Are you a senior who is considering getting a companion or service dog? Well, you’ve come to the right place! This article will explore the benefits pet dogs can provide for seniors, how they can assist seniors with walking disabilities, and which dog breeds will make the best service dogs. Read on to find out more!
Benefits pet dogs can provide for seniors
Owning a pet dog will have a significant impact on a person’s life: from feeding it, to walking it and playing with it – being responsible for the well-being of a dog will fill up an owner’s day and keep him/her feeling fulfilled. More than this feeling of fulfilment, engaging in the activities required in caring for a dog will impart physical, mental and social health benefits to the owner.
- Improved heart health – studies have shown that ownership of a pet confers improves the cardiovascular health of the owner, including lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, lower rates of heart attacks, and improved survival after a heart attack (1,2). This is because pet owners are reported to get more frequent exercise by way of walking their pets and also reportedly eat more meat, resulting in decreased rates of obesity.
- Early detection of certain health conditions – research and incidental reports on the matter have shown that many dogs learn to smell subtle changes in their human owners, even before the individuals in question have noticed the changes themselves; the dogs become uneasy and try to alert them. Conditions such as cancer, low blood sugar and seizures are some common examples of diseases that dogs are able to detect with some level of accuracy (3,4,5,6), generally by smell. Further research into the matter is currently ongoing.
- Less allergies – having a dog around young children regularly will result in stronger immune systems and less overall allergies (including asthma, allergic rhinitis, allergies to pets and atopic dermatitis) in these children; these benefits have been observed in children as they are growing up and as adults (6,7). All the more reason for those grandkids to come around for playtime!
- Improved social life – dog owners have an easier time meeting new people and conversing with them, according to Kay Joubert of PAWS.org. Owners who walk their dogs often get stopped by strangers wanting to meet the dog, converse more frequently with other dog owners they run into, and are more willing to share stories about their dog, even with people they’ve just met!
- Companionship – Having a constant companion in the form of a dog goes a long way in preventing loneliness. A dog is attuned to his owner’s mood and his behavior adjusts accordingly. Furthermore, research has shown that pet ownership has a definite, positive impact on an individual’spsychological well-being(8).
- Lower rates of depression and anxiety – studies support the fact that dog owners have lower incidence of depression, with maximum benefit seen in women and single adults (9). Furthermore, dog ownership has been shown to reduce bouts of anxiety & increase sociability in elderly individuals afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease (10,11).
How dogs can help seniors with walking disabilities
There are many types of service dogs, such as those that aid the visually-impaired, those that act as therapy dogs for illnesses including seizure disorders, diabetes, clinical depression or Alzheimer’s disease, and those that act as mobility support dogs for (elderly or non-elderly) individuals with walking disabilities. This last type of service dog will be the focus of this section.
As its name suggests, the primary task of a mobility support dog is to help individuals with walking disabilities get from one place to another. Elderly individuals in need of this help may be ambulatory but have impaired balance and/or gait, or they may already be in use of walking aid devices such as canes, walking sticks, walkers, rollators or even wheelchairs. Mobility support dogs accomplish this primary task in multiple ways, including acting as physical support for balance during the act of ambulation, but also by opening & closing doors, or clearing any obstacles on a path. Having a support dog will give elderly individuals a renewed sense of independence and confidence due to their improved mobility.
Mobility supports dogs can also be trained to assist in a variety of other simple tasks which may be difficult to perform for individuals with impaired mobility. These may include fetching objects from a distance, retrieving fallen items, or carrying items during walks (a water bottle, for example). Other important tasks may be part of the training of service dogs in general, depending on the needs of his owner. For mobility support dogs, this includes assistance in the event of a fall – acting as a brace to help his owner get back up to an upright position, or barking to alert bystanders in case his owner is unable to get up and medical assistance is required.
More about mobility support dogs
Not all dogs can become great service dogs; it takes highly specialized training to get from regular dog to service dog, but more than that it requires the right physical characteristics and temperament.
- physical characteristics – in order for a service dog to provide adequate mobility support, he should be a large dog, weighing 60 pounds (27kg) and above. This is merely a rule of thumb; the dog’s size should be proportional to the weight of his owner, such that a slight individual can do well with a somewhat smaller dog, while a large man may need a dog weighing well over 100 pounds. Other than that, the dog should have adequate musculature and sturdy joints that can absorb the weight of his owner. He should be athletic and able to work for prolonged periods without the risk of exhaustion.
- temperament – a great service dog should have a well-balanced personality. He should be confident yet not aggressive, bold but not overly so, friendly but not outgoing, and have no anxieties. He should be reactive to his owner’s needs, but not to other stimuli in the environment, such as other animals, food, toys or loud noises. A service dog should be happy to follow his owner around all day, but not develop separation anxiety if left alone.
This a tall order for any dog, that’s why great service dogs are a gift to mankind. In return, all service dogs should receive a warm & caring environment where they can thrive, along with proper nutrition and healthcare so they can continue to do their best work.
Best service dog breeds for seniors
While dog breed isn’t the most important factor that makes a great service dog, it remains true that some dog breeds fit the bill better than others. Dog breeds that too intelligent will quickly get bored if they have to do repetitive tasks, smaller dog breeds have a tendency to become overly aggressive, and sighthounds easily get distracted by, well, anything that catches their attention.
The following are dog breeds that usually have a good mix of ample physical characteristics and the right temperament to perform their service dog duties well.
- Labrador retriever
- Golden retriever
- German shepherd
- Standard poodle
- Belgian Malinois
- Doberman Pinscher
- Great Dane
To learn more about which dog breeds would make the best companion dogs for seniors, check out this article on dogpwnd.com – 12 Best Dog Breeds For Seniors. To learn more about the process of getting yourself a service dog, check out these links:
- Assistance dogs international
- National association of service dogs (US)
- Little angels service dogs (US)
- Canine companions for independence (US)
- National service animal registry – database of service animals, other resources, rights of service dogs (US)
- Pet ownership and risk factors for cardiovascular disease
- Animal companions and 1-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary care unit
- Pets’ amazing abilities
- Dogs excel on smell test to find cancer
- Canine response to hypoglycemia in patients with Type 1 Diabetes
- Effects of dog ownership on immune development and atopy in infancy
- Exposure to dogs & cats in the first year of life and risk of allergies at 6-7 years of age
- Influence of companion animals on the physical & psychological health of older people
- Psychological effects of dog ownership
- Effects of animal-assisted therapy on agitation of older patients with dementia
- The effect of pet therapy on the social behavior of institutionalized Alzheimer’s patients.
- American with disabilities act – section on service dogs