A Senior's Guide to Selecting & Owning a Dog

Tips & Advice → A Senior's Guide to Selecting & Owning a Dog

All of us have the opportunity to enjoy the unconditional love a companion dog offers. This is especially true for senior citizens, as they typically have the time available to nurture and develop a strong emotion human-canine bond.

Dogs can make ideal companions for senior citizens. Canine companions offer loyalty, provide joy, and give unconditional love. Dogs are totally accepting of their elderly owners. They don't see any wrinkles or physical limitations. Instead, they only see someone to love who loves them back.

A dog's devoted and affectionate nature can make a senior owner happier and even healthier. Medical professionals who work with seniors have long noted the benefits a pet can make in the life of an elderly person:

  • A dog offers a sense of well-being and independence, helping to prevent stress, depression and loneliness.
  • Being responsible for another living creature can add new meaning and purpose to a senior's life.
  • Caring for a pet with activities such as feeding, grooming and walking helps a senior stay active, both mentally and physically, and thus enhances and increases the quality and quantity of her life.
  • Numerous clinical studies verify that owning a dog can benefit a senior's physical health, resulting in lower blood pressure, decreased stress, reduction in bone loss, lower cholesterol levels, and improved blood circulation.

Stepping Up to Dog Ownership
Not just seniors, but people of all ages need to understand that caring for a pet comes with responsibilities, commitment and time, as well as physical and financial requirements.

A dog's basic needs include food, exercise, entertainment, safety and shelter. He also requires veterinary care and grooming-brushing and coat care, bathing, nail trim and dental care. If you are not able to provide some aspect of these care basics, know whom to ask for help, whether a family member, friend or professional.

This is particularly true with regard to exercise. If you are not able to walk a dog frequently, consider exercise options such as teaching the dog to play fetch or practicing obedience. There are also plenty of dog walkers for hire who can take your dog for a stroll or romp. If you choose a very small dog, he may get enough exercise just running around the house.

Whether or not your dog stays mainly indoors, be sure he always wears identification. Affix ID tags to his collar and ask your veterinarian about getting the dog microchipped, which is a permanent form of ID that will help ensure he will be returned to you if he becomes lost.

If you or a senior you know are seriously considering getting a dog, you need to ask these questions:

Can you financially afford to keep a dog?
Caring for another living being does cost money, for food, veterinary care (with annual shots and check-ups as a minimum), pet supplies (toys, treats, bed, crate) and grooming (whether you do it yourself or pay a professional for the service). Costs can vary widely, based on size and how much care and grooming you provide, but can range between $650 - $1000 a year.

Can you physically care for a dog?
Caring for a dog, no matter how small and docile, requires some measure of physical ability. If you have physical limitations -e.g., you use a wheelchair or walker-you need to be mindful of the dog's basic requirements for care. This is another reason why it is important to make a carefully considered match between dog owner and canine.

Tips for Selecting a Dog
While you may be enamored with a particular dog breed, choose the individual dog for its personality and other characteristics, not because of its breed alone. Opt for a dog that matches your particular lifestyle and abilities. Size and temperament are the most frequently cited factors that matter most when selecting a dog for a senior. Other qualities may also be important; for example, an allergy sufferer may want to consider how much the dog sheds before making a selection. The guidelines below will help you make a thoughtful decision when selecting a canine companion.

Choose an Appropriate Size
For practical reasons, smaller breeds tend to be more suitable for elderly people (except, perhaps, for the over-exuberant terrier breeds). A small dog is simply easier to handle, which means:

  • You can transport the dog in a pet carrier to take him to the vet or on plane trips.
  • You can bathe the dog in a sink, and not have to stoop over a tub.
  • Your canine companion will fit comfortably in your lap, if you so desire.
  • You will need less food, which reduces cost and also means you'll have less waste to pick up.
  • You will enjoy (typically) more manageable walks and other outdoor adventures.

Remember, a dog breed you owned or knew in your younger years may not be an appropriate choice for your current lifestyle and abilities. While a boisterous yellow Labrador retriever may be a perfect companion for families with growing children, the breed's high energy needs would probably not be a wise choice today for most sedentary seniors. In addition, you may now live in a smaller home which is more suitable for sharing with a smaller pet.

Many animal shelters encourage senior citizens to adopt older dogs as canine companions. Most senior dogs tend to be calmer, have lower activity needs and more predictable behaviors, and, in most cases, are already housebroken. Thus, the older dog is more manageable for an elderly person, and yet still brings the same emotional and medical benefits to his owner.

If you do adopt from a shelter, ask the shelter staff if they will let you get to know the dog over a few days to help you develop a trusting relationship with him and to help you determine his needs for training.?

Temperament Matters, Too
Also of importance in choosing a dog is temperament. A dog's temperament is his personality, the inherent characteristics that makes that animal unique among others. Temperament is due to a number of factors, from breed and age to external influences such as how well the dog was socialized as a puppy, how he has been treated by people, etc.

In general, most seniors seek a dog known to be affectionate, companionable and even-tempered. The ideal dog will also be friendly and sociable to other dogs and people of all ages.

Another factor to consider is the dog's trainability, or his willingness to please you, whom he looks to for leadership, safety and affection.

Whatever the dog's temperament, understanding how to manage his behavior through proper training will ensure a more companionable relationship between you and your canine pal.

Training Assures Your Safety
Training is essential to helping a senior remain safe around his or her pet and ensures the dog's safety as well. As pack animals, dogs naturally need a leader in their lives. If they don't find one, they will try to become the leader, which can create numerous behavioral problems. Thus, the human in the home needs to be the pack leader. To become the leader, you must practice obedience, set rules and apply them consistently, and praise your dog's good behavior.

A good place to start training is by teaching your dog to follow you, such as through doors, into the car, and on stairways. When your dog is behind you, you not only decrease the chances of tripping over him, it also teaches good manners which form the basis for effective training.

Following are some common behavioral issues and training tips to help manage your dog's bad behavior.

Many seniors live in apartments or assisted living facilities in close proximity to other people. While some breeds tend to be noisier than others, any dog can quickly become a nuisance barker if he is not taught good manners.

While his ability as a watchdog may be a plus for a hearing impaired senior, a dog that doesn't know when to stop barking becomes a problem for everyone. However, if he regards you as his leader, your dog can be taught to bark to alert you to a disturbance, and then be quiet when he sees that you have the situation under control.

Keep the dog out of certain rooms where he can get underfoot. For example, training your dog to stay out of the kitchen-where most household accidents occur-is a good safety measure. It also helps to prevent your dog from begging for food.

Teach your dog to "stay" in a certain place. If he is tempted to break from this invisible boundary, use baby gates to block off no-go areas.

A crate or pet carrier provides a natural safe haven for your dog. Keep a crate or dog pillow in a quiet area of the home, and direct your dog to go there when you need to set boundaries. While he may not like being separated from you, he will still feel secure.

A crate/carrier also helps your dog be a more relaxed traveling companion, since "home" is wherever he finds you and his familiar bed.

Teaching reliable toileting habits is necessary for good health, cleanliness and safety. A "puddle" on a tile floor is a slip hazard, not just for seniors, but for anyone visiting the household.

Separation anxiety
This is a common behavioral issue among dogs, especially "single" dogs who live with one person. Because dogs are social creatures, they generally do not like to be left alone. When alone, they can show a variety of signs of distress, such as barking and whining, destroying things, soiling the house, digging, and scratching at the door.

One way to help reduce a dog's tendency to be stressed when left alone is to leave him at home frequently, in his crate or a room where he cannot hurt things or himself, for varying lengths of time. It is actually unhealthy for a dog to never be left alone, because there will invariably come a time when he cannot be with you. Dogs need to learn they can be left alone and will still be safe.

Recall (coming when called)
A dog that ignores his senior owner poses a serious danger. You can get hurt if you are forced to chase after your dog in attempts to catch him.

In the saddest of situations, a dog that runs into traffic and is injured or killed will bring great grief (and expense) to the elderly owner.

Walking on leash
A walk for exercise and fresh air should be a pleasant experience. In order to give you safer control of the dog, use specially designed equipment to manage his behavior. Remember, a well managed dog on a walk does not set the pace-the owner does.

Never use a retractable leash. They can cause eye and face injuries, cuts and burns. They do not help your dog to understand boundaries and leadership. A six-foot cotton leash is the safest choice for walking your dog.

Jumping up
Jumping up is both annoying and dangerous. A large dog that jumps up can knock over an elderly person, and even a small jumping dog can tear fragile skin with his claws.

Front door behaviors
A knock on the door can be an exciting event for a dog, whether he sees it as fun or alarming. If he doesn't have sound leadership in place, it is natural for a dog to want to know who the "intruder" is, to determine whether the person is safe or dangerous, and to protect his territory and pack. However, an-out-of-control dog at the door is undesirable for many reasons-he may dash out the door and run into harm's way, he may get underfoot and become a trip hazard, or he may become aggressive to the visitor.

While these are some of the more common dog behavioral issues, each dog, owner and situation are unique. Individualized training with an experienced dog behavioral therapist, such as a Bark Busters trainer, helps to make for a well behaved dog and ensures your own safety.

A Socialized Dog is a Happy Dog
A well socialized dog is comfortable meeting and being with others, including dogs, other pets, and people of all ages. He has been introduced to a variety of situations and yet knows he and his pack have remained safe through them all. An insecure dog, on the other hand, may become a fear biter. Because he does not know how to act when he encounters someone new, his defensive reaction is to bite. This dangerous behavioral pattern can be addressed with training.

Dogs are typically protective of their elderly owner because of the emotional bond and because they may see the person as a weaker member of the pack. A dog's deeply rooted sense of loyalty will drive him to protect his owner. No matter the size or breed, if a dog feels threatened, he may demonstrate aggressive behavior and even bite.

Your dog needs to learn to feel comfortable with all visitors to the home, from family members and neighbors to your housecleaner or building janitor.

If you require assistance from a personal caregiver or home health care provider, your dog must learn to understand that this stranger will not harm you. Should you voice discomfort or flinch when a health care provider treats you, the dog may perceive that the caregiver is hurting you. Be sure to reassure your dog that you are OK. Allowing your dog to continue this misperception can contribute to aggressiveness to all visitors.

The chaos created by young visitors like grandchildren will inherently raise the energy level in the house, bringing new stress to the dog. Here are some ways to control such situations.

  • If your dog begins to bark or nip at visitors, remove him from the area and place him in his safe crate or pillow.
  • Have children of school age drop a piece of food near the dog. The dog will see this as a friendly gesture and will know the child is not to be feared.
  • With very young children, parents need to remain vigilant to monitor their youngster's interactions with the dog and teach her to treat the dog with respect and gentleness.
  • Never invite a child to feed the dog by hand-this teaches the dog it is acceptable to take any food from a child. Because of a child's small size, the dog may view her as an equal, and thus may try to take advantage of the situation.
  • Never leave a young child and any dog alone together. This is when most dog bites to children occur.

Bringing Home Your New Dog
Prepare to have ready the things your dog will need from the start. An ideal supply list includes ID tags, a collar and six-foot leash, food and water bowls, dog food, dog toys, a crate and bedding, and basic grooming tools.

You will also need to pet-proof the home to ensure your dog will be safe is his new environment.

  • Keep him away from household dangers such as electrical wires and outlets, plants, pools, balconies and open doors.
  • Put away those things your dog may find tempting to chew. Remember to immediately pick up anything you drop on the floor.
  • Ask your vet for a list of poisonous foods and materials that should be kept away from your pet.
  • Keep lids on trash cans.

Within the first week, take your dog to a veterinarian for a health check and necessary vaccinations. Arrange for the dog's spay/neuter surgery, if needed. Your vet can make recommendations regarding your pet's food, exercise needs and other care tips to help you get started on the right paw with your new pal.

Happy Dog = Happy You
Consistent training and leadership go a long way toward ensuring a happy dog. By treating your dog with a balance of understanding, discipline and affection, you will be richly rewarded with a loyal, grateful and loving companion in the years ahead.

Humans and canines can share a very special bond that's unique among different species. Dogs can make ideal companions for people of all ages - especially seniors. Just be sure to take the time to make an informed decision about the age and type of dog you choose as your furry friend.

What Makes a Dog a Dog?
Regardless of a dog's breed, temperament or size, all dogs are derived from the wolf. Thus, understanding the wolf's behavior, motivators and communication system have helped us to understand dogs.

As with their wolf ancestors, dogs need order and leadership. They are pack animals, so you must be the "pack leader." Your pet needs to know from the start that you are boss, which helps him to understand what you expect of him.

Here are a few fundamentals to help you understand a dog's nature, and so assist in training:

  1. A dog is a dog. They do not communicate the way people do.
  2. All dogs think in terms of the pack. They instinctively know that living with others, under the leadership of a dominant pack member, enhances their chances for survival. When you exhibit a leader's strong and consistent characteristics, your dog accepts you as the pack leader and thus respects and obeys you.
  3. Dogs don't understand English (or any other human language). In addition to barking and growling, dogs rely heavily on body language. Learning to read your dog's body language is key to communicating effectively with him.
  4. Dogs are neither spiteful nor deliberately naughty. A dog misbehaves or disobeys because: He does not understand what you want; he does not consider you his leader; or he is suffering from some kind of stress or fear.
  5. Aggression is instinctual in every breed. Whether Chihuahua or German shepherd, a dog's breed has nothing to do with aggression. Aggression is instinctual and caused most often by fear of something he cannot understand or does not recognize as normal. A frightened dog will either take flight or fight.
  6. Correct your dog on the spot. Because dogs learn from association, a correction is effective only if it is issued at the precise moment the dog is either contemplating or actually doing something wrong.


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