Canine care offers a lifeline for dementia patients

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Australia's first assistance dog trained specifically for people living with dementia has 'graduated' at a Melbourne ceremony.

Seventy-year-old Rolf Beilharz has been living with Alzheimer’s Disease for more than three years.

His wife Vyrna says he was struggling to communicate and couldn’t participate in many of their favourite activities, when she observed a subtle change in his behaviour.

“One thing I'd notice when we were outside and we'd pass a dog or any little animal he would become very tender and pay attention to it in the kindest way and enjoyed it ,” she said.

The long-time dog owners became pilots in an Assistance Dogs Australia program aimed at pairing intensively trained Labradors with dementia patients.

"Dementia itself is very changeable and the dogs need to adapt to these changes as well."

Three year old 'Jiyu' was welcomed into their home and quickly formed a close bond with the couple, especially with Rolf.

“Jiyu goes to Rolf and if I say 'where's Rolf', he''ll go there. They are bonded and [when we walk] Rolf always leads him," Mrs Beilharz said.

"It just added a very stabilising happy presence to the house." 

Marie Alford from the Hammond Care Dementia Centre, which was pivotal in the pilot program, says the Beilharz’s were ideal candidates for the trial.

“Rolf and Vyrna have had dogs in the past and they understood the commitment. [Dogs] need a lot of exercise and ongoing training, and they really embraced the sense of bringing that dog into their home as part of their family,” she said. 

Alberto Campos trained Jiyu and is excited at the prospect of assistance dogs helping dementia patients.

According to Mr Campos, around 80 per cent of the training delivered to all assistance dogs is generic. Then the intellect and temperament of the dogs will be taken into consideration when they are being matched with people living with dementia.

“[A] very important thing is the emotional state of dogs and humans, they can be very much in tune with each other," he said.

"Dementia itself is very changeable and the dogs need to adapt to these changes as well."

Assistance Dogs Australia has been training dogs for people living with disabilities for more than 20 years.

One objective of the federally program is to promote independent living, and it is currently working well for the Beilharz family. 

“I would hate to move away from a home where we can have a dog, so in that sense we want to stick it out as long as we can," Mrs Beilharz said.

"I just love him so much, he's such a good little character."

COMING UP: INSIGHT - DO DOGS LOVE US?

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