Dogs love unconditionally, they fill our hearts with joy, and often are considered to be cherished family members as much as any human. However, dogs also provide health and wellness benefits that may go unrecognized by those lucky enough to be around a dog on a regular basis. This is especially true for seniors who have a canine companion.
Albuquerque resident Darla Carl, 79, shares her home with her beloved 9-year-old male Shih Tzu, Yogi, who is a centerpiece of her life. “I never had a dog; I’ve always had cats,” Carl said. “After getting Yogi, I was more content and less lonely. Having someone else made my house much more alive, and that was very comforting to me.”
Dogs facilitate physical exercise and play, help people cope with crises, and decrease symptoms of depression and feelings of loneliness. They also help to lower stress, which is a significant cause of cardiovascular problems. The American Heart Association says, “Dog owners are 31% less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than non-dog owners; people with prior heart events who had a dog living at home had a 65% reduced risk of death; dog owners who walk their dogs face one-third the risk of diabetes of those who don’t own a dog.”
Ellen Schmidt, senior director of Adoptions, Outreach & The Center at the nonprofit Animal Humane New Mexico in Albuquerque, said dogs are excellent companions for seniors and that a lot of seniors decided to bring a pet into their lives during the isolating months of the pandemic.
“When a senior adopts a dog, there are increased opportunities for socialization because they go out more,” Schmidt said. “They can also meet other people who are just as just crazy about their dogs. Talking about our pets is a generational topic, and it gets us out of the house.”
An active dog, for example, can encourage a senior to get more exercise, whether just by walking more, going to a park, or by getting involved in training activities, like agility or nose work; whereas a dog with a more mellow temperament can help a senior become more social and engaged. One of the most challenging aspects of aging is isolation and loss of social interaction. Schmidt said having a pet tackles loneliness and introduces more structure to seniors’ lives, especially when they retire.
Though Carl and Yogi were once fairly active together, she said her dog now provides structure for their day: “We’ve settled into a routine, and he’s older now. So am I, so we don’t walk as much, and he doesn’t seem to mind it. … Yogi has never been much of a cuddler but loves being petted. He loves to be around me and follows me from room to room.”
In cases where a senior can’t have a dog live with them, there are others ways to safely be around dogs and gain some of the same benefits. Schmidt suggests seniors consider volunteering at a local animal shelter.
“The beauty of volunteering is flexibility, structure, and purpose,” without the commitment, Schmidt said.
For seniors considering getting a dog, check local shelters first. They have a revolving population that needs your help. At deadline for this story, Animal Humane New Mexico had 95 cats and kittens and 70 dogs and puppies at its shelter alone, Schmidt said. It’s also prudent to spend a bit of time with any dog before taking it home. Some shelters, including Animal Humane New Mexico, have a program that allows people to conduct “meet and greets” to help determine if a dog will be a good fit.
Yogi was the right dog for Carl from Day 1. “He has always been such a good dog,” she said. “He has never been hard work or difficult in any way. He is such a joy in my life. I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s such a comfort to me.”
For additional information, visit animalhumanenm.org or call (505) 255-5523. The City of Albuquerque Animal Welfare Department also has dogs for adoption and can answer questions. Visit https://www.cabq.gov/pets for locations and information, or call 311.