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How to Adjust When a Beloved Dog Is More Than an Owner Can Handle

Smaller breeds are easier to manage, but if an owner prefers to keep their pet, try to help them put a better support system in place

By Jeanette Hurt

When my father-in-law married my stepmother-in-law, he wanted a small dog and she wanted a big dog. They compromised on getting a medium-sized Irish terrier. The two have loved and owned these feisty terriers for more than 30 years, but while their first two dogs fit their active lifestyle, the female puppy they purchased three years ago hasn't been quite the perfect match.

Two dogs sitting on a bench. Pets, dog owner help, Next Avenue
Murphy (on the left) is an Irish terrier. She belongs to Jeanette Hurt's father-in-law and stepmother-in-law. Hurt takes Murphy for walks with her own dog, Lyra, a Chihuahua-Great Pyrenees-cattle dog mix.  |  Credit: Jeanette Hurt

In the time they've owned this active dog, named Murphy, they've each undergone surgical procedures, some with long hospital stays and recovery periods.

They also moved from a condominium complex with a big backyard and helpful younger neighbors to a high-rise retirement community in a bigger city. In inclement weather, it's hazardous for them to walk a dog on city sidewalks that haven't been shoveled.

"As your golden retriever gets older, he might not be able to get into the car, so are you able to lift that dog and get it into the car?"

Several family members have suggested that it would be easier if they got rid of their beloved terrier, but that would absolutely break their hearts.

"We see a lot of this," says Carrie Broeker, founder of Peace of Mind Rescue, a California-based nonprofit that not only rescues pets, but also helps older adults keep their pets.

"People who are older and who have always had German shepherds or golden retrievers or whatever breed they've had their whole lives, they aren't always able to assess what their own capabilities are or what their capabilities might be a year from now. And we all think we're immortal," she says.

Consider a Dog’s Size and Age

The first thing Broeker recommends for older adults considering becoming dog owners is to adopt an older dog or a smaller breed that is easier to manage.

"We have some people who come to us who are financially stable, but when you're talking about hiring a dog walker seven days a week or twice a day, seven days a week, and you think about the money you have, it's a scary thought to be spending two thousand dollars a month on dog walkers," Broeker says.

Rescuing an older, calmer and more sedentary dog is not only good for the dog, but it can be a better fit for older owners. Rescue organizations usually do their due diligence to make sure a dog's temperament matches their owner's lifestyle.

"I was afraid I wouldn't be able to keep them, and it would have happened at a point in my life when I really needed my dogs."

But older animals might also require more veterinary care, so owners do need to make sure that they have those expenses figured into their budget.

"Unfortunately, some breeders are a little less insightful," Broeker says. "We have had ninety-year-olds who buy a six-month-old poodle, and eighty-year-olds get an eight-week-old golden retriever."

Broeker says owners need to consider not just the exercise needs of the dog, but to assess if they can physically manage the dog.

"As your golden retriever gets older, he might not be able to get into the car. So, are you able to lift that dog and get it into the car?" asks Broeker.

Finding Volunteers to Walk the Dog

Peace of Mind offers a volunteer dog walking service for older adults and for other people who can't exercise their dogs due to health reasons. The organization will also provide temporary foster care for dogs whose owners have had to be hospitalized or are in rehabilitation centers.

"Our 'helping paws' program also will transport dogs to their vet appointments and their grooming appointments," Broeker says. "We have people who don't drive anymore, and especially if it's an emergency, it's pretty tragic if you don't have a neighbor or somebody who can help with that."

Kathryn de la Fuente received help from the program when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and couldn't walk her two young dogs. "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to keep them, and it would have happened at a point in my life when I really needed my dogs," de la Fuente says.

Volunteers walked her dogs every day for seven months until her doctor cleared her for walking duties. "As a senior citizen, I feel like this [service] is such a blessing," she says.

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If people don't have family members or friends to help out, some elder care organizations and humane societies might have volunteers who could walk dogs. Some hospice organizations also offer this service, Broeker says.

Many high schools and some churches and synagogues require community service credits, and dog walking can be an enjoyable way for kids to earn credits. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts also do community service and volunteer projects, so they also could be tapped.

"It might take some digging to find volunteers," Broeker says. "Hopefully, more organizations like ours across the country will add this service."

A Hybrid Solution

Lining up helpers and arranging regular walkers has helped my in-laws. I walk their dog at least once or twice a week when they need it. I also identified another family member who loves dogs but doesn't currently have one; she takes their terrier for a long walk every chance she can.

My in-laws also found an off-leash dog park/play date service that takes Murphy once or twice a week, and which suits their budget. One weekend a month, they also drop their dog off at their former neighbors, who absolutely adore her and take her to their farm to run around.

They also found safer activities they can do with their dog. There is an indoor walking area within their building, and my father-in-law takes Murphy several times a week to a dog park where he can sit and watch her run and play. Through their own gentle walks and dog park visits, they met a younger neighbor, who now walks their dog twice a week.

This arrangement is good for both my in-laws and their dog. Murphy keeps them as active as they can be, and they've also identified and found workarounds that address their physical limitations.

Having regular walkers gives me peace of mind, too, knowing it's likely my in-laws will be able to keep their beloved pet for many more years to come. "She brings such joy to our lives," says my stepmother-in-law.

Jeanette Hurt is a freelance writer and author. Her most recent books include “The Unofficial ALDI Cookbook” and “Wisconsin Cocktails.” Read More
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