Anyone that has ever owned or loved a dog understands first-hand why they are described as “man’s best friend.” Pure love on four legs, the companionship, loyalty and happiness they can provide is extraordinary. They turn mundane events into cherished moments, provide perfect company, undying loyalty, and for many people on their own – a purpose in life. It’s no wonder then that dogs are considered an ideal companion for the elderly.
A dog can help an individual stay mentally stimulated, positive, happy and more physically active as they care for the animal. There are more serious benefits too: they can reduce blood pressure and help with stress. The list goes on.
Before jumping in feet-first to go out and buy a new dog, however, it’s important to do a little homework on this subject. Not just any dog will do. Below are some issues to consider for the sake of both the dog and the owner.
Big dog or small?
Many people think that a small or toy dog would be a better choice for a senior, and given that they are lighter and easier to control on a lead, this seems like a reasonable idea. However, small dogs can cause a few problems. Prone to being slightly anxious due to their small size, they can try to compensate by being noisy and barking relentlessly. Despite the small size, some toy dogs still require a lot of exercise to work off their nervous energy and can react aggressively with other dogs. A larger dog that is docile, relaxed and low maintenance can provide wonderful companionship for an older person. In other words, rather than looking for a particular size or breed of dog, look for the disposition that is best suited to the elderly person.
The exercise requirements of a dog are a major consideration when choosing a pet for the elderly. Some dogs require more exercise than others. If an elderly person is still fit enough to take a dog for regular walks, think about how well trained the dog is, both on and off leash. A large dog that pulls on the lead can not only be a stressful experience, but a dangerous one. Obviously some breeds of dog are more energetic than others (think Boxers, some Spaniels, and Kelpies for example) and require high levels of physical activity every day. Any dog that is anxious or aggressive in nature will be difficult to handle outdoors for an elderly person and therefore should be avoided.
“…rather than looking for a particular breed of dog, look for the disposition that is best suited to the elderly person.”
Interacting with other dogs, cats and neighbours
Some dogs have a fantastic nature and will happily socialise with any other dog or animal without problems. Others can be exceedingly friendly to humans, yet turn nasty when confronted by other dogs or animals. Questions to ask include: if the dog is going to be left outside at times, does it bark excessively, or does it sit and relax quietly? What is the dog like with cats and other animals? Will the elderly person be comfortable handling the dog when new people come to visit or when meeting other dogs at the park?
Caring for the dog
Typically, a pet dog must be fed twice a day and given fresh, clean water. It also needs someone to administer any medications required from time to time. There may also be trips to the vet and, of course, vet bills to pay. These tasks might all be managed by an elderly person themselves or there may be a carer that can assist. Another idea – if the elderly person is becoming less mobile – is to take advantage of the home service that many vets now provide. Pet insurance may also be a good idea for peace of mind, knowing that if anything happens to the dog, it can be cared for without breaking the bank.
Grooming time can be an extremely enjoyable activity for both the owner and the dog, so despite adding to the list of considerations, grooming needn’t necessarily be seen as a negative. Longer haired dogs will need to be washed and regularly brushed, but all indoor dogs need to have their nails clipped, ears cleaned and so on. If the dog is trained from an early age to get used to this, it is usually a pleasurable activity and can be done by the elderly person or with the help of a carer. If this is not possible, it may be easier to organise for a mobile dog groomer to drop by on a regular basis.
Obviously if an adult dog is being chosen as a companion pet, it’s vital to choose one that has been socialised with people already. If still a puppy, choose one that is displaying signs that it will be a suitable companion. A fiercely independent dog that does not bond or socialise well would not be a good choice for a lonely senior.
For an elderly person who is very advanced in years, it may be possible that the ownership of a dog carries too many responsibilities, and possibly a pet like a cat may be more suitable. However, for an older person who is still relatively mobile and healthy, a dog can be such a wonderful companion – man’s best friend.
Sage Institute of Aged Care – is more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
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