You might need to make some adjustments, but you can absolutely continue to share your life with dogs as you age.
By Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
Well, it’s happened: I have reached the age where I look forward to Social Security payments arriving in my bank account every month. With that significant milestone come some new perspectives on life with dogs as a senior citizen. Not the least of these is the sobering realization that I have a finite number of dogs left to share my life with, making each one an even greater treasure.
Just as daunting is the awareness that, if and when my husband and I do add more new canines to our family, we might need to revise our checklist of desirable adoption-dog characteristics. If you, too, are reaching your golden years or have dog-loving family members who are, you may find the following suggestions useful.
Don’t get me wrong! If you’re like me, you’re still quite agile and active. I do barn chores every day, hike with my dogs, and work 12-hour days. Check out any agility competition and you can be reassured that there are plenty of aging dog-lovers who can still get around quite handily. These tips are not just for doddering centenarians—just some of the things you might want to think about as you contemplate your future with your four-legged family members.
The Good Stuff
Aging with dogs isn’t all accommodations; there are lots of good things about being a senior dog owner:
- You will likely be home more. With retirement comes more time to spend with your dogs. They will love this! So will you! If you, like me, have lots of active years ahead, you can do more training, more hiking, more playing, more cuddling, and just have more all-around fun together.
- You might travel more together. It’s not uncommon for retirees to travel the country in a motor home, touring national parks and monuments, visiting out-of-the-way places, and crossing off bucket-list adventures.
Motor home travel is ideally suited for dogs; your dogs are cozy in their own home away from home and they get to go everywhere with you. You can even visit relatives without imposing your furry companions on them; if they don’t have dog-friendly homes yours can hang in their own space, parked just outside. You can even live in it full time and forget about those mortgage payments!
- You could possibly qualify for a service dog. No, not that we want you to be disabled, but if you are, you could consider this an opportunity to have a super well-trained dog who could go with you virtually anywhere (with just a few very rare, limited exceptions).
Qualified dog training professionals are starting to offer more opportunities for people to train their own service dogs and avoid the high cost of purchasing a well-trained service dog. Of course, your dog has to be appropriate service-dog material—and under no circumstances should you join the sad ranks of those who fraudulently pretend their dogs are service dogs just to gain access for them.
- Keeping a canine companion for company is good for you! An increasing number of retirement villages, assisted-living facilities, and managed-care homes now welcome companion animals, recognizing that this can improve both the mental and physical health of their human residents. Having an animal companion helps ease loneliness and stress, and animal-care tasks keep residents more active and social. If and when that time comes, you should be able to find a facility that will welcome you and your dog.
Cautions for Seniors Raising Dogs
So, what’s the down side? Here are some of the not-as-fun things to think about as you approach your golden years with dogs.
- Providing proper care for dogs can be costly. Unless you’re one of the minority of Americans who have planned adequately for luxuries in your retirement years (kudos to you if you are!) the expense of caring for a dog can overwhelm a tight budget.
Top-notch pet insurance programs can help offset some of these costs, but it’s something to keep in mind as you consider how many (or how many more) animal companions you can reasonably provide for. It would be devastating to have to give up your beloved dog because you can’t afford to care for her!
That said, some expenses (such as pet-sitting/walking and doggie daycare) might decrease after retirement and help offset the cost of your dog’s medical needs.
Seniors must be sure, more than ever before in their lives, to make good adoption choices. If you’ve had Labrador Retrievers all your life, and lose your beloved 15-year-old Festus to old age when you are 70, you might automatically think to get another Lab puppy. After all, you’ve always had them!
Remember, however, that you were a spry 55 years old when you adopted Festus, and he ran you ragged then, until he grew up and became perfect. It’s easy to forget how hard Festus pulled on-leash as a youngster, but you likely remember how much your arthritis hurts on some days; that might not be a good combination.
Again, I empathize. When my husband and I were looking to adopt recently, a dog-trainer friend told us about one of her clients who was looking to rehome his large, active German Shepherd. We considered it seriously; my husband loves GSDs. But in the end, we adopted a Pomeranian-mix, Sunny—and we are very happy with him!
If you’ve always been a “big-dog person” it might be time to think smaller. You may have more and more physical limitations—could you still lift an injured big dog into the car if you had to? And if you think an assisted-living facility, or even just a downsized home in a condominium complex, might be in your future, be aware that both often restrict the size of the dogs they will accept.
On the other hand, be aware that very tiny dogs (especially tiny dogs who are very zippy and active) can be a tripping hazard for a slower adult, or one with mobility challenges, so keep that in mind as well.
Dog Training and Equipment Tips for Seniors
Now for more good stuff. Think of all you can teach your dog, with all that time on your hands! Even if you don’t need a service dog, yours can certainly help you around the house—finding, picking up, and bringing you things, closing doors and drawers, and more.
A good trainer can help you with these and other tasks you’d like your dog to learn. Some trainers even offer classes specifically for older humans, where the pace of the class might be a little slower, and the focus is on helping to meet the training needs of seniors!
In-Home Professional Training
If you need help with training and can’t attend a class because getting out of the house is hard, there are many good, positive trainers who will come to your home. Just be sure, as always, to research them carefully to make sure you’re getting a bona fide force-free trainer who will help you train your dog without hurting or scaring him.
Of course, the right equipment can also make life easier for our aging bodies. Front-clip harnesses can ease the pain of leash pulling; even smaller dogs can sometimes pull surprisingly hard!
Also useful for seniors (or anyone with arthritic hands) is a waist belt that allows you to clip your dog’s leash to the belt. This transfers the dog’s pulling pressure to your hips, which are sometimes sturdier and more stable than your back and shoulders—
but only if you are stable enough and your dog isn’t big enough to pull you over.
The High Sierra Walk-A-Belt from White Pine Outfitters is a good choice for a waist belt.
A leash that has some give or stretch can also reduce the impact on you if your dog runs to the end of the leash. One style that tends to work well for absorbing leash shock is the Dog Outdoors Ezy Dog Zero Shock leash.
Waist Belt AND Bungee Leash!
Ruffwear sells a waist belt that comes with a stretchy leash. See our review in the August 2018 issue.
Elevate Your Dog Training
Bring the dog up closer to your level. Here’s another benefit of downsizing to a smaller dog: You can pick her up or invite her to jump up on an elevated surface (such as a sofa, bed, ottoman, or a table provided for this purpose) and do much of your training there! Dog steps and/or ramps can be useful if she can’t jump high enough and you can’t pick her up—or if she doesn’t like being picked up.
Deliver Treats on a Stick!
Finally, something as simple as peanut butter or baby food smeared on a long-handled wooden spoon can ease the delivery of treats to a small dog without having to bend over.
Seniors for Seniors
As you look to adopt, consider the mature canine residents at your local shelters and rescue groups. When you adopt an adult dog you get to skip all the crazy-puppy-behavior stuff and often (although not always) get a ready-made companion. Plus the older dogs often have a much harder time finding a forever home, which is just nuts, because many senior dogs fit into their new families seamlessly.
One of the best adoption choices I ever made was an eight-year-old tri-color Rough Collie, surrendered to my local shelter due to urinary incontinence (which was easily treated). I offered to foster Mandy. She walked into our house and lay down on the floor like she’d always lived there, and never put a paw wrong for the remaining six years of her life with us. In contrast, Sunny, adopted at 11 months, still indulges in adolescent high-energy crazies, chews things randomly, and has an occasional house-training lapse.
Helping Senior Family Members
Perhaps you aren’t in the senior category yet, but you have friends and family members who are. There are countless ways you can make life easier for your aging dog-loving friends and relatives:
- Make a standing offer to help with transport as needed for vet visits, groomer, training classes, etc., or help them find good mobile vet, training and grooming services that will come to their home.
- Either offer to help exercise their dog, or help them hire (and perhaps pay for) a professional dog walker for at least a few days per week.
- Do some or all of the training yourself, if appropriate and needed.
- Assist them with setting up a regular order of pet supplies from companies like Chewy.com that will auto-ship repeat deliveries.
- Help them make good choices if and when they are contemplating adding new animal companions to their family.
- When the time comes for assisted living, research facilities that allow animals and help them select an appropriate new living situation.
- Have the difficult discussion about planning for their dog’s future, and help them make those arrangements.
Caring For Your Dog After You’re Gone
I’m not sure which is worse: contemplating my final years with no dogs in my life, or having my dogs outlive me. At some point you might decide it’s not fair to adopt any more, either because you’re no longer able to care for one, or your living situation doesn’t allow it—or simply because you don’t want your dog to outlive you. I cannot conceive of not having a dog in my life, so fortunately, there are several different ways you can ensure that your dog is cared for after you are gone. You can guarantee this—and give yourself peace of mind while you’re still here—by taking one or more steps to provide for her future:
1. Consult with your retirement advisor.
Pet trusts, pet protection agreements, and provisions in your will can ensure that your dog will be well taken care of after you are gone. Forty-six states (all except Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Mississippi) have enacted pet trust laws. Your retirement advisor will have more information regarding the specifics in your state.
2. Provide for your dog in your will.
Who do you want to care for your dog? Check with friends and family members before you designate them for your dog’s care in a will. They need to be willing and able to care for her the way you want her to be cared for. If you plan to leave her in the care of a non-profit animal protection organization, research the group very well first. Some charge a fee for this service, and again, you want to be sure your dog will receive good care. People have been known to take the money and then neglect or even euthanize the dog.
3. Set up a pet trust.
A pet trust is managed by a trustee—someone you select to manage the money you will place in the trust—and a caregiver who is the person selected to care for your dog. The trustee disperses resources to the caregiver, who will then use them to care for your dog in the manner you’ve described in the trust. Pet trusts are expensive. You must fund the trust (typically at least tens of thousands of dollars) and pay lawyer’s fees that can easily top one thousand dollars. For more information visit ASPCA.org/PetTrusts.
4. Write an agreement.
In lieu of a will or trust, you identify one or more caregivers and write out an agreement that states that this person will care for your dog upon your death or inability to care for your dog yourself. The biggest advantage of this is affordability. Make sure you discuss the arrangements with your designated person(s) first. You can obtain a standard form Pet Protection Agreement at LegalZoom.com for a cost between $39 and $79, or you can write the letter yourself, and have it signed (by both you and the caregiver) and notarized. Make sure that your vet and close family members have a copy of this agreement, so they will know who to give your dog to if something happens to you.
5. Research continuing pet care programs.
Some animal sanctuaries, humane societies, and veterinary schools offer programs to care for your dog if you can’t. Programs guarantee food, shelter, and state-of-the-art medical care until your dog can be adopted by another family. You will probably pay a one-time fee for your first dog and an additional fee for each additional pet you place in the program. To find a program near you, do an online search for “continuing pet care,” or ask for a referral from your veterinarian or local humane society. A big caveat here—your dog may end up spending the rest of her life in a kennel in a shelter if she doesn’t get adopted. Think carefully about this one.
6. Leave readily available information about your dog.
Carry a wallet card that will tell someone that you have animal companions and who to contact to see that they are cared for. In the case of emergency or sudden illness, make sure family members know where to find the basics:
- Contact information for your veterinarian.
- Any special medications or medical issues.
- Food that your dog eats.
- Favorite toys and sleeping places.
Enjoyable Age Adjustments
I’m working on the aging thing in my own world. I’ve actually signed up with Sunny for our new program here at Peaceable Paws, to help owners train their own service dogs. Not that I’m anywhere needing one yet (I hope!) but just for some fun and interesting things to train.
And I’ve accepted that my lifetime dream of having an Irish Wolfhound will probably never come to pass. Ah well, with our 30-pound Kelpie (Kai) and the 20-pound Pom/Eskimo-mix (Sunny), I’m happy to settle for smaller these days.
Author Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT‑KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center. Miller’s newest book is Beware of the Dog: Positive Solutions for Aggressive Behavior in Dogs.
Copied with permission from Whole Dog Journal. For subscription information call (800) 829-9165 or visit www.whole-dog-journal.com. Published: December 13, 2018; updated: March 21, 2019.