Aging with a Dog Blog
By Susan Cain McCarty
I plan to write a few articles about aging with a dog, a topic I’m passionate about since I am aging and have two Boston’s, Chester who is 3 and Bruin, 5 and a very old yellow lab, Bailey, 16 ½. I’ve not only owned several different breeds of dogs with very unique dispositions and personalities but long ago I groomed dogs (way of earning money while in school) and I trained level-one obedience.
There are several important social and safety issues to consider. From a social perspective, you may want to consider not only your long-term living needs but those of your pet, particularly if you have (or plan to acquire) a young dog and especially if it’s a smaller breed that may live a long time and even outlive you. Also, you will want to consider whether your pet can move with you if you decided to change living environments and if not, what arrangements can be made for his next home. Some assisted living residences accept pets but many don’t. Similarly there are a few adult foster care homes that will accept a pet. In a future blog, I plan to write more about the social aspects of selecting and living with a dog into our aging years.
This blog will focus on safety for you (and somewhat for your pet). Some people agree with and enjoy Caesar, the Dog Whisperer, and others think his methods are too strict. Having worked with many types of dogs, I find his style and methods work quite well. If you watch one or two of his TV shows, you can learn his approach without watching all the other shows: 1) Be the boss or as Caesar expresses it, “the pack leader” 2) Every day, approach your dog calmly and with compassionate authority. If you are anxious or insecure, your dog will sense this and training and your relationship with your dog will suffer.
Those are the keys to a successful relationship with your dog. Oh and one more point—dogs are loving, kind and loyal but they aren’t human. Don’t humanize them. You can’t change dogs into people. They are meant to live in packs and have a leader. They can be your helpmate and your best friend but they are not human and they are not your child. Respect their need to have a leader and be that leader. If you don’t accept that role, they will be the leader and the result is often an axious dog and an aggressive dog. Neither is suitable as an ideal dog. Treat them with respect, consistency, fairness, love and always be the pack leader and you will do well.
One of my biggest concerns is teaching your dog how to be safe in the house with you and when on a walk. Some dogs—often small ones—will circle around you and weave between your legs or jump on you, particularly when excited (perhaps waiting for dinner or for you to attach his leash). This is very dangerous. As we age, our balance becomes impaired and a dog that is underfoot is a tripping and falling hazard.You can end up with a broken arm, leg or hip or at a minimum a bad strain or several bruises. As we age, any physical damage can mean a long recovery. So teach your dog not to run around at your feet nor cross in front of you. You can use your voice, hands or feet to train them to keep their distance until they are called to your lap or to your side.
Some people think it’s abusive to push a dog with your foot. It is if you kick them but not if you are using your foot and leg to gently push them—it’s simply an extension of your arm and you don’t have to bend over. Whether you use your arm or leg, when you push them away, give a one or two-word commandor a noise such as clicking as you are pushing. If you do this often, eventually you can give up the physical “push” and instead use the command or noise (a click or a command such as “move” or “away”). Whatever command and/or noise you use, use it consistently. I click to my dogs just like I did to my horses when I had them and that works fine. Other people think I’m strange and they are probably right but it works for me.
My husband likes to speak in sentences to the dogs. He might say, “Move away you are too close and I’m going to trip,” and he will actually expect them to obey. I’ve told him—remember Peanuts—all they hear is “blah, blah, blah.” Use one or two word commands and you can even use a different language just for fun. But be consistent and they will learn.
Going for a walk
Having a dog when older often means lots of walks—that’s great for you and wonderful for the dog. However, I consider every single walk a training opportunity for myself and the dog.
First and foremost—don’t put the collar on or attach the leash if the dog is jumping and excited. People tend to talk in a higher voice with a dog—a more excited voice or “baby talk” saying, “Want to go for a walk? Walk? Let’s go for a walk”. It’s no wonder the dog is anxious—your voice and probably your body language are axious and excited.Instead, use a calm and assertive voice.
We like to camp with our dogs and when camping, we take them on several walks each day since they can’t roam free. I put the leashes on only when they are calm and not jumping. I then drop the leash on the floor, make them sit and then I open the door and exit. I stand at the bottom of the motorhome stairs and they cannot get up from a sitting position until I say “come” (or “release”—whatever works for you). Once they come to me I immediately pull back gently on the leashes to remind them “I’m the boss and you will start the walk calmly.” They then begin the walk in a relaxed frame of mind and they are listening to me. Whether camping or at home I follow this process. No walk or exiting the house until they are relaxed and following directions.
Second, NO pulling.Maybe you took your dog to obedience training and he will heel but I see few dogs exhibiting such training. So here are simple tips: When your dog pulls on the leash, click or use whatever noise you like and a command like “no pull” while pulling back on the leash (don’t “jerk”—that’s hard on their neck and shows anxiety). There are many devices to help you when walking a dog including different types of collars. Some collars are more like a bridle on a horse and they circle the noise; some are choke chains (never found these helpful and find them cruel but that’s one opinion); some have spikes that push on their skin (they aren’t as gruesome as they look but I’ve never found them necessary); some are a chest harnesses; and some are plain old collars. I think what you use is less important than consistent training techniques. I personally use a mesh harness that puts pressure on the chest;however,what works for me and my dogs and may not work for you. I wouldn’t ask your vet or the person at the pet store for advice—unless they train dogs they probably won’t have the best advice—I’d do some online searching and find qualified trainer advice.
In the beginning, you may need to pull back on the leash with some strength, but if you are consistent, by the third walk using consistent training techniques, your dogshould understand what you want from the gentlest tug on the leash. Do this often—don’t let them pull really hard and for a while before correcting. As soon as they are at the end of the leash and you feel any strain, correct them. Never use more force than is necessary to get the desired result. I keep pressure on the leash with my pinky finger and pull gently with that. That’s all it takes most of the time. One word of advice on leashes—don’t use the retractable ones that typically extend from 16 to 26 feet. That’s too much freedom and you aren’t training the dog to walk close and calmly. More important, I don’t feel it’s a safe choice for the dog (or you). If a dog is extended 16 foot in front of you and something catches his eye and he’s not on his best behavior, he has 16 feet of room to go in any direction including the street or someone’s garden. I use a six-foot leash and find that works great for walks.
Have a plan about how you want to walk your dog. Do you want him to be allowed to pee at several bushes, fire hydrants and car tires? If so, that’s OK but decide whether you will allow this early in the walk or at the end of the walk but after 5 minutes of that, they must “walk on” for the remainder of the walk—no stopping unless you decide to take a break. There’s no reason they have to continue to sniff and pee. So give them a few minutes for that but then the rest of the time they must walk by your side or in front of you but never pulling at the end of the leash.
Don’t let your dog cross in front of or behind you. I have two Boston’s and my daughter has two. I like to walk three or four at a time (one of them is lazy and I like to walk for about four miles so sometimes it’s just three dogs). When I walk with them, I assign a “side” and all must stay on the side they are assigned. They can’t switch places or dash to the other side because something smells beautifully rotten. Again, I use my foot so that I can correct immediately rather than bending over. With the front or side of my foot, I gently push them back into place on the correct side and again using a “click” or voice command. Eventually you should be able to use only one: the voice command, click or gentle push. HOWEVER, if using your foot causes you to feel off-balance, don’t use this technique. Use your hand and/or words.
I never allow our dogs to smell other dogs (unless I know them and the dogs are “friends”) or bark. I am very attentive to other dog walkers. If I see a dog approaching that is in a highly anxious state—pulling on the leash, barking, jumping or growling, I move to the other side of the street. It’s not because I can’t train my dog to behave but I don’t want to put my dog or myself in a situation that could result in danger to either of us.
Finally, if you want to walk your dog but feel you can’t train him to be safe, bring in a trainer but remember—you must be trained as well.
Dogs are such important companions. I encourage those who love them to have them up until the day you die if you enjoy them and they enhance your life. My mother-in-law is 92 and she lost her beloved “Candy” last month. While she mourned her greatly, she also realized that having Candy was critical to her well being given she could no longer drive and most of her friends had passed. Wisely she wanted and acquired another dog that was older but healthy and well trained.
However, the topic of selecting a dog matching your needs, age, and physical condition is a topic for another blog…
If you have an experience to share relating to this topic or any topic about aging that is of interest to you, let me know. You can reach me at email@example.com or 408-393-4794.
Susan Cain McCarty spent over 25 years in high-tech marketing and is still consulting in that role today; however, she acquired a late-in-life Master’s in Interdisciplinary studies focusing on Gerontology. She now has a second careerconsulting as a Geriatic Care Manger helping elders and their loved ones plan for aging.