Where Medicine Fails, Man’s Best Friend Can Heal

By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor

Rick Phelps was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease over two years ago, at the age of 57. About eight months ago, an unexpected caregiver came into his life that changed his world completely.

“Sam’s done more for me than any medication could ever do,” says Rick Phelps, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease over two years ago, at the age of 57. “He’s taken me from a twelve [out of ten] on the anxiety and stress scale, down to a two or three.”

No, Phelps isn’t referring to some world-renowned dementia specialist—in fact, the creature he’s describing doesn’t even walk on two legs.

He’s talking about Sam, a spry one-year-old German Shepard who is part of a new breed of service dog trained to help people suffering from mild to mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Prior to his introduction to his canine caregiver, Phelps couldn’t even go shopping at the local Walmart for fear he would get lost and not know which door to use to get out of the store. Now, with Sam at his side, Phelps feels more comfortable embarking on outings.

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A vigilant protector

It took a while for Phelps to acclimate to his companion’s constant attention to what he’s doing and where he’s going.

After only having Sam for a few days, Phelps forgot something out in his car and moved towards the door to go outside and get it. The dog calmly positioned himself in between Phelps and the door, blocking his exit. “It’s like he was a layer between me and the outside—he wouldn’t let me out the door without him,” Phelps says.

To Phelps, it’s as if the dog is paying 100 percent attention to him, and he’s not far off.  The training facility he got Sam from—DogWish, Inc.—coaches their service dogs to give 95 percent of their attention to their handler. The other five percent is devoted to making sure their surroundings are safe.

Alzheimer’s service dogs can be trained to assist their cognitively-impaired handlers with a variety of different daily tasks, from alerting them when a stove is left on or an appliance plugged in, to helping them identify their car in a crowded parking lot, or their house if they get lost on a walk. These protective pooches are also trained to home in on their owner’s scent (Phelps had to send a trainer some of his old clothes so Sam could get used to his scent), enabling them to track an Alzheimer’s wanderer for miles.

A powerful (and playful) puppy

Sam seems to truly enjoy his role as canine caregiver.

Phelps is constantly awed by the various ways Sam helps him with everyday tasks. “He’s so good, it almost makes me sick,” he says. For instance, if Phelps goes to bed without putting on his Exelon (a commonly-prescribed Alzheimer’s medication) patch, the dog will come over and lick the spot where the patch is supposed to go.

Sam is still a puppy at heart though.

When Phelps takes off the dog’s working vest, all he wants to do is play. The playful pooch is also a critical source of companionship during the day while Phelps’ wife, Phyllis is out working.

Sam has given Phelps the opportunity to lead an engaged and fulfilling life in spite of his disease, and he didn’t even know that service dogs for people with Alzheimer’s disease existed until he was contacted by a caregiver through social media.

That’s why, when Phelps travels around the country conducting seminars and advocating for Alzheimer’s awareness, he brings Sam with him whenever he can. He wants to spread the word about the powerful impact these dogs can have.

Phelps believes everything happens for a reason. He is well aware of the vital role that Sam has played in helping him cope with an ailment that devastates so many families. “He’s not going to cure my disease, but he has certainly changed how I live my day-to-day life,” he says.

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By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor


Glenn Byrnes
Glenn Byrnes4 years ago


Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra5 years ago

Thank you AgingCare, for Sharing this!

Carrie Anne Brown

great article, thanks for sharing :)

Terry V.
Terry V5 years ago

Thank you for sharing your story Rick

Rick P.
Rick P.5 years ago

Thank each and every one of you for the kind comments. Sam is a miracle and just gets better everyday he learns my routine. He is constantly picking up things, helping me in many ways.

Nine months ago I didn't know a thing about dementia service dogs, didn't even know they existed. Now, I think everyone who is in the early stages should at least check into these animals.

There are many placed in the United States which train them....

Nancy Black
Nancy Black5 years ago

Article is just more proof that "dog is man's best friend." This is a "win-win" relationship. Phelps is helped by Sam, and Sam has a good home and lots of love. Can't beat that, can we?

Christina Bolan
Christina Bolan5 years ago


Melinda K.
Past Member 5 years ago

animals are amazing, they just know what to do!

mariana c.
mariana c5 years ago

so inspiring, thanks