When you look into a dog’s eyes, do you sense a bond between you? Science says this happens.

Studies have shown a positive feedback between humans and dogs that is powered by the release of the hormone oxytocin (also called the ‘cuddle hormone’). It is the same chemical reaction produced when a mother looks into the eyes of her infant.

Dog lovers know that exchange well. For many people, particularly seniors living in isolation due to COVID-19, dogs can provide companionship, as well as a relationship that fills a void.

Dogs provide their owners with purpose and a responsibility to love and care for a living creature, similar to how they loved and cared for family members when they were younger. The dog responds with devotion and affection, as well as its own unique and sometimes puzzling but delightful reactions to the senior and the home.

Benefits of Dogs for Seniors

The unconditional love from a dog brings a physical and emotional boost. Physically, owning a dog has been shown to lower a person’s blood pressure and heart rate. Emotionally, they bring joy. You can’t be depressed when you feel joy!

Dogs are great motivators. If a senior is caring for a dog, they tend to take better care of themselves. They tend to be more physically and cognitively active to take care of their pet. The senior’s appetite improves. Sleep improves. People with more motivation may begin to pursue new interests or reacquaint themselves with hobbies or activities they have been ignoring.

Dogs are easy to love. Food, exercise, and love are all a dog really needs. Unlike people, building a relationship with a dog doesn’t take a long time. Within the first few minutes of interacting with someone, a dog may be nuzzling their knee or laying at their feet. They aren’t there to judge or criticize. They just want to be with you.

Dog owners live longer. According to the American Heart Association here are some of the health benefits of owning a dog:

  • Heart attack survivors who live alone had a 33% reduced risk of death if they owned a dog.
  • Stroke survivors who lived by themselves had a 27% reduced risk of death if they owned a dog.
  • Dog owners are 31% less likely to die from a heart attack or stroke than non-dog owners.

Dogs can teach us about life. It’s called mindfulness—living in the moment and the place where you are. Dogs are champions at it. Watch a dog laying in the grass on a warm day, nose in the air, eyes on birds, butterflies, and bees. A dog knows how to relax and be totally in a place and a moment. It’s a mentally and emotionally healthy philosophy for anyone.

Choosing a Dog for Seniors

To make the relationship between a dog and the senior the best it can be, choosing what kind of dog to own requires some thought.

First, the senior needs to consider his or her own physical and cognitive condition. If it is a challenge to walk or even move about the home, a high-energy dog that may pull hard on a leash or has a tendency to jump on a person, or sprint in front of people out of pure exuberance, is probably not the best choice.

It should be noted that dogs, may exhibit some behaviors during a first meeting in a new environment with strangers that, after a period of adjustment, will dissipate or go away.

Dogs require patience and understanding, and perhaps that is a good thing. If a senior practices patience and understanding with a dog, it may improve the senior’s relationships with other people as well.

Evaluating a dog should include:

Energy Level. If the senior is less active, a dog with a lower energy level might work best. However, a major perk of dog ownership is the physical exercise and emotional lift owners receive from walking the dog. Perhaps take a couple of short leash walks a day, then cuddle up with the dog on the couch later.

Health Issues. Some dog breeds are more prone to serious health issues than others. For example, there are types of dogs susceptible to back injuries, hip dysplasia, stomach bloat and diabetes.

Maintenance & Care Costs. If the senior has not owned a dog before, he or she may not be aware of the costs involved. The dog’s size, breed, age, and health concerns will affect a person’s financial ability to provide what it needs. There are multiple websites that explain about the traits, health, temperament, and grooming recommendations for various dog breeds.

Adult or Puppy? Puppies are cute, but they can be a handful. Patience is certainly a virtue with a puppy who is not housebroken, chews just about everything it can get its jaws around, and possesses almost limitless energy.

What an older dog may lose in “cuteness” can be made up for in a calm and loving dog who is housebroken and less destructive. Some people give up a senior dog for various reasons, so an older dog appreciates a welcoming place to call home.

Dogs Can Help at Bethesda’s Senior Living Communities

Bethesda does offer pet-friendly communities. Residents are able to keep dogs (25 pounds and under) and cats with them when they move into any Bethesda independent living community. A deposit is required. Read more about Bethesda’s pet-friendly policies.

Interested in bringing a pet into your life? Contact a care manager today to see how we can help.