Karen B. London
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Dogs Who Respect the Elderly
They are treasures
Gentle around the elderly

The elderly woman was taking each step ever so carefully, with one hand gripping her cane and the other hand gently holding a leash. At the other end of that leash was a terrier mix who was taking baby steps and clearly making an effort to avoid tripping his guardian. He was going more slowly than most dogs ever do, and he kept glancing up at her in such a way that I couldn’t help but think that he was checking on her. (“Yep, we’re still moving. I just wanted to be sure!”)

The dog was going at a pace I associate with arthritic or injured dogs and those who are older than most dogs ever become, but this was a young adult rather than a geriatric dog. I watched them walk laboriously halfway down the block and then turn around. The dog never put a bit of pressure on the leash and remained at a slight distance from the woman, which meant that he was never an impediment to her balance or movement. I was impressed with this dog’s behavior.

Part of the reason I was so impressed is that I knew this dog was not always calm and slow. I had just seen how he acted when out on a walk with a man in his 20s and it was hilarious. He jumped and bounced and spun and generally acted like joy was exploding out of him. He twisted his leash around the man, pulled towards a tree that he then put his front paws on and barked at. When they moved past the tree, the dog danced along, going very fast and showing suitable canine enthusiasm for the outing. It was all quite endearing, and though the dog was energetic, he was never completely out of control.

However, the control he displayed when his leash was handed over to the elderly woman was extraordinary. He acted like he understood her frailty. It reminded me of service dogs I have seen who romp and frolic like any dog when allowed, but go into a steady, calm work mode when that is what is required. I sat on my park bench completely entranced by the entire sequence of events with this terrier mix. I was so interested that I went over to ask the young man about it.

He told me that his grandmother is the dog’s guardian. For almost a year, the grandson has come over each day to exercise the dog, who is 4 years old. His grandmother insists on walking him daily herself even though her health has declined to the point where she spends 10 minutes just walking past a few houses before making the return trip. Sometimes she takes her walk before the dog has had his exercise with the grandson and sometimes after. Either way, he goes at her pace, never pulling, never leaping, and never paying attention to the squirrels, cats or other dogs that are usually so arresting.

When I asked if they had trained the dog specifically to be gentle with his elderly guardian, he said no. This is just one of those dogs who is socially astute enough to respond beautifully to the specific needs of the lady in his life. The grandson’s behavior—coming over daily to help his grandmother—is also commendable.

Have you known a dog who was similarly lovely around an older person and was just as much a treasure as the dog I observed?


Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photo by jive667/Flickr

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Submitted by Helene stovall | August 3 2013 |

Our collie Sally, alarge rambunctious dog in her prime, would switch to "grandma" steps when walking with my mother in law. As both aged, Sally would stand close to granny and allow the elderly woman to balance herself with one hand on the faithful dog's head. Both are gone now, and I would like to think they are sitting in the sun somewhere together.

Submitted by Karen London | August 4 2013 |

It's a lovely image to imagine them sitting in the sun together. I'm so glad to hear about Sally, who sounds just as dear as a dog can be!

Submitted by Robin | August 10 2013 |

I'm sure they are:-)

Submitted by Jerry | August 3 2013 |

Couldn't agree more with this story. After one of my many hip surgeries, my loving Snowy a Bishon would wait patiently for me to use the stairs by my apartment. These smart loving creatures just know how to act around an injured person.

Submitted by Karen London | August 4 2013 |

It's so reassuring to know that Snowy was there for you after surgery. Dogs like that are special in a unique way. I hope your recovery is going well and that the surgeries are behind you.

Submitted by Jacki Delecki | August 4 2013 |

When I take my dogs out I often to to see just what you mentioned. The dogs seem so in tune with the emotions and feelings of the elderly--and little kids too.

Submitted by Kathie Meier | August 4 2013 |

I smiled as I read this article. I have a Bernese Mountain Dog who just turned 3 and with whom I have done animal assisted therapy since she was about 6 months. She is sweet and gentle and works extensively with special needs children. She still has her rowdy puppy side and loves her play but I was especially touched and pleased last year when I developed severe hip pain and saw how careful and protective she was around me. I take a step, she takes a step; I stop, she stops. She walked right next to my cane and shadowed my every step. I had a hip replacement earlier this year and she was just as at home by the walker. I never specifically taught her this - it is just something she knows. My older Berner on the other hand - she was not above squeezing between my legs or under the walker to get where she was going and I always had my eye out for her.

Submitted by J.R. Blah | August 25 2013 |

I too smiled while reading this as I remembered my mom and her Jack Russell / Chihuahua mix. He would escort her into the bedroom each night while trotting under her walker and glancing up at her every few steps until she was safely in bed. It was so sweet and now they are both over the rainbow bridge together with my Dad!

Submitted by Desiree | August 4 2013 |

My neighbor is elderly with arthritis so bad she cannot lift her arms to wash her hair. Her steps are frail and slow, but she make an effort to always move. She has a little 3 year old Bichon that is full of energy and spunk, except when she is on the other end of the leash and then he becomes this calm, cute pup. As if taking a queue from her dog, my 50 lb mix who jumps on almost all the neighbors he sees regularly, has never jumped on this lady though he always greets her just as warmly. The intelligence of some dogs is amazing.

Submitted by Marv | August 5 2013 |

That is what veterinary ethologist Feddersen-Petersen in Germany found in poodle dogs. They adjust on humen like no another breed. Especially their pace/gait. I worry me we clamour/demand to much from our pets we live together. How to finde a balance?

Submitted by Susan Ormsby | August 11 2013 |

Many years ago I had a horse that pretended to be wild as jack rabbit with everyone else, but slowed down to a rocking horse whenever my mother handled her.

Submitted by Roxanne | August 21 2013 |

I have seen this too with horses (esp. the Arabian breed) in my years as a riding instructor. I had one particularly wonderful mare (she was with me all her life from birth to the rainbow bridge at 29) whom I could put timid adult beginners on and she was as careful as if she was carrying a basket of glassware -- but if an experienced rider was aboard she was immediately eager and equal to any speedy task that was requested.

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