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There are many ways dogs are humans' best friends. There are seeing eye dogs, hearing ear dogs, dogs that sniff out cancer, and dogs for people who suffer anxiety, depression, and seizure disorders. Now from Germany comes a study of dogs for dementia.

Animal-assisted interventions may help elderly dementia patients socialize with human beings more easily, a recently reported study from Germany finds.

Investigator Sandra Wesenberg, research associate at the Faculty of Education at Technische Universität Dresden in Germany, who will have been awarded her doctor's degree by the time this article is published, reports that nursing home residents who received weekly therapy visits with both a human therapist and a therapy dog for six months had longer periods of attention to people around them, physical contact, and conversation than nursing home residents who had received weekly visits from a therapist without a dog.

Soon-to-be Dr. Wesenberg presented her results to the International Congress of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) 2014 in London.

Researching a "Common Sense" But Untested Behavioral Therapy

Wesenberg noted that nursing homes have been using animal-assisted interventions for a number of years but there has been very little study of how well they work.

"For a long time, research on the potentially beneficial bio-psycho-social effects of [these] interventions on people with dementia was limited to individual case reports, practical reports, and field studies with very small sample sizes," Wesenberg and her collaborators write.

For their study of dogs for dementia, Wesenberg and colleagues studied 17 nursing home residents, 77% of them women, average age 85.7 years.

The researchers visited the dementia patients in groups of four and used a standardized program called Pet Encounters, which involves dogs and owners specially trained to interact with people who have dementia for the first six months of the study.

For the second six months of the study, the researchers used a similar program without the dogs. Sessions were videotaped and coded for length of interpersonal contact and emotional expression.

Wesenberg and her colleagues found that both interventions produced positive benefits for the participants, but there were greater improvements when the therapists and specially trained volunteers brought their specially trained dogs.

People Say Yes to Pets

Why animal-assisted interventions help with dementia is a question that the researchers cannot yet answer. Maybe the dog is a conversation piece. Living in a nursing home with dementia, after all, does not give the nursing home resident a lot to talk about. Perhaps therapy dogs improve social interaction by providing a topic of conversation.

Or maybe nursing home residents who have dementia simply feel they can interact with the dog more easily than with people. Dogs, after all, don't require high intellectual facility with human language for communication. Even if you can't communicate with another human being very well, maybe you can still communicate with a dog.

A potential drawback of animal-assisted intervention in the treatment of dementia, however, is the potential for chaos.

People who have dementia can behave in ways that dogs (and other humans) have trouble understanding, and dogs that are not specially trained for use in providing company to older persons with cognitive disabilities could bark, bite, run away, urinate, defecate, or damage furniture. It takes a special dog to deal with special people, some experts suggest.

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