Australian-first research project underway on the effects of assistance dogs for people with younger onset dementia

18 October 2017

An Australian-first research project about the effect assistance dogs have on the health and quality of life of a person living with younger onset dementia, and the wellbeing of those providing their care, is showing promising results.

An initiative of Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs, the research project involves partnerships with the University of Melbourne and Dementia Australia, and funding for the first phase of this project, which will produce quantifiable results based on a study of 20 dogs placed with participants, has been generously provided by the State Trustees Australia Foundation, Gandel Philanthropy and Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs.

Professor Keith McVilly, who leads the University of Melbourne’s Hallmark Disability Research Initiative, stated that as there is no known cure for dementia it’s important to focus on how a person with dementia can be supported to live well.

 “With an assistance dog by their side we are seeing improvements in a person’s health, fitness and mental wellbeing. They have also reported that they now have more opportunities for social engagement, and overall, they feel happier,” Professor McVilly said.

“Carers have also reported that the assistance dog provides them with reassurance that there is ‘someone else’ providing support to their loved one. This allows them some respite and the opportunity to recharge, which supports a better level of care overall.”


Younger onset dementia currently affects around 25,000 Australians, some as young as 20 or 30 years of age. People commonly experience short-term memory loss, difficulty planning, changes with judgement, spatial awareness and some changes in personality and thinking.

CEO of Dementia Australia, Maree McCabe, said their organisation is always striving to innovate to meet the unique needs of this group

“We are excited by the opportunity of this research project to evaluate the impact of assistance dogs. If the assistance dogs can support people living with dementia to remain at home for longer and help reduce stress in their lives, that will be an excellent outcome,” said Ms McCabe.

“In turn, by reducing the emotional effect, time pressures and stress on carers, the quality of care the person receives is easier to sustain.”

Project manager and Seeing Eye Dogs Instructor, Greer Gerson said that the assistance dogs being provided for this research project have been trained to provide emotional support, physical security and practical assistance.

To support the project, modifications have been made to Vision Australia Seeing Eye Dogs’ dog training program to support the specific care needs of people with younger onset dementia.

After the first year of puppyhood with dedicated volunteers, it takes several more months of intensive training for an assistance dog to graduate before they are matched with a person living with younger onset dementia.

“Through this research project, we are finding that assistance dogs can alleviate stress and anxiety in a person living with younger onset dementia, by offering physical touch on command and interrupting anxious behaviours. They have also been trained to search and find the person’s carer on command when extra support is needed,” Ms Gerson said.

“Outside of the home, assistance dogs have been trained to stop and sit at ramps to bring the person’s attention to their immediate environment and as an added safety measure around traffic. They will also stay by the person’s side to provide them with a sense of security and confidence in certain instances, for example, when their carer quickly pops into a shop.”

The research also shows that for the person with younger onset dementia, interacting with their assistance dog as part of the working relationship can promote social engagement and provide intellectually stimulating opportunities such as feeding, grooming, exercise and increased concentration in learning new skills.

“Each assistance dog has been carefully matched to the person with younger onset dementia and their care situation to enable the best possible results for the research project,” adds Ms Gerson.


Contact information

Sharon Mackenzie, Senior Communications Advisor, Vision Australia, 0431 374 671,

Christine Bolt, Corporate Communications Advisor, Dementia Australia, 0400 004 553 

Available images: Graeme and Assistance Dog Barrett, Edie and Assistance Dog Melvin, Kelvin and Assistance Dog Angus, Grant and Assistance Dog Buttons.