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A Dog Is a Senior’s Best Friend

By Becki Cohn-Vargas April 05, 2021 Family

Our American bulldog, Mango died of cancer this week. In my moments of grief, I am writing this blog to honor her memory. Mango came into my life nine years ago when I was retired after my son had adopted her as a puppy and realized he could not keep her in his apartment.

She was very cute in a bulldog sort of way. She had a big sad face and brindle coloring, white with big, brown and black patterned shapes on her body. She loved to loll around and slept in the funniest positions, legs splayed out in a glorious way.

Mango

Mango was best buddies with Pepe, our active black and white spotted pointer, her exact opposite, he is high energy and exuberant. We drove to Alaska with them for a month-long camping trip a few summers ago.

Mango and Pepe

They loved riding in the truck, hanging their heads out the window to watch the forested mountains sail by and every so often bark at a bear or moose. Mango will be missed by Pepe, by my husband, Rito, and me, and her many fans.

Dogs Enrich the Lives of a Senior

Dogs are cheerful spirits, greeting you when you rise in the morning, welcoming you, tails wagging, when you return home. Over half the adults surveyed in a National Poll on Healthy Aging revealed that they owned a pet with over 85% reporting that their pets helped them feel loved and 78% reporting that having a pet reduced their stress.

During the pandemic, a constant loving companion eases the loneliness of many who live alone and fills the lives of empty nesters, like Rito and me.

Dogs Can Keep Us Active and Healthy

Having a dog can get you off the couch, even if you’re not in the mood. If I simply touched their collars and leashes, Pepe came running, followed by Mango. I am lucky to live at the foot of a beautiful regional park with many trails.

Even as Mango was getting weaker, we would take her out for short walks. The Gerontologist reported on a study that found seniors who regularly walked dogs had a lower BMI and fewer visits to the doctor. Researchers have found that even with visits by a therapy dog, seniors reported a reduction in pain.

Dogs Are Smart

Have you heard about Bunny, the talking dog? She is part of a research study on comparative cognition from the University of California in San Diego. Bunny has been taught to press buttons to communicate “outside” or “walk,” combining words to communicate specific ideas.

For example, she asks for a walk now. When asked if she could wait, she says “no.” Even without augmented devices, dogs communicate their intentions.

Mango was good at getting her point across. She’d head to the specific spot in the kitchen below the counter where a treat is kept to indicate exactly which one she wanted.

When she wanted her back scratched, she’d come up to me at the computer and paw me – then turn her little body around to indicate where. If I stopped too soon, she’d paw me again. On a walk, she would stop and refuse to move, indicating that she was ready to go back.

Other times, when we walked near the street where their friend Mattie, a cattle dog, lived, she would force us to turn the corner, pulling us toward Mattie’s house. When my friend, Martha was bringing Mattie to visit us, I would ask “Is Mattie here yet?” and our two dogs would run to the window to check.

Dogs Wear Their Hearts on Their Sleeves

Mango was a flirt. Before the pandemic, she nuzzled up to all guests and won their hearts – adults and children alike. She made each one feel special when she wanted to sit with them, looking up with her big brown eyes and droopy face.

In one study, seniors reported that having a pet connected them with other people. In our case, walking Mango and Pepe has caused us to meet many people in our neighborhood.

Mango was jealous. If I gave Pepe a treat, she’d look up longingly as if to say, “And mine?” And she could be a bit devious, running on her stubby legs to get up on the couch to sit beside me before Pepe could get there.

Sometimes I found myself sandwiched, literally squished between the two of them, vying for love. Jealous or not, Mango and Pepe loved each other. Many mornings they had love fests, licking each other’s faces. This morning, I could see him sad, grieving, lethargic and clingy.

Dogs Bring Out Our Compassion

We care for them, they care for us. When I was receiving chemotherapy, Mango and Pepe would come over to snuggle during the days following treatment when I was not feeling well. And when Mango had her sudden decline with aggressive tumors that had metastasized, I was with her.

Rito and I would take turns getting up in the night to take her outside when she needed it. For us, it was a labor of love.

Dogs bring out our sense of compassion, our joy in life and our sadness that their lives are shorter than ours. I have noticed that men, as they are aging, in particular grow very attached to dogs, expressing love and caretaking in ways they had not done when they were younger.

I particularly saw this in my brother-in-law, my neighbor and my husband who all recently lost a beloved pet. Tears flowed in ways I had not seen before.

Getting the Right Match

If you have not had a dog before, it is never too late to get one. Be careful to get the right match. Some dogs are more energetic that we are. Others are yappers. Still others are not friendly to guests. Check out the breeds to be sure the dog is right for you and that you can afford their care and upkeep.

For seniors who find pet ownership is too demanding or costly, there are free pet therapy services that will bring a friendly, trained pooch to your house (Therapydogs.com, Therapy Dogs International). You will not be disappointed! While we miss Mango terribly, we also recall the years of joy and love we shared together.

Have you recently lost a pet? How long has it been? Does the loss get easier with time? What do you remember most clearly about your dog? Do you think no two dogs are alike? Please share with the community!

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The Author

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D, has been blogging regularly for Sixty and Me since 2015. She is a retired educator and independent consultant. She's the co-author of three books on identity safe schools where students of all backgrounds flourish. Becki and her husband live in the San Francisco Bay Area and have three adult children and one grandchild. You can connect with her at the links below.

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