Rick Phelps was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010 at the age of 57. About a year after his diagnosis, an unexpected caregiver came into his life that changed his world completely.
“Sam’s done more for me than any medication could ever do,” says Phelps. “He’s taken me from a twelve [out of ten] on the anxiety scale, down to a two or three.”
Phelps isn’t referring to his therapist or a world-renowned dementia specialist. Sam is a spry German Shepherd—a new breed of service dog trained to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Before Phelps was introduced to his canine caregiver, he couldn’t even go shopping at the local Walmart for fear that he would get lost in the massive store and not be able to find his way out. Now with Sam at his side, Phelps feels more comfortable embarking on outings and engaging in other “normal” day-to-day activities.
A Vigilant Protector
It took a while for Phelps to acclimate to his furry companion’s constant attention to what he’s doing and where he’s going.
Only a few days into this new partnership, Phelps forgot something out in his car and moved towards the door to go outside and get it. Sam calmly positioned himself between Phelps and the door, blocking his exit. “It’s like he was a layer between me and the outside—he wouldn’t let me out the door without him,” he recalls.
To Phelps, it’s as if the dog is focused 100 percent on him, and he’s not far off. The nonprofit organization that trained Sam, DogWish, Inc., coaches their service dogs to give 95 percent of their attention to their handler. The other five percent is devoted to ensuring their surroundings are safe.
Alzheimer’s service dogs can be trained to assist their cognitively impaired handlers with a variety of daily tasks, including alerting them when a stove is left on, identifying their car in a crowded parking lot, and directing them to their house if they get lost while on a walk. These protective pooches are also conditioned to home in on their owner’s scent, which means they are a powerful resource to have when tracking down a loved one who is prone to wandering. Phelps simply had to send DogWish some of his old clothes to aid in Sam’s scent training.
One Good Deed Leads to Another
The chain of events that led Phelps to Bob Taylor, founder of DogWish, Inc., was nothing short of serendipitous.
As a former law enforcement officer and emergency medical technician, Phelps was used to being active in his community and helping people. Unfortunately, his devastating diagnosis meant that he had to retire much earlier than he had anticipated.
No longer being able to assist people in his neighborhood frustrated Phelps, until he realized that his diagnosis had brought him awareness of a whole new community of people in need: Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. That was when MemoryPeople, a Facebook-based support and awareness group for people dealing with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, was born.
A few months after MemoryPeople launched, a caregiver posted a question about how to find dementia service dogs. Having never heard of such a thing, Phelps did some research to help the woman with her query. He found DogWish online and contacted Taylor to find out more. After passing along what he had learned to his members, Phelps didn’t think much more about the issue. That is, until Taylor called him back a few hours later.
“He asked me if my wife was on board with getting a dementia service dog. I was shocked!” Phelps recalls. The idea of a canine companion had appealed to him, but the $7,000 price tag did not. It turned out that a sponsor had donated the money necessary to unite Phelps with Sam. “It’s hard to thank someone who changes your life like that,” he says of the anonymous donor.
A Powerful Companion
Sam seems to truly enjoy his role as canine caregiver. Phelps is constantly impressed by the various ways Sam helps him with everyday tasks. “He’s so good it almost makes me sick,” he laughs. For instance, if Phelps goes to bed without putting on his nighttime medication patch, the dog will remind him by coming over and licking the spot where it’s supposed to be applied.
In some ways, Sam has also had a beneficial impact on Phelps’ wife, Phyllis, too. As any primary caregiver can attest, dementia care is a full-time job that is often stressful and overwhelming. Sam is a critical source of companionship as well as practical assistance, which means that Phyllis can go to work during the day and seek out respite without worrying about her husband getting lost or lonely.
Phelps now travels around the country conducting seminars and advocating for Alzheimer’s awareness. He brings Sam with him whenever he can to spread the word about the powerful impact these dogs can have on families who are struggling to deal with dementia and caregiving.
Phelps believes Sam has given him the opportunity to lead an engaged and fulfilling life despite his condition. “He’s not going to cure my disease, but he has certainly changed how I live my day-to-day life,” he says.