October 5, 2003, Updated September 13, 2012

Polly may look like a regular collie dog – but in fact, she represents a revolution.

Polly is the first dog to be trained as a guide dog and companion for people suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the result of four long years of patient work by a team comprised of an Israeli social worker and professional dog trainer. She is the first dog in the world to be trained specifically to improve the quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients.

Yehuda, 62, depends on Polly as a safety net for when his memory fails him. Polly accompanies Yehuda wherever he goes, as she has done for the past year. She knows his routine and his habits. If he becomes confused or disoriented, all he has to do is utter the word, “Home,” and Polly leads him back to his house.

The concept of an Alzheimer’s guide dog began when social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh was introduced to professional dog trainer Yariv Ben Yosef.

“We sat in a room and talked about what we did and immediately a light bulb went off over our heads,” recounts Ben-Yosef. “It was clear to us that Daphna’s expertise in Alzheimers and my expertise with dogs could result in something new. We asked ourselves why couldn’t we train dogs to help these people, not just as therapy dogs – but as real practical daily assistance.”

Ben Yosef is confident that Alzheimer’s dogs will some day be as common as guide dogs for the blind.

For now, a second dog is being trained in upcoming weeks and given to another patient, and the pair hope to train 30 dogs annually. Their personalities complement their professional partnership: Golan-Shemesh is maternal and nurturing, and Ben Yosef is energetic and driven.

Golan-Shemesh was a pioneer in geriatrics when it was new in Israel. In 1989 she founded “House of the Sun” – a home for those suffering from Alzheimers and dementia located in Petah Tikva that will soon move to new quarters and will house 90 patients.

Ben Yosef has been passionate about animals for his whole life. As a young man, he volunteered in a zoo, embracing tigers and feeding wolf cubs with a bottle, and at home had a vast collection of pets, including snakes and foxes – which were not appreciated by other family members.

After his army service he became a dog trainer, and began a center for service dogs and therapy dogs, for all kinds of special needs, handicapped, blind, hard of hearing, and developmental illnesses.

“My father taught me that money is not the most important thing, that the goal of helping humanity was important and I feel that this is all coming together with this latest project,” he says.

According to world statistics, 10 percent of all elderly suffer from some degree of Alzheimers, and as life spans increase, the number is rising dramatically every day.

The goal of the Alzheimer’s patient guide dog project is an attempt to make the patients’ life easier, and in turn, make the life of the rest of his family more manageable.

“Unfortunately, this is a population that gets lost frequently, and as a result they experience terrible isolation, frustration, anger and a sense of helplessness,” explains Golan-Shemesh. “They find themselves prisoners in their home and completely dependent on other people to allow they go to outside. In the past the police waited 24 hours to go look for them, but in recent years the police have understood that this is a dangerous life-threatening situation and they send out a patrol immediately. The problem is that the Alzheimer’s patient looks like everyone else. So when you talk to him in the street you can’t tell he is sick because he can communicate logically. But as he wanders, and as he gets increasingly lost, and dehydrated, he can panic, and then his cognitive function drops, and it becomes a vicious circle, that sometimes, sadly ends in death.”

In the beginning, the concept of an Alzheimer’s guide dog seemed like an impossible dream. It had been tried unsuccessfully in the past.

The biggest challenge was finding the right dog for the task. “We unsuccessfully tried this with many types of dogs, until we got Polly, who is a collie shorthair that came to us from Finland,” said Ben-Yosef. “These dogs seemed appropriate for Alzheimers because they have a calm nature, high intelligence and are very sociable with an excellent sense of smell and good spatial sense.”

Alzheimer’s dogs don’t resemble guide dogs for the blind. “An Alzheimer’s dog walks more freely, not as close to the body like a guide dog,” explains Ben Yosef. “We know that in this project we are only working with female dogs and not with males. It is important to use that the maternal instinct present, that they have good eye contact and the desire to please. With the males their head is in the clouds or their own ego.”

This is important, because part of the job of the dog is to calm and reassure the patient when he is upset.

But the main task of the service dog for an Alzheimer’s patient is to bring him home when the order “HOME” is given. If the patient forgets to say the order, and is so lost that he strays too far from the house, wanders into an unfamiliar area, the worried family can activate an electronic device that is installed on the dog’s collar, and works with a GPS navigation system. In this way can find the pair if they are lost. In addition, a special tone that can be heard by the dog can be sounded if the pair are not more than 50 kilometers from the house, and the tone also signals the dog to lead his patient home.

The training of the service deg and pairing of dog and patient is a process that took a year and a half. In the various stages of training and practice, Ben Yosef spent hours and days with the dog, with the patient and with the family members, teaching all of them how to cope with different emergency situations.

The dog remains responsible for the patient in the home: there is an alarm button in which the dog is trained to press, when his owner falls to the floor and doesn’t get up after a number of minutes, or if he hears choking sounds. This alerts the primary caregiver if they are in another room or asleep.

Golan-Shemesh and Ben Yosef found Yehuda (his name and his dogs’ have been changed to protect their privacy) through an Alzheimer’s support group. He was a good candidate, since he loves animals and had a dog. Before his illness, he was active and social, with many prominent social roles in the community. His wife still works most of the day, as do his children, and before receiving Polly, he had led a very constrained and isolated life.

“Dealing with this illness is a long process,” he said. “It is very easy in my situation to feel like your life is over, that you are dependent and to lie in bed and wallow. Polly doesn’t let me stay in bed too long. When she decides I’ve slept long enough, she knocks the blanked off the bed and brings me a ball to play with her. And I said “OK, OK, I’ll play for a few minutes,” and get out of bed to walk her. Before I know it, I’ve gone and walked with her for an hour and I meet people on the way and talk to them. One of the problems of this disease is loneliness. You cover yourself in armor and don’t talk to people. With Polly, I don’t have the luxury of isolating myself. People are always coming up to her and to me playing with her, asking me questions about her. Because of her I am still part of society. Since I have her, I haven’t been afraid to go out to fall or get lost. Because of her I feel free, I’m not dependent on my wife and kids and for months I haven’t had to use my cell phone to call on them for help.”

When he first was diagnosed he had stopped picking up his grandchildren at nursery school because his daughter had been afraid they would get lost. With the dog they are confident and he is happy to be useful in a family role.

After Yehuda and Polly became a success, Ben Yosef and Golan Shemesh joined forces with the Israeli Alzheimer’s Association to promote the project. It is now being to be unveiled to Alzheimer’s groups and dog training organizations around the world, and the reception has been enthusiastic.

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