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For Elderly, Dogs Can Be Blessing and Curse

Barbara Resnick, a nurse practitioner at the Roland Park Place retirement community in Baltimore, tends to plenty of patients who have fallen. Many of the elderly residents have brittle bones, poor hearing and bad eyesight. And a lot of them own dogs.

One such person is Mary McPherson, an 85-year-old visually impaired woman whose 40-pound mutt, Sabrina, has knocked her to the ground countless times since she adopted the dog four years ago. “There are lots of squirrels around here, and she spots every one,” said McPherson, who gets yanked off her feet when Sabrina lunges in hot pursuit.

The dog presents an obvious health risk. But Resnick and her staff believe that removing Sabrina

Sammy the dog was adopted through the North Shore Animal League's Seniors for Seniors Program. (Photo courtesy of North Shore Animal League America)

would inflict more damage than all those times McPherson hit the ground. “It would kill her to take the dog away,” says Resnick. “For some people, it’s critical. It’s a life saver.”

Medical research supports that statement. In 1980, a group of doctors followed 92 people for a year after the subjects were admitted to a coronary care unit. The mortality rate among animal owners was only 6 percent, while that of their pet-less counterparts was 28 percent.

But the drawbacks are equally striking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study last year that documented fall-related injuries caused by cats and dogs. The CDC determined that pets caused more than 86,000 tumbles every year from 2001 to 2006. Dogs were responsible for 88 percent of the accidents. People 75 and older were the most likely to suffer fractures as a result.

Stumbles occur most often when a dog gets trapped underfoot or yanks the leash so hard that it knocks the human off balance. Size doesn’t always matter, but age does.

“It’s the older, more experienced dog that moves out of the way of the person rather than crashing into them,” said Rena Dershowitz, a dog trainer from New York’s Long Island.

Dershowitz has helped several elderly clients work with problem dogs. One woman, for example, needed help with Sasha, a rambunctious Havanese puppy who toppled the 80-something owner several times. Dershowitz coached the dog to use a set of stairs so that the woman, who was recovering from a hip replacement, wouldn’t have to bend over to clip on a leash. Dershowitz also trained Sasha to heel when her owner used a walker. “We taught the dog to be more helpful,” Dershowitz said.

Discipline is crucial in eliminating hazardous behavior, said Trish M. Loehr, a dog trainer at the ASPCA. But, she added, it is often underused.

“Most people do no foundational training with their dogs,” she said. “Like children, dogs need boundaries.”

Yet, older owners often experience difficulty enforcing obedience because they have limited strength or agility, Loehr said. In those cases, she recommends using treats along with a clicker device, which emits short bursts of sound, to train a pet from a sofa or wheelchair. Halter-style collars, similar to horse harnesses, give elderly owners further control.

Still, training doesn’t solve everything, said Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist specializing in dog-human relationships at the ASPCA.  LaFarge, who volunteers that she, too, qualifies as a senior citizen, advises the elderly to adopt older dogs.  These will will generally be slower, calmer and already trained.

Animal shelters across the country offer programs that pair aging dogs with mature folk. At Long Island’s North Shore Animal League America, the world’s largest no-kill shelter, the Seniors for Seniors program accounts for 250 to 350 adoptions every year, said Joanne Yohannan, senior vice president of operations. Each potential adoption is reviewed to make sure that the activity level and temperament of both dog and human make a good match. In her 15 years at the shelter, Yohannan said she can’t recall anyone reporting post-adoption injuries.

Despite such successes, LaFarge, the ASPCA psychologist, cautions that no dog is perfect. Older canines, like humans, can lose their hearing and eyesight or suffer from arthritis. Those debilitating health problems can make these pets cumbersome to care for and can also damage their ability to respond to stimuli.

LaFarge found this out when Sophie, her 10-year-old Eskimo-border collie mix, lunged for a passing pooch while on a walk. LaFarge slammed into Sophie and crashed to the ground, dislocating her knee in the process. Her dog was perfectly trained, LaFarge said, but its eyes were deteriorating from the onset of glaucoma. “I realized that occurred because she couldn’t judge where I was,” LaFarge said.

The glaucoma eventually became so severe that Sophie’s eyes were removed. But LaFarge has loved the animal for more than a decade, and she can’t give it up. She’ll just take it one ginger step at a time.

April 26, 2010