Dementia dog Zorro brings stress down
ZORRO Baxter speaks a language only his mum Loretta really understands.
The two-year-old black Labrador is one of 10 Australian dogs bred and trained to improve the life of people with dementia.
If Loretta is anxious or having a bad day, the effervescent pooch leans his body on hers, instantly calming her down and re-focusing her attention.
At 59 years old, Loretta struggles to make sense of the world.
Dementia is eradicating her ability to form sentences, hold conversations, dress and bathe, prepare meals and undertake tasks that the rest of us take for granted.
Just a few years ago, the mother of two was one of Australia's top immigration professionals whose career had taken her and pastor husband Malcolm around the world.
But four years ago her life changed dramatically .
Fresh from beating breast cancer, she was diagnosed with vascular dementia.
The disease has taken hold of her brain quickly, forcing Malcolm to become her full-time carer.
Desperate to improve Loretta's life and future outlook, Malcolm asked for his wife to be part of HammondCare's innovative Dogs4Dementia pilot program.
"We're trying to keep Loretta as stable as possible for her own sake and ours," Malcolm says.
"I'd read about what dogs can do in a medical situation and thought this is something she should be part of.
"Zorro does something for Loretta that is better than any drug - he is trained to be near her when she is down or stressed."
As the disease progresses and Loretta becomes even more immobile, Zorro will transition from emotional comfort to undertaking simple tasks for her including removing her socks, opening doors and drawers and bringing her items.
People with dementia can struggle to maintain their daily routines, become socially isolated and struggle to cope when their carers leave them alone.
The 10 pooches chosen by Assistance Dogs Australia for the Dogs4Dementia pilot are trained to help overcome these hurdles while meeting the needs of each owner.
"A person with dementia might not get out of bed when their carer is prompting them," HammondCare Dementia Centre director Colm Cunningham said.
"The dog is trained to pull the top of your duvet back.
"This is a friendlier, more gentle and easily received message and the person responds and gets up.
"The dogs also help anchor the person with dementia who calls for their carer when they leave the house.
"The dog becomes something they need to care for and it redirects their focus so the person feels anchored and comforted by the dog."
It costs at least $40,000 to train and support each dog, but Mr Cunningham said the benefits could reduce the cost of treatment and residential care for people with dementia.
"It could lead to people staying at home for longer," he said.