Dementia service dog improves life of Alzheimer’s patient

Rick Phelps, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, says his 14-month-old, specially trained dementia service dog, Sam, is “opening up doors I couldn’t open up” by helping draw attention to the illness while easing everyday tasks for him. Sam, a German shepherd, helps Phelps locate his car in parking lots, reminds him to apply his medication patch and notifies him when he leaves the stove on or the car running. But Phelps says the best thing Sam provides is unconditional love and a confidence boost. Coshocton Tribune (Ohio)


WEST LAFAYETTE — Rick Phelps said in three weeks, Sam the dementia service dog has done for him what more than two years of medication and doctors haven’t: help with his disease.

In June 2010, Phelps, 59, of West Lafayette, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Since then, he’s become an advocate of awareness for all forms of dementia.

The 14-month-old German Shepherd has led Phelps to his latest crusade as he thinks such a canine companion is essential for anyone with early- to mid-stage dementia.

“This dog has changed everything,” he said. “It’s a psychological thing, I know it is. He hasn’t cured me of this disease, but it just works.”

Before Sam, going to Walmart was the scariest thing in the world to Phelps and something he rarely ever did. Now he’ll go without really needing anything, because he’s confident with Sam by his side.

Being able to enjoy a trip to Fort Rapids Indoor Waterpark and Resort in Columbus with his grandchildren, which he did Labor Day weekend, was out of the question in the past. Now, fun replaces the fear everywhere Phelps goes.

“I had stress and anxiety and was afraid of everything. On a scale of one to 10, I was probably a 12. Now, I would say I’m a two or maybe a three because of this dog. It’s a miracle and I can’t believe it yet,” he said. “We’re bonding more everyday and he’s trained to do that. He knows when I’m stressed out.”

As Phelps has always done, he’s using his experiences to bring awareness to the masses. Phelps said he’s been contacted by Us Against Alzheimer’s, ABC’s “Nightline” and Animal Planet to film segments about Sam.

He’s also taking speaking engagements to share his story with local organizations and those across the country. Phelps is due to speak at an Alzheimer’s symposium coming up in Tampa Bay, Fla.

“I didn’t know this was going to happen, but I hoped this was going to happen, because this is what needs to be,” he said. “It’s opening up doors I couldn’t open up, because nobody has heard of (a dementia service dog).”

As Phelps would say, he’s doing all this “while I still can,” which has become his motto through all his trials and tribulations. “While I Still Can” has served as the title of a book and a song Phelps co-wrote that came out last spring.

He’s also the founder of the Facebook page Memory People with more than 2,500 members worldwide for family members, caregivers, advocates and Alzheimer patients.

It was through Memory People that Phelps started on his path to getting Sam in March. Phelps said a woman on the site asked about a dementia service dog for her husband. Phelps did some research for her and discovered DogWish, a training facility in Colton, Calif. ran by Bob Taylor.

Phelps posted information about DogWish on Memory People only to answer the woman’s question. He was shocked to have received a call from Taylor the very next day saying an anonymous donor was footing the bill, more than $8,000, for Phelps to not only have a dog, but to fly to California to get him and receive training.

Phelps sent a T-shirt and blanket to Taylor so Sam would know his scent before ever meeting. When Phelps stepped out of the car the first time, he said Sam ran right to him knowing exactly who he was.

“Sure enough, he came right out of the house and right to me. He sat down and started licking me all over me. It’s like he knew me forever and I had just been away,” Phelps said.

Phelps is amazed by what Sam can do more and more each day. He alerts Phelps if he leaves the stove on or his jeep running in the garage. He can find the vehicle in a crowded parking lot by following the smell of Phelps having been in it. He’ll even lick Phelps shoulder at night if he forgets to put his medication patch on before going to bed.

If Phelps would get lost, Sam can track him up to 40 miles away and then bring him safely home. Sam isn’t an attack dog, but he can sense a dangerous situation and lead Phelps to safety or neutralize an aggressor if need be.

However, above all that, the number one element Sam provides that Phelps desperately needs is unconditional love. He has that from his family now, but with his wife of 28 years, Phyllis, still working, Sam is a friend that can be with Rick all the time. As Sam has alleviated Rick’s anxiety and tension, it’s done the same for her.

“If he had a 24/7 person with him all the time, the dog is the same thing. The dog is there and protects him,” Phyllis said.

3 Responses to “Dementia service dog improves life of Alzheimer’s patient”

  1. Carla P says:

    This is such a great story. People with dementia can benefit from the sensory touch as well as the unconditional love.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • I have noticed when care homes allow animals in it is a much happier warmer enviornment. I have never heard of specialist dementia dogs – but am very interested and will follow this story. I work as a dementia awareness trainer and I have looked after my mother who had dementia. Sadly care homes in the UK are quite rigid and unimaginative about care. Thank you for this article.

  2. Samantha P says:

    What an amazing story!. I love it.

    It is great for people with dementia to be around animals as the relationship can be very therapeutic, animals are not judgmental and they are very loving creatures, specially dogs.

    I always thought that it would be nice to have more pets at care and nursing homes so they could interact with the residents on a everyday basis.

    I worked with a lady who told me that her cat could understand her better than most people, she emphasized that the companionship and love that she received from it was invaluable to her and that not having one was making her very unhappy as she had cats all her life.

    I was her advocate at the time and I advocated for her to have a cat again and for the cat to be part of her care plan so carers will check if the food had been administered and so on. She was a much happier lady, her appearance changed and she was more bubbly and overall entertained.

    She further explained that at times she felt threatened by people as they made her feel inferior by the way they were addressing her , she told me that she felt very comfortable with the cat and having to look after him made her want to live again. Having a caring role was very important to her and made her more fulfilled.

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