Collie Shows the Way (Extract)

The first-ever service dogs to be successfully developed as Alzheimer's assistance dogs are being trained and bred by Israeli experts

02dog224 (photo credit: Yariv Ben Yosef)
(photo credit: Yariv Ben Yosef)
Extract from an article in Issue 2, May 11, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Keshet, a two-year-old female smooth collie, is a herding dog with a difference. On duty virtually 24 hours a day, she follows her sole "charge" - 64-year-old Miriam - everywhere, supervising her activities and anticipating her every movement. When Miriam goes out for her twice-daily stroll in a quiet residential section of Hadera, Keshet leads the way. Wearing a specially designed harness attached to a two-meter-long leash, Keshet is on constant alert, visibly tense and fully absorbed in making sure Miriam doesn't fall, step in a hole, or do anything dangerous or impetuous. But Keshet's "herd" of one does not always want to go where she's directed. Miriam suffers from early-onset Alzheimer's disease, or dementia, an irreversible and devastating brain disorder. Beginning at age 60 she gradually began losing her cognitive skills, including memory, judgment and orientation. If she leaves home unaccompanied she runs the risk of getting lost, becoming extremely confused, suspicious or fearful. As she and Keshet come to a tree growing in the sidewalk, the dog shepherds her around the tree, away from the street side. Coming up to the crossroads, Keshet waits for cars to pass, then leads Miriam across by going diagonally, though Miriam had wanted to go in a different direction, because this way the pair can be seen from all four directions. Keshet is one of only four dogs known to have been successfully trained anywhere in the world as assistance dogs for people suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's. Although a wide range of breeds have been trained as service dogs for the blind and the handicapped, as well as companions for the mentally challenged and the elderly, training Alzheimer's guides had never succeeded in the past - until three Israelis, a veteran service-dog trainer, a well-known dog breeder and a geriatric social worker, teamed up to develop a solution. "The smooth collie is an exceptionally stable dog, with a strong personality, but very sensitive to every subtle movement and mood of its owner," explains Keshet's trainer Yariv Ben Yosef, who founded and runs the Service and Therapy Dog Center in Hod Hasharon, northeast of Tel Aviv. "The dog and the patient form an inseparable bond. When Miriam has bad days, you can see this reflected in the dog's mood, as well. Keshet is even more alert and vigilant." Unlike seeing-eye dogs that walk on the left side of the person, the Alzheimer's dog walks ahead of the person, constantly surveying the sidewalk. The patient is trained to constantly look straight ahead at the dog, which is not only leading, but also taking in clues that will bring them home. When Miriam feels she is lost, she tells the dog "go home." But unlike a Hollywood Lassie racing home to fetch help, this smooth "Lassie" stays with Miriam and leads her home. If Miriam suddenly refuses to follow, Keshet has been trained to stay with her until she does, periodically barking to summon help. Keshet doesn't wait for commands; she takes command when it's necessary. If Miriam leaves the house unexpectedly, Keshet first alerts anyone else present in the house, then when let outdoors, crisscrosses the area, picking up the scent, until she finds her. At night Keshet sleeps next to Miriam's bed, guarding against any night wanderings. The concept of an Alzheimer's guide dog was born when Ben Yosef met Daphna Golan-Shemesh, the director of the Beit Hashemesh Magdiel Geriatric Home in Hod Hasharon, and an expert in working with people with dementia. Ben Yosef had years of experience training service and therapy dogs for special-needs groups, but did not know how to approach the unique problems posed by Alzheimer's patients. The major challenge was finding the right breed for the task. Ben Yosef relates that he had tried Australian shepherds and Border collies, both highly intelligent herding breeds. But the Australian proved too aggressive, and the Border too sensitive. Then he turned to veteran dog breeder and trainer Myrna Shiboleth, who lives in the tiny settlement of Sha'ar Haguy at the foot of the Jerusalem corridor. She suggested the smooth collie. "This is the only breed I know with a temperament that can deal with mood changes, depression and forgetfulness," explains Shiboleth, who has had a leading role in the breeding and standardization of the Canaan dog, the breed native to Israel, and also breeds rough collies, has seen many of her dogs used as service and companion dogs. She has now taken over the task of importing and breeding smooth collies for use as Alzheimer's dogs, adding them to her own "herd" - 24 at last count. She says she's found the smooth collie temperamentally different from the rough collies she's bred and shown for decades, even though both were developed from the same Scottish herding stock and are basically the same dog except for the coat. All herding dogs have been bred for their ability to take charge - not merely to follow commands, but also to take initiative. "The smooth collie is the only breed we found that has just the right balance of devotion and resilience and strength of character, and that knows when to take over," states Shiboleth. "An Alzheimer's patient can forget he has a dog, or can suddenly hit the dog without knowing what he is doing. Most breeds used as service dogs would just stop working at this point." Unlike guide dogs for the blind, that follow commands, an Alzheimer's dog must be able to sense when to take over, a skill that Ben Yosef, together with American colleagues, managed to successfully develop in dogs used as companions for epilepsy patients. "To be an assistance dog for someone with dementia is the most difficult service job a dog could do," says Shiboleth, who is also a consultant on dog behavior, among others, to the army and police. "No one even thought of it before Yariv came up with the idea," she states. Six years ago Bella, a smooth collie that Shiboleth had imported from Finland for the project, became the first dog in the world to be successfully trained as an Alzheimer's service dog when she was paired with "Yehuda," today 68 years old. Before his illness, Yehuda had been very active in his community, but before he took possession of Bella, he had been homebound because he understood that if he left the house by himself he wouldn't know how to return. In a 2003 interview with Israel21c, an Israeli news service, he related that the dog had changed his life, "releasing me from the prison wall of my own home," and making him feel confident enough to travel by himself accompanied by the dog. During their first year together he took Bella to Paris, where the dog had certainly never been before. The two of them went out for walk, taking the bus part of the way. When Yehuda realized that he was lost, he told the dog to return him "home" and the dog led him (on foot, of course) back to his hotel and to his room. Daphna Golan-Shemesh, a geriatric social worker who carries out the initial examination and evaluation of candidates, relates that when Yehuda is depressed and does not want to get out of bed, Bella pesters him, pulling away the blankets, until Yehuda gets up takes care of her needs. At present, there are four smooth collies "in service" as Alzheimer's dogs, one of which has been sent to Germany. Two more are currently in training, but it is a long and arduous process. The training of the service dog and the pairing of dog and patient takes a year and a half, beginning with its first months of life with a "foster family," similar to the early socialization process of dogs for the blind. The dog is first trained without the patient, and is introduced to the patient only after it knows its job. The Service and Therapy Dog Center has a staff of six trainers and six adjunct employees who work with the families and the patients. None of the dogs in training are boarded at the center, but are brought there by their foster families or owners for training. Extract from an article in Issue 2, May 11, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.