The early and accurate diagnosis of dementia is more important than ever before but remains challenging. Dementia is increasingly the business of neurologists and, with ageing populations worldwide, will become even more so in future. Here we outline a practical, symptom-led, bedside approach to suspecting dementia and its likely diagnosis, inspired by clinical experience and based on recognition of characteristic syndromic patterns. We show how clinical intuition reflects underlying signature profiles of brain involvement by the diseases that cause dementia and suggest next steps that can be taken to define the diagnosis. We propose ‘canaries’ that provide an early warning signal of emerging dementia and highlight the ‘chameleons’ that disguise or mimic this, as well as the ‘zebras’ that herald a rare (and sometimes curable) diagnostic opportunity.