While dogs for the elderly can be fantastic, helping to alleviate loneliness and boredom and even improve health, choosing the right canine companion can mean the difference between a joyful partnership or a relationship fraught with stress and anxiety – and possibly even injury. Many people immediately think of breed characteristics when selecting a dog and while breed stereotypes can be a guide, there are just as many exceptions to the rule. Terriers, for example, have long been a popular choice due to their small size but many are yappy, nippy, tough, independent, high energy animals that can roam and be difficult to train. Thus, it is better to think of certain factors when choosing a dog for the elderly, rather than any particular breed:
Size – this is one of the key issues, as the elderly can often be fragile, unsteady on their feet or have physical disabilities such as arthritis which may affect their control of a big, powerful dog. Also, if the dog becomes ill, a small dog is easier to carry and transport to the veterinarian. Thus, in general, smaller breeds tend to be more suitable to elderly people. Remember, however, that many of the small breeds – especially the terriers – can be very energetic and so could still be difficult for an elderly owner to handle, not to mention the dangers of tripping over a small, hyperactive dog. Some large breeds, such as greyhounds, can actually be very placid and inactive and thus make great pets.
Energy Levels – unless the owner is an octogenarian tri-athelete, it is usually better to choose a dog with lower exercise requirements. In general, breeds that have been developed to perform high energy tasks such as herding (Border Collie), hunting vermin (Jack Russell Terrier) or running behind carriages (Dalmatian) have naturally higher mental and physical energy levels. Unless their energies are directed into proper channels with extensive training and exercise, these dogs will often develop behavioural problems associated with boredom. Note, however, that many of the toy breeds – while having high energy – do not actually have high exercise requirements as their extremely small size means that they can get all their required exercise from running around an average-sized home.
Noisiness – in modern society, the close proximity of most homes means that tolerance towards noisy barking is very low and neighbours are quick to complain about any noisy dog they hear. An element of this can be controlled by training but certain breeds (and certain dogs within a breed) will be more vocal than others, particularly if left alone for long periods. Again, terriers can be troublesome in this regard but many small poodles, collies, spitz-type breeds and guarding breeds (eg, German Shepherd) can also be very noisy. However, if personal security for an elderly owner living alone is an issue then a noisy, territorial breed might be ideal and this could be one reason why terriers are so popular.
Trainability – even if you have no intention of taking part in Obedience competitions, the inherent willingness of a dog to please can make a huge difference to how easy it is to live with him. Dogs that have been developed to work closely with humans, such as the gundog breeds, often have a higher desire to please their owners than dogs with an independent streak, such as herding breeds and terriers.
With these factors in mind, there are certain breeds which do seem to be more suitable choices although it is important to stress again that the individual dog is more important than the breed type.
Below are some of the more popular choices for elderly owners:
Pug – robust little dog; very playful, outgoing and affectionate but does not require too much exercise.
Cocker Spaniel – affectionate and keen to please, this medium sized dog does require some grooming and can also be quite energetic.
Beagle – lovely dog with a gentle nature; however, being a hound, it can become deaf to all commands when it is on the trail of a scent.
Schnauzer (Miniature or Standard) – sociable and playful although they can be very protective and have strong guarding instincts. Their coat requires professional clipping.
Shih-Tzu – alert, friendly little dogs who live for human companionship; their coat can require some serious grooming, although it can be clipped to make it more manageable.
Pomeranian – looking like a little teddy bear, these perky little dogs will bring a smile to any face, although note that they can be noisy.
Greyhound – although large in size and contrary to popular belief, these gentle, sweet-natured dogs do not require much exercise and are quite content to laze most of the day away. The docile, low-energy adults can make particularly good pets for elderly owners who want a “big” dog.