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The Mira Foundation launches a pilot project to study the effects of service dogs on people with Alzheimer’s disease

The Mira Foundation has been working for several months on a research project to test the effects of service dogs on people with Alzheimer’s disease. An initial pilot group for the experiment started this summer and a second group is planned for 2020.

Supported by leading researchers from McGill University, the Université de Montréal and Université Laval, this project aims to determine how service dogs could impact the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The ultimate goal of this experiment is to take a fresh look at treating Alzheimer’s disease and to explore new potential opportunities for managing this disease with non-pharmacological therapy. Mira believes that the daily support of service dogs could allow patients to spend three to four more quality years at home.

“Based on substantial data from the last 40 years on how dogs benefit people with visual impairments, motor skill difficulties and autism, Mira is convinced that it’s worth exploring this new path to support those with Alzheimer’s—the disease of the century,” said Nicolas St-Pierre, General Manager of the Mira Foundation.

Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nearly 50 million people. The most recent figures show that 564,600 Canadians suffer from this disease, including 100,000 Quebecers, and there are 23,000 new diagnosed cases each year.

“The Mira Foundation has chosen to explore territory that is, in scientific and practical terms, untouched. We’re working on an ambitious pilot project to study the effects of placing service dogs in the homes of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Mira’s interest in becoming part of this process is in line with the organization’s mission. The service dog program for people with Alzheimer’s disease could become a reality within a few years, depending on pilot project and study results,” said Nicolas St-Pierre.


“A thorough review of all the scientific work conducted on how animals affect the elderly and people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has revealed two main benefits: (1) less progression of dementia and slower cognitive deterioration; (2) improvement in related neuropsychiatric changes (apathy, agitation, anxiety, stress, depression, mobility, quality of life). There’s a lot of interest in developing these types of non-pharmacological alternatives,” explained Judes Poirier, Associate Director of the Centre for Studies on Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute of the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal.

There are several explanations for the effects dogs have on people with Alzheimer’s disease. The first stems from interacting with the animal as it provides emotional support, a way to avoid isolation, psychological and physiological well-being, and a sense of purpose. The second results from the physical activity that comes from exposure to the animal. Many studies show that increased physical activity in people with Alzheimer’s disease results in greater synthesis of the brain molecules (i.e. neurotrophins) that promote the creation, growth and protection of neurons and improve brain vascularization. Increased physical activity in people with Alzheimer’s disease has also been shown to maintain memory and cognitive skills. A final possibility is the rich source of complex stimuli that the animal provides for the person with Alzheimer’s disease.

These points show the animal to be a source of many benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease. However, studies on this subject have only examined the direct or short-term effects of exposure to animals. In most of the studies, people with Alzheimer’s disease only see the animal during therapy sessions, treatments or activities, or inside an assisted-living residence. An alternative to this practice would be placing service dogs directly in the homes of people with Alzheimer’s disease, allowing them to benefit daily and over the long term from the animals’ positive effects, which is what’s being tested in this innovative study.

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