During this past week visiting my parents at their continuum care community in Westchester County, I had the pleasure of spending each afternoon at 3:00 pm in the dog park, where most, if not all, of the residents with dogs would appear daily. Even though my mom is in memory care, her private care aide takes her to meet my father who is in independent living and they share an hour of smiles, conversation and a lot of petting.
It is common knowledge that owning a pet has many physical and mental benefits for people of all ages. Research shows that it may even have more of a positive impact on seniors and home care recipients, who are homebound or reside in assisted living or nursing homes. Just 15 minutes bonding with an animal can set off a chemical reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increasing the feel-good mood hormone serotonin. Read more below to find out what dog breeds are best for seniors, or if ownership is not possible, where to find pet therapy resources in Westchester County, NY.
In the short term, being in the company of a dog has positive physical changes that lead to a lower heart rate, lower blood pressure and lower stress levels. Over the long term, the impact of pet therapy may help lower bad cholesterol levels, reduce pain and protect against heart disease and stroke, which leads to better home care outcomes. Pet companionship is also a boost to mental health by reducing loneliness, anxiety and promoting feelings of relaxation. The unconditional love of a dog brings healing and meaning to what can be a lonely stage in life. Family members, friends and caregivers who sit in on animal visits with seniors also reap the benefits and feel better too.
If You Are Considering Adopting or Buying a Dog... Research, Research, Research
How to Choose the Best Dog for an Older Person
You can enjoy the many advantages of dog ownership at any age, but it's important to find the right animal especially for a senior loved one. Here are some factors to weigh in:
Some breeds require more exercise than others. For senior loved ones, with mobility or stamina issues, you might want to choose a dog that is content with a limited to a few short walks. Some very small dogs may even be able to get all the exercise they need just by running around inside their home.
Size: Smaller dogs are easier to keep under control and are more suitable for seniors living in condos, apartments, or care facilities. However, some small dogs have lots of nervous energy and try to make up for their petite stature by barking ...a lot! (This doesn't always hold true, though: Among dogs that bark the least are smaller breeds like the pug and the Boston terrier). Alternatively, docile larger dogs that don't require a lot of maintenance may be a good choice.
Age: Older dogs ( considered around 5-7 years at least) are better dogs for seniors to adopt than puppies that are super active and tend need a lot of exercise and physical outlets. They also will tend to chew and nip in the first few years.. Adult dogs are typically already housetrained and well-socialized with people. Mature dogs also tend to be the calmest dogs, with more predictable behavior patterns. In addition, it's wise to think about the life expectancy of different breeds and how likely it is that your pet will outlive you. Who will take care of the dog, now a family member, if they are not around to do so?
Temperament: While any dog can be raised to be friendly and well socialized with people, some breeds are more naturally conditioned to be gentle. Beagles, retrievers, poodles, and bulldogs are among the dogs that have the best temperament. But keep in mind that every animal has a unique personality. Especially when adopting, check to see the history of their earlier environment/s and make certain they were not abused or caged which can lead to behavior issues.
- Grooming requirements:
Some breeds need to be bathed, trimmed, and clipped regularly, while others just need a quick brush every so often. Be sure to choose a dog whose needs they can manage, either by themselves or with the help of a family member or professional groomer.
7 Best Companion Dogs for Seniors
What are some of the best companion dog breeds for seniors who have a wide range of needs and preferences? The perfect pet for one senior may be entirely unsuitable for another. Here are some of the most recommended breeds for seniors:
Poodle Thanks to their extraordinary intelligence and highly trainable nature, poodles are good companion dogs. They form a strong bond with more than one member of their human families and are one of the best dogs for couples. They are sweet, gentle, and loving animals. Poodles need a daily walk but are otherwise content to play or just lie on the couch. They don't shed, but they do need to be groomed every month or so. You can choose from three sizes of poodle: toy, miniature, or standard.
Cavalier King Charles spaniel These quiet, small dogs make some of the best lap dogs for seniors. They love nothing better than snuggling up with their owners, and they get along extremely well with adults, children, and other pets. Active and playful, they are also intelligent and easy to train. Their long, soft, beautiful coat requires regular grooming and an occasional bath. Keep in mind that this dog breed loves to chase things; you'll need a long leash or a fenced yard.
Boston terrier Looking for a smaller-sized companion dog who will be utterly devoted to you? Boston terriers are adaptable, friendly, mild-tempered dogs whose favorite activity is sitting peacefully with their owners. They are easy to train and don't bark much, which makes them well-suited to apartment or condo life. Their grooming needs are minimal, since their short, smooth coat (which resembles a black-and-white tuxedo) is easy to care for. They don't do well in hot weather, though.
Maltese Weighing in at just four to seven pounds, the tiny Maltese is widely regarded as the quintessential lap dog. Bright, gentle, and playful, these dogs get along well with other pets and are extremely attentive to their owners' moods. (In fact, they are frequently used as therapy dogs.) While they don't need a lot of outdoor exercise, they do like going for short walks and dashing around the house. Their silky white coat doesn't shed but does require daily brushing and weekly bathing.
Pembroke Welsh corgi Intelligent and lively, Pembroke Welsh corgis are high-energy dogs that live for human attention and are big on pleasing their owners. They are famous for being the favorite pets of Queen Elizabeth II. They have squat bodies and short legs, and they typically weigh between 25 and 30 pounds. Originally bred as herding dogs, corgis love hiking and being outside, and they need frequent daily walks. They have a protective nature and make good watchdogs. However, they can be prone to barking.
Pomeranian Pomeranians are small companion dogs that are smart, lively, and affectionate. They are very curious and love attention, making them a good option for older adults who can give them lots of time and energy. They should be brushed at least a couple times a week to keep their fluffy coats healthy and shiny.
Chihuahua Chihuahuas are tiny dogs that are full of personality. Lively and spunky, chihuahuas are loyal companions who love to sit in their owners' laps and be petted. They are good apartment animals but need to be trained to deal with strangers and children. Chihuahuas enjoy going for walks and basking in the sun, but they cannot handle cold weather. Fortunately, because they are so small, they can often fill their exercise needs indoors.
6 Small Dogs That Aren't "Yappy"
The best small companion dog is a matter of personal preference. Many older adults look for small, calm dogs that don't bark without a good reason and aren't overly exuberant. Check out the following examples of calm, small dogs that are not "yappy" (bark a lot):
Pugs may be the best small dogs for seniors who would rather cuddle with their pooch in an armchair walk miles a day. These animals don't need much exercise and can't handle temperature extremes, so they spend much of their time indoors. Childlike, loyal, and affectionate, pugs are devoted to their owners and love to nap. Pugs require little grooming.
- Bichon Frise
The bichon frise is an intelligent, obedient, and affectionate breed. These dogs love to snuggle and are highly compatible with other household pets. They have a pleasant, cheerful nature and are perfectly content to spend much of the day indoors; a couple short walks each day is enough to meet their exercise needs. They don't shed, but they do require frequent brushing and grooming.
- French bulldog
The French Bulldog is a quiet, amiable dog who readily adapts to apartment life. Spirited but not yappy, Frenchies thrive on plenty of human contact. They have low exercise needs and are happy with short walks or a bit of playtime in the yard—but not when temperatures are very high. (These dogs are prone to heat exhaustion.) Regular brushings are required.
- Shih tzu Shih tzus always want to be by their owners' sides and are good small dogs for seniors. This breed loves cuddles and attention. Shih tzus are excellent lap dogs and take a welcoming attitude toward strange people as well as other pets. Playful but not overly active, these dogs get enough activity through short daily walks. They are highly adaptable and can thrive equally well in a large suburban house or a small city condo.
- Havanese Small, fuzzy, and eager to please, the Havanese is an excellent choice for retirees who can spend lots of time with their pets. These dogs get along with everybody but are happiest in their owners' company. They are smart animals that are easy to train; many work as therapy dogs. They have cheerful dispositions and adore being the center of attention. A walk each day will keep them satisfied. Their long coat requires frequent brushing but can be kept short for lower maintenance
- Lhasa apso Whether you want to wander around outside or just relax on the couch, lhasa apsos will happily join you. They are one of the calmest small dog breeds out there and do very well in apartments. Friendly and affectionate with their owners, these dogs are very protective but don't bark without cause. They are more independent than many other breeds and can be left alone. They do take a lot of grooming, however.
3 of the Best Large Dog Breeds for Seniors
Some bigger dog breeds can be very playful when they're outside, but calm when they're indoors. Provided you have a large yard or open space for them to run off their energy, they can be very good companions. Here are three options you may want to consider that could be gentle giants for your senior loved one.
Long-legged and slender, greyhounds are the fastest dogs around. It might come as a surprise, then, that rescued racing greyhounds are calm, quiet, and easy to manage. They're sprinters but not joggers: As long as they get a chance to run all-out for a short time somewhere like a dog park, they are generally happy to relax and take it easy for the rest of the day. They are friendly and gentle, but they do have a strong drive to chase prey; they should never be off leash in an unconfined area.
- Labrador retriever Labrador retrievers are one of the most popular dog breeds in America, and no wonder: With their warm, friendly disposition, outgoing personality, and love of human camaraderie, Labs make excellent companions. They adapt well to training as service dogs and are among the best dog breeds for anxiety sufferers. Labs are cheerful and even-tempered, but these big dogs are also highly energetic and require lots of physical exercise (think swimming and playing fetch).
- Golden retriever
Like Labs, golden retrievers are kind, friendly people-pleasers who respond well to training and are well-attuned to the emotional needs of humans, putting them among the most popular therapy dog breeds. They are best suited to active lifestyles, but if they can get enough outdoor exercise - friends, neighbors, dog walker - they can be fairly mellow indoors. They thrive on companionship and are known for their patience with all types of people.
Therapy, Support, and Service Dogs for Seniors
While the ultimate goal of having an aging loved one stay in their own home is to surround them with familiar creature comforts, it may not be the best time to take care of a live creature such as a family pet or make this the time to acquire a new one. The responsibility of owning a pet - vet bills, walking for exercise, grooming, preparing its meals - might be a burden for both caregiver and the senior. If that is the case, and owning a pet is not in the care plan, think out of the dog house and reach out to a local certified pet therapy volunteer to come for a weekly visit to their home.
"Happiness is a warm puppy." Charles Shultz (cartoonist, Peanuts)
Service dogs have a long history of assisting older adults with special needs related to blindness and deafness, but these days, they are helping with a much broader range of disabilities. Did you know there are even service dogs for dementia sufferers? It's true. Dogs help dementia patients by lowering their anxiety and helping them become more interactive. In fact, in a study published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research, Alzheimer's patients had dramatically fewer behavior issues once a specially trained dog took up residence in the care unit.
Some people get confused about the differences between service dogs, therapy dogs, and emotional support dogs. The terms are not interchangeable, and it's important to understand the distinctions.
Service dogs undergo specialized training in order to perform assistance tasks for a person with a disability. (Because the training is so extensive, it costs anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 to get a service dog.) They are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and are legally allowed to accompany their human companions on buses and into public buildings like restaurants and stores. Service dogs for elderly people can do things like wake owners up, fetch medication, pick up dropped items for owners in wheelchairs, guide owners with impaired vision, and keep owners with dementia from wandering out of the house alone. They should not be petted, as that could distract them from the job they are doing.
Therapy dogs are specifically trained to provide comfort and psychological support to people other than their owners. They visit people in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, retirement communities, hospices, rehabilitation centers, and other settings. Therapy dogs must have friendly, stable temperaments, since they are meant to be petted and handled by many different people. These dogs are not covered by the ADA and do not have the same access rights to public spaces.
Emotional support dogs are pets that comfort and ease anxiety and stress in their owners. While any type of dog can perform this role, Labs, golden retrievers, poodles, pugs, and Cavalier King Charles spaniels often make good emotional support dogs. They don't require any special training and are also not covered by the ADA. They do have more legal protections than therapy dogs, however. For instance, under the Fair Housing Act, emotional support dogs are allowed to live with their owners in housing complexes that don't normally allow pets, provided the owner's doctor has recommended it.
I spoke with Pat Coglianese, who is the President of the Alliance of Therapy Dogs in Westchester County, NY. She said, "As president of Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and being a certified therapy dog team for many years, I have seen firsthand the benefits of having a dog visit seniors. Many seniors have told me that the visit with my dog “made their day”. I have also seen how impactful a visit can be during physical therapy sessions. For example, we were visiting with a 103-year-old woman who was resisting using her walker. Once we arrived, she was more than willing to walk while holding the dog’s leash. Therapy dog visits bring back memories of beloved dogs that people have owned. We often hear wonderful stories of people’s experiences with their dogs and how much they meant to them. In short, the impact that therapy dog visits can have on people is immeasurable. I am proud to be able to visit with my dogs to share smiles and joy with those in need."
Pat with her dogs, Jess and Tia
Give STEPS Home Care a call @ (855) 548-1797 to discuss pet therapy visitation programs available in Westchester County.
Suggested Pet Therapy Programs
Provides therapy in many settings, including but not limited to airports, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, rehab facilities, mental health institutions, schools, hospitals, cancer centers, hospice facilities, college campuses and can also provide therapy in patients’ homes. ATD teams may choose to be members of local therapy dog groups. They may also participate in nation-wide therapy dog initiatives with organizations like the Red Cross and Reading Education Assistance Dogs. Available in the Westchester County, NY area.
Hudson Valley Paws for a Cause
Helping those in need of emotional support of any kind. We are there to share a story, a smile, or to help a struggling child read or interact socially. All of our dog/handler teams are registered therapy teams. They are highly trained and covered by insurance when they volunteer. They are also certified Reading Education Assistance dogs. Home Visits not available. See their website for more information on where you can join dog therapy visits at local locations and facilities other than in-home visits. Hudson Valley Paws services Fairfield County, CT, Westchester County, NY as well as several other areas in New York.
Therapy Dogs International (TDI)
Volunteer group organized to provide qualified handlers and their Therapy Dogs for visitations to institutions, facilities, and homes. TDI is a non-profit organization. There is no charge for visitations. Canine membership includes both purebred and mixed breed dogs. All dogs are tested and evaluated for Therapy Dog work by Certified TDI Evaluators.
Good Dog Foundation (No In-Home Visits)
The Good Dog Foundation (Good Dog) based in New York, NY was founded as a charitable organization to ease human suffering and promote recovery from trauma and stress using animal-assisted therapy services that are recognized as among the most innovative and reliable in the United States. Good Dog provides therapy dog services to health care, social service, educational, and community facilities in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and at disaster sites around the country. Its highly-trained and certified volunteer teams each consist of a human handler and therapy dog. See their website for more information on where you can join dog therapy visits at local locations and facilities other than in-home visits.