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Seniors and Dogs.  Choosing the right dog for the older person

Dogs Suitable for Older People


Over the years, I have worked with many older citizens and dogs of various types. Many of the issues I get called regarding stem back to the owner not being able, due to age and/or physical/mental condition, to give a dog what is needed to be happy and a calm companion. Quite a few are on fixed incomes and cannot afford to hire regular dog walkers or use doggie day care to help meet the energy needs of a higher energy dog. Some are physically not strong enough to manage the type of dog they always owned in the past. Some are showing signs of an inability to concentrate or focus and even remember what was said to them a few minutes earlier. Dogs can be wonderful companions and bring joy to many older citizens. However, is the type of dog or a dog at all a suitable companion? I am hoping this will give our wonderful older friends and their family (who often are the source of the dog in their desire to give Mom or Grandpa a companion) an idea of what they need to think about before they choose a dog. So many of the issues I deal with in regards to seniors and dogs were avoidable with a better choice of companion.


Pets as gifts

Before I continue, I must briefly address pets as gifts. Under no circumstances should a live animal be a gift. The choice and timing of a pet is very personal. If your older friend or relative is actively seeking a pet, give a homemade gift certificate for the fee of that pet. However, let the person make the decision as to what should be best and when! Never go out and give a pet or try to talk a person into a pet because you feel they need one. Do not let a rescue or shelter play on your sympathies. Yes, owning a dog can provide many benefits physically and emotionally to a senior. However, dogs are a major commitment and the abilities of the owner, regardless of age, must be considered with a placement. Many seniors I consult with received pets by well-meaning folk. Some never wanted a pet but did not have the heart to refuse the gift. Others wanted the pet but received critters completely unsuited for them. In any case, owners were overwhelmed and both dog and human, miserable.

What if the owner passes away or enters a nursing home?

Another concern, what will happen to the dog when the person is no longer able to care for him? Will family step up and take the dog? Is the dog to be returned to the breeder ormrescue? Many dogs end up at shelters when a senior enters a retirement home or passes. It is saddening how many families get a dog for Grandma or Grandpa and then refuse to accept responsibility for the pet when the situation changes. Along with the ability of a person to meet the dog’s needs, family must consider what will happen to the dog long term.



Physical and Mental Abilities

As we age, our physical and mental abilities wane to various degrees. One of my mentors, who must be in her late seventies by now, was involved with Irish Setter rescue. She knew the breed inside and out. She overestimated her abilities that day and did something in her heart she knew was risky: walking two foster dogs at once. In addition, she paid for it big time. Both her kneecaps were broken when the dogs pulled her down. In one week, three seniors with dog issues contacted me. In two cases, it was a case of a dog not suited for the home and owners definitely not being able to manage the dog or meet the dog’s physical needs. The third had assistance with the dog but just needed a bit of guidance as to maintaining control of a dog that was a far better match physically.

Just because you grew up with Great Danes and had them for years does not mean that you should own one now. Another mentor of mine was a long time Great Dane and Basenji exhibitor. She is no longer. The last two dogs I knew she had were two rescue Greyhounds. What you could handle will change over the years. Can you handle the sheer strength of the dog should the dog decide to go one direction and it does not coincide with your plan? No matter how well trained a dog is, there will always be that one temptation too great. If your balance is off, your body weaker or your senses not as acute, you could get seriously injured not to mention have your dog get into a dangerous situation. Can you physically keep up with an active dog? Just because you had Vizslas in the past does not mean you can keep up with the level of activity this breed needs to be happy now. It is hard to give up what we loved in the past, but a big part of responsible dog ownership, regardless of our age, is admitting to what we can and cannot manage.

Ability to handle a dog

When choosing a dog, if you have any doubts regarding your ability to handle the dog, ask to take a walk with the critter (with an experienced person accompanying you in case of trouble). Have the dog exposed to different stimuli. Even if you plan to take the dog through training, you still have to be able to manage the dog in class and between sessions. Even if you have a trainer come to your home, you still need to be able to handle the dog safely. Can you walk fast enough to keep the dog at a comfortable pace for him? Slow or sedate walking may not meet the needs of the dog, keep his interest and lead to a dog pulling more. Slow walking for a dog may not meet his energy needs. Can you keep going at various activities to make the every day exercise needs of the dog? What should you bear in mind when you hear people describe a dog as lower energy or higher energy? I define the daily needs as such:

Low Energy Dogs – those whose needs can generally be met with less than an hour of human led exercise a day.

Medium Energy Dogs – those whose needs can generally be met with one to two hours of human led exercise a day.

Medium-High Energy Dogs – those whose needs can generally be met with up to three hours (or more) of human led exercise a day. (Often vigorous exercise) Higher Energy Dogs – those requiring a minimum of three hours of human led exercise a day. (Often vigorous exercise)

Many older people end up with medium-high to higher energy dogs and just cannot keep up with what the dog needs. The dog becomes “hyper” and a total nuisance. There is little behavior modification can do if the physical needs of the dog cannot be adequately met. Never let breed category (i.e. Working, Herding, etc), size or looks fool you. Just because a dog is categorized as Toy or Non Sporting does not mean lower energy. Many Toy and Non Sporting breeds are quite high energy. Small does not mean lower energy either. However, from a strength position, smaller dogs may be easier to handle with the exception of some breeds. Just because a breed looks sloppy and lazy does not mean it is. Just because a breed is smaller does not mean it will be meek or timid. You need to get out and handle different dogs to help decide what is best for your abilities.

Puppy for Seniors?Should I get an adult or a puppy?

Age of the dog you are looking at is another concern. Puppies and adolescent dogs are a lot more work than adults are. With crossbred pups, what you end up with as the dog ages could be much different from what you wanted. Purebreds from a good source have greater predictability in outcome, at least physical outcome. With an adult dog, regardless of pure or cross, what you see is it. You know the height, coat type, etc. Adult dogs have many positives to offer if you adopt one. They have longer attention spans, often housetrain faster and are often out of many of the behaviors in puppies and adolescents that drive owners insane. A good rescue will tell you if they do not feel a dog is the best match – and please respect that. Puppies are handfuls and many people regardless of age just cannot handle the puppy nonsense. Adolescents may be too goofy or “testing” for many owners. Add in an owner who may not be able to get up and down with ease, who cannot keep up with a goof ball and the antics (and destructive potential) of a younger dog may be far better suited with a companion out of this stage. A mature adult dog may be a far better match.

The right match with the right person

Once that desired match is made, retired adult have much more to offer than the average family: time. A retired person taking dog management seriously and desires a friendly, outgoing companion has far more time to devote to creating this. The right match with the right person who is going to be dedicated to properly keeping a dog is a wonderful thing. However, be honest with your abilities as you age and choose the proper dog accordingly. Bear in mind, that should you decide you cannot own a dog; there are many other pets that require far less physical ability than dogs. These critters may be a far better choice and can still offer much enjoyment and companionship.


The stereotypes of the little blue-haired woman with her snapping, yapping poodle or the tottering gentleman being dragged down the street by a boisterous and out of control dog does not have to be. Thinking about our current abilities and future abilities will help ensure a great pet. Choosing the right match for us now and looking into the future as opposed to getting what we had as a younger person is important. A dog acquired when we are seventy could very well be with us until we are well into our eighties. I love working with older people and their dogs. However, I must be honest for the safety of the owner, dog and public. Sadly I am seeing too many cases where an older person was given or got a dog that is too much for them to handle. This scares me especially since I know it is an avoidable issue with so many types of dogs available.

Karen Peak
Pet Editor, Your Life Magazine on line, West Wind Dog Training

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