In 2021, service dogs were part of a pilot program at Benton House Senior Living that involved educating the dogs to sniff out people who might be COVID-positive. The program was a success and gained lots of attention, including an Argentum Best of the Best award.
But some see this as just the beginning of the many benefits service dogs can bring to senior living. Dogs already are being used to detect low blood sugar in people with diabetes, to warn people with seizure disorders, and to get help when there’s a fall or injury. The benefits extend beyond these to help in many ways on the well-being spectrum. In fact, the COVID detection dogs ended up staying on at the community, becoming, as CEO Mike Allard said, “part of the family.”
Jennifer Arnold, the founder of Canine Assistants (canineassistants.org), and teacher of the dogs in the COVID project, talks here about what dogs can do, how they learn, and how they can assist in emergencies. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Was Benton House the first experience of your group with senior living?
A. They were the first placed as full-time employees, but we’ve now worked with communities on the East Coast and some on the West. And it has been a wonderful experience for us. In times when COVID numbers have gone down, what we’ve seen is that dogs are tremendously valuable anyway. There should be a dog in every community in this country.
Q. What are some of those benefits you’ve seen?
A. They’re stimulating, for one thing. I think that the value of that cannot be overstated, particularly when you’re talking about a population who often requires stimulation to really get moving, mentally and physically.
I also think they provide a very comforting connection to nature that people of all ages—especially in this country—miss. We’re just not in nature as we used to be, and I think that creates all kinds of anxiety and stress. The fact that the dogs bring nature to us is really positive.
My son said the other day that he thinks maybe the greatest things that dogs do for people is that dogs are innately hopeful creatures. They assume the next minute’s going to be great, even if this minute isn’t. And I think they share that hope with us, and that starts to change how you feel.
And they like us. They like us so much that it is really difficult not to like yourself when in the presence of an adoring dog.
We know they have all kinds of physical benefits. We know that touching a dog with whom you establish a quick relationship releases oxytocin in you and in the dog. They can optimize blood pressure. They lower cortisol levels and other stress hormones.
In senior living, having a dog there makes it feel like home. Even if the dog comes in with muddy paws—it’s just so normal. I think a little dog hair on your clothes is very therapeutic.
Q. It looks like the use of service dogs is really going up. Are you seeing this?
A. We’re seeing more with all age ranges. There are more assistance dogs being placed with people who are older. Dogs don’t look at being older as an illness, which is nice. Neither do they look at aging as a disability, which I think is positive. They don’t care what your age is or what your body is capable of doing. If they love you, you are perfection.
They can help pick things up if it’s hard for you to lean over. They can help with balance. They can go for help if you need it. Those are just the physical tasks.
Dogs don’t look at being older as an illness, which is nice. Neither do they look at aging as a disability, which I think is positive. They don’t care what your age is or what your body is capable of doing. If they love you, you are perfection.
Q. What about dogs that help with chronic illness or disorders?
A. Dogs have the ability to recognize odors that are so faint that they’re in parts per trillion. Someone once explained it in visual terms: Let’s say what we could see from a third of a mile away, a dog would be able to smell with equal clarity from 3,000 miles away. It’s stunning. It’s not difficult for them.
They recognize all kinds of changes that happen in our body. There is a change in the volatile organic compounds released through our skin and sweat and exhalation. Once dogs begin to associate a particular smell with the particular problem, they often spontaneously begin to alert people to oncoming issues. And we can teach them to do it. That’s easy.
Q. How do you teach them?
A. What you need is a dog who feels safe enough to say something. That’s why we don’t train dogs anymore. I know that sounds nuts, but we don’t train. We educate.
We don’t worry about sit down, or stay. We teach them to answer binary questions: Yes, no. Or we teach them to reason through things so that they can come up with solutions on their own.
We call this the Bond-Based Approach. I’ve done this for 30 years, and since we’ve gone Bond-Based, I’ve been astonished. We have dogs who can pick out the letters in their name in order from letters spread on the ground.
When I was young, all this dog training stuff was not very common. Our dog was just always a member of our family, and he or she learned what they needed to know in order to fit into the family. You didn’t go to classes and teach them things. They just learned what they needed to know.
I think that in becoming so fixated on this weird idea of obedience we’ve done a disservice to our dogs and to ourselves. We got so focused on telling them what to do that we stopped asking. And it’s only when we ask that they can show us the true range of what they’re capable of.
Q. What about teaching them to be service dogs?
A. If we tell them that if they do this, they get food, they get frightened, because we control everything that keeps them alive. They become focused only on what do I have to do to make this person like me enough to feed me. They can’t learn; they won’t do new things. They won’t tell you, I think a seizure is oncoming. Because what if they’re wrong? You might be upset with them and not feed them.
So we never withhold food pending the dog somehow pleasing us. Those things are free. You get them because you breathe and because you are my friend. It’s been pretty amazing, the changes we’ve seen in the dogs.
Q. Can you talk a bit about how dogs help in crisis situations?
A. We just need them so badly. Have you ever noticed how every time something terrible goes wrong in our world, from 9/11 to COVID, we turn to the dogs? They’ve been our partners for so long.
We tell dogs things that we don’t tell other people. You know how people say dogs are nonjudgmental? I have to tell you, I don’t think that’s true. I think dogs are extremely judgmental. They simply judge based on what’s truly important. Are you good? Are you kind?
We had one man who hadn’t said a word in three years, since he had begun to have memory problems, come out here and sit with a puppy. And he told her everything. His speech was a little confusing at times, and the dog was perfectly fine with that, which encouraged him to continue.
I think the more afraid we get, the more we need that interaction. It is God manifested in a way, I think; the feeling that no matter what, it’s going to be okay. I don’t know how we got lucky enough to have this completely different species sign up to partner with us, but we did.
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