Neurological service dog helps Alzheimer’s patient stay on track and in the moment

A nudge from her new dog Teagan will bring Marcia Lathrop out of a daze. If Lathrop shows signs of anxiety like rubbing her hands, the 2-year-old black goldendoodle leans in close and touches her.

Teagan also is trained to stand between Lathrop and the door if her owner tries to leave the house without giving the proper command. This spring, they’ll go on walks together in her north Spokane neighborhood until Lathrop gives a “home” command for the dog to guide both to their doorstep.

Lathrop has mild Alzheimer’s disease. She and her husband Clair Lathrop returned home Jan. 31 with Teagan as their trained neurological service dog, the description given by the nonprofit Wilderwood Service Dogs in Tennessee. The facility trains canines to respond to symptoms and commands for owners who have dementia, Alzheimer’s, autism and PTSD.

“She’s not here just to comfort me; she does a job,” said Marcia Lathrop, 68.

“Teagan keeps me focused. She helps me to be oriented. If I can’t remember how to get home, she’ll guide me home. I will be able to go on walks with her, and she’ll learn the path to get home. I’ll have a little more freedom.

“I can walk to the gym that’s only three blocks away. She can walk me to the grocery store and home.”

Teagan also is trained to respond and potentially alert her husband if Marcia gets up in the middle of the night. Many people with the disease wake up more often and wander, says the national Alzheimer’s Association. Bouts of anxiety also are common.

Lathrop was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2015 and then Alzheimer’s the following year. The couple moved to Spokane in 2017 from Illinois to be closer to family. Both have attended local Alzheimer’s Association meetings.

Clair Lathrop first saw an online article in Psychology Today more than a year ago about neurological service dogs. The couple traveled to Wilderwood in Tennessee on Jan. 20 to receive Teagan and complete a week of training under the organization’s guidance.

It cost about $15,000 for the dog and overall training, but a large portion of that was covered by donations from friends, a high school alumni group and churches in their former Illinois community. The Lathrops covered airfare and remaining costs themselves.

“Our feeling is if Marcia gains a year of independence, that’s totally worth the investment, even if we had to pay it all ourselves,” Clair Lathrop said.

It took just more than a year to be placed with Teagan. Typically, recipients wait about two years for a Wilderwood service dog, he said, but a placement for an autistic child fell through, and Teagan was retrained for helping his wife.

He said her trainers asked about signs and symptoms that Marcia Lathrop displays when she feels confused or agitated because of anxiety.

“One thing this organization had us do is to make videos of Marcia at times when she wasn’t totally with it,” he said. “She’s developed this habit when she gets a little anxious that she’ll sit in her chair and rock back and forth and rub her thighs.

“When we made a recipe together, she had these behaviors, like she’ll look at something on the recipe and have to process how much do I need to get, and where is it? Then she loses connections to what she’s doing and starts to sigh and then rub her hands together.

“We sent (videos) to the organization, and they trained Teagan toward that. When Marcia goes into these times of anxiety, the dog will pick that up and actually nudge her to let her know she is with her, and hopefully to bring her out of that cycle.”

Trainers told the couple to spend the first few weeks back at home mainly bonding with their service dog, so Marcia Lathrop snuggles often with Teagan. If she gets up and moves, Teagan follows her everywhere. Even at play, the dog watches regularly to see that Lathrop is nearby.

“She really helps me relax and not be so tense,” she said. “I don’t have as much anxiety as I had before. She keeps me from getting to that level.

“Our first command was she was to sleep with us and that’s how she gets connected. The funny part is they told me I will never go to the bathroom by myself again, and they were right.”

Her husband said it’s a comfort to him while he’s at work to know Teagan is with his wife, rather than her being isolated. Part of her daily routine is Teagan’s feeding and care that are instinctive tasks.

And he’s impressed with what Teagan has demonstrated so far.

“Marcia will shake the door handle like she can’t get out, and Teagan will come and stand until Marcia says, ‘Thank you Teagan,’ then the dog is assured Marcia has the presence of mind to allow her to leave. That’s so Marcia doesn’t wander off on her own when she progresses.”

Teagan has a red harness with a service dog label, and Marcia Lathrop wears a belt that attaches to that harness, a belt-and-leash combination to be hands-free that’s similar to what runners wear to take their dogs on trails.

“If they go into a store and Marcia stops at a shelf, Teagan will get between Marcia and the shelf to give her a presence and also make sure she’s alert enough,” Clair Lathrop said.

“Teagan will nudge her if she doesn’t pay attention to her after a while because she’s spaced out. When we were in Target in Tennessee, they had me go five or six aisles away and pat my thigh, and within seconds Teagan is coming to me with Marcia trailing behind her.”

Added his wife, “If I stand too long, she nudges me and if I don’t respond that’s when she will really push into me and make sure I’m OK. Eventually, the plan is to get me to a place where I can sit down and she will sit down and bark until someone comes to help me.”

Even now, he said his wife will sometimes wander off in a store. At home, the dog already has noticed when her owner stops and stares off into the distance while trying to remember what to do.

“She’s done the nudging usually in the evenings when Marcia is trying to remember to knit, and she’ll put it down and stare,” he said. “Teagan will walk over and nudge Marcia with her nose to bring Marcia out of her frustration and feeling lost.

“No matter where we are, Teagan’s attention is toward Marcia. Fortunately, Marcia’s Alzheimer’s isn’t to the point she can’t learn to work with the dog. A lot of people wait too long so the afflicted person is unable to handle the dog themselves.”

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, and at some point, he’ll take over more with Teagan and watching the dog’s responses around his wife.

Marcia Lathrop said she sometimes forgets specific words for Teagan’s commands, but she’s noticed Teagan still responds appropriately.

The couple said that although Teagan isn’t specifically trained to bring medications, other neurological service dogs can do that at intervals during the day. The dogs also can be trained to be sensitive to heat and smells to alert people if someone is cooking and leaves the stove unattended.

For Marcia Lathrop, she thinks Teagan will give her more time.

“I’m thinking it will lengthen the time I have to a certain point because I won’t be so stressed; the length of time where I can be independent and also the time before I have to have a caregiver.”

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