities in their life.

Service dogs provide benefits for all. Emotional support, general family support, bonding, and trust that the dog will be there when the caregiver cannot are some of the top benefits of a service dog, according to a research study conducted by Purdue University.

Service dogs for senior citizens: Sourcing, cost considerations, and more

Depending on the tasks your loved one needs help with, you’ll find numerous organizations throughout the country that can help a senior find a service dog:

  • The Guide Dog Foundation is a national organization that specializes in matching adults who are classified as legally or totally blind with a specially trained canine companion. After a meticulous matching process, the potential owner attends a training program to even better match their needs and personality to the right dog.
  • Assistance Dogs International is a coalition of non-profit organizations across the country. They help connect people looking for assistance with guide dogs, hearing dogs, and service dogs that can be trained for other tasks.
  • America’s Vet Dogs works specifically with veterans who have received an honorable discharge as well as some first responders. These service dogs can be trained to support a specific disability, including helping to mitigate the effects of PTSD.

It is worth noting that reputable organizations will expect recipients of a service dog to pay for the training costs, the care of the dog across its lifetime, and be capable of handling the dog and attending training sessions.

Service dogs can be expensive, with the National Service Dogs Registry citing an average cost of around $25,000. While this is certainly an investment, some organizations have grants and scholarships to help with costs. In addition to cost, many organizations have waitlists of up to three years, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Service dogs for elderly people with dementia

Seniors living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can benefit greatly from a canine companion. Pet-therapy sessions alone can reduce agitation and promote social interaction in seniors, according to the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

Since owners need to be responsible for their dogs, you may be wondering if your loved one would qualify for a service dog. 4 Paws for Ability offers a team approach for caregivers and individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia. They will train a service dog to follow a caregiver’s commands to help the individual with memory loss. These service dogs can also track a senior who is prone to wandering, assist with balance, and offer redirection when seniors become agitated.

With benefits for your loved one as well as other family members, it’s easy to see the appeal of service dogs. Most importantly, they can help seniors maintain their independence through a unique, trust-based relationship.

Sources

U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. (2010). Service animals. ADA.gov.

Knight, S. & Edwards, V. (2008, June). In the company of wolves: The physical, social, and psychological benefits of dog ownershipJournal of Aging and Health.

Nieforth, L. O., Rodriguez, K. E., & O’Haire, M. E. (2021, June 2). Benefits and challenges of mobility and medical alert service dogs for caregivers of service dog recipientsDisability and Rehabilitation: Assistive Technology.

Service Dog Certifications. The cost of a service dog.

Parenti, L., Wilson, M., Foreman, A. M., Wirth, O., & Meade, B. J. (2015). Selecting quality service dogsThe APDT Chronicle of the Dog.

Richeson, N.E. (2003, November 1). Effects of animal-assisted therapy on agitated behaviors and social interactions of older adults with dementiaAmerican Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

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Author
Rebecca Schier-Akamelu

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