Labrador Zorro is one of 10 dementia dogs in Australia. The pooch supports 59-year-old Loretta Baxter who has the disease.
Labrador Zorro is one of 10 dementia dogs in Australia. The pooch supports 59-year-old Loretta Baxter who has the disease. Sherele Moody

Dementia dog Zorro making a world of difference

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.

The Gold Coast resident is one of 413,000 Australians living with the disease that is the second leading cause of death in our country.

Alzhiemer's Australia predicts there will be 1.1 million people living with dementia by 2056.

Dementia is an umbrella term for a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain.

The disease is eradicating Loretta's ability to form sentences, hold conversations, dress and bathe, prepare meals and undertake a variety of 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 her 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 and it 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 a lot about what dogs can do in a medical situation and I 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.

Zorro goes for a walk with Lorette.
Zorro goes for a walk with Lorette. Sherele Moody

The 10 pooches chosen by Assistance Dogs Australia for the Dogs4Dementia pilot are trained to help overcome these hurdles while meeting the specific needs of each owner.

Like the other canins, Zorr spent his first year on earth living in the home of a temporary carer who taught him basic skills like sit, stay, drop and other commands.

He then went to an ADA training centre where he passed the intensive training program with flying colors.

"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 constantly 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."

Mr Cunningham said the dogs also helped build relationships between people with dementia and community members who stop to pat the dog, which leads to conversations with the owner.

"If people struggle to greet you then you become more isolated but with the dog they are not greeting you that way - they actually talk to you through the dog and you become more connected again." 

He said not everyone was suitable for the program and the dogs would be of most benefit to owners who were matched with the animals early on in the disease.

Mr Cunningham said the emotional, social and health benefits of pooches like Zorro could reduce the cost of treatment and residential care for people with dementia. 

Dementia currently costs the Australian economy about $14 billion a year, as state and federal governments, local councils, health networks and private insures struggle to meet the needs of people with the disease.

But like all support services, the program does come with a steep price tag.

It costs at least $40,000 to train and provide ongoing vet and other support for each animal and that funding has to come from somewhere.

A $1.5m Federal Government grant allowed HammondCare and ADA to roll out the pilot.

Mr Cunningham said once the trial was evaluated he hoped it would become another piece in the puzzle that

"This program could lead to people staying at home for longer," he said.

"That's good for the person with dementia and it is good for our community because it will save a lot of money in the long-term."

# This special report is part of a series of NewsRegional features examining the impact of dementia on sufferers, carers and  our community.

- NewsRegional

News Corp Australia

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