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LES ECHOS

Canine Caregivers: Dog “Therapists” Trained To Help Elderly, Alzheimer's Patients

A pack of pups is proving to be a big hit in the La Roseliere retirement home in France, where residents just can’t resist the charms of the big silly tail waggers. Other area nursing homes are also starting to experiment with dog therapy.

Golden Retreivers and Black Labs are reputed to be gentle and sociable breeds
Golden Retreivers and Black Labs are reputed to be gentle and sociable breeds
Martine Laronche

KUNHEIM -- Tracy, Dakar, Upton and Virgule are dearly loved at the La Roseliere retirement home in Kunheim, in France's Alsace Region. These four big and energetic dogs come out all paws blazing to fulfill their mission: to provide the facility's guests a jolt of happiness and comfort. Their sheer presence tends to do the trick.

Still, this is a proper job for which the pups were well trained. Their education lasted two years: first in a foster home, then in a specialized center. The three Labradors and one Golden Retriever are well behaved and know not to jump on patients, and not to bark. But they do wiggle their tails a lot.

Looks brighten up when these canine caregivers enter the Alzheimer patients' protected area. The pets receive immediate attention as they sniff and greet patients with their noses. The listless and closed faces light up in front of these lively visitors. An old man pets the black lab and says: "Very very nice, Dakar." Next to him, a woman holds Upton's leash and whispers: "He is well-behaved."

La Roseliere's director, Robert Kohler, first introduced a dog to the people of this retirement home 11 years ago. It wasn't easy at first. Some staff resisted, but his experiment provided an opportunity to debate and brainstorm about the needs of the patients.

"Welcoming a pet demonstrates the facility's openness to the social and cultural rights of the eldery," said the director. "It's a fragile demographic that deserves much more attention than others, even though the current tendency is to ignore them."

Dogs don't judge

The staff has since become convinced of the benefits these pets bring to the guests. The facility houses 127 patients, 30 of whom are in special care for Alzheimer's. Two specialized nurses, Christelle Wolff and Camille Marchall, have been trained to look after the dogs.

"I can see the difference since I've been working with them. Guests use them as a reason to strike up a conversation. It helps with bonding," says Wolff. "Whenever the guests have a bad night or are anxious, we let them spend 45 minutes with a dog. It puts them at peace. I started involving Dakar in bathing time, and a guest who otherwise always wanted out of the water stayed calm thanks to the dog. It was a magical moment."

According to Kohler, the animals help fill many emotional and social voids within the institution. "They provide non verbal communication, which offers comfort and security," he says. "Pets provide unconditional love and affection, and they don't judge."

The dogs are trained and are always under the careful watch of the medical staff. There are a few basic rules that apply. The animals are not allowed in the kitchen, and they have to stay out of the trash. Also, La Roseliere's residents must wash their hands after petting the pooches.

Inspired by his own experience with the dogs, Kohler founded a non-profit for visiting dogs called "Quatre Pattes pour un Sourire" (Four Paws for a Smile). The animals are trained and taken to senior residences free of charge. They visit 23 facilities in the region. There others are wait-listed for lack of appropriate staff.

Today, the organization is staging a pet cleaning workshop at La Roseliere. Participants talk about the dogs' different names, breed and hair color. The conversation is a good memory exercise. One at a time, the dogs climb on to a little table, where residents brush them. "The exercise validates people," says Valerie Behra, a Four Paws for a Smile staff member. "They give the dogs simple orders to see if they'll obey. If it doesn't work, we repeat the command with them so they don't experience failure."

Read the original article in French

Photo - JoshDubya

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