Sage: Woman wants to know if she should get dog for Mom, 76

Dear Sage:


My Mom, a widow of eight years, is 76, and four months ago she lost her six-pound Yorkshire Terrier, a loyal and loving sidekick for 15 years. She loved that dog like no other creature on Earth, and I’ve never seen her so anguished as when she had to put poor Peachie down because of cancer. I can’t say that she’s gotten over this loss, as the grieving process seems to be more of an emotional strain than even the deaths of immediate family members and close friends. I’m thinking about getting her a puppy for her birthday – not one that will grow to be half the size of New England and not another Yorkie; a look-alike could revive dispiriting memories of Peachie’s last days, plus a Yorkie puppy may be so small for Mom, with her less-than-perfect eyesight, that the little pooch might get lost in the pile carpeting and spend cleaning day fleeing the vacuum cleaner. Do you think that another dog could help bring back Mom’s usual vibrancy and her robust laugh? I see her all the time (we live in the same city) and I want to be certain that I’m barking up the right tree.


                                                                                                          • Pet Lover in Bangor, Maine

   Dear Pet Lover: Ah, Bangor. The Sage has spent more than a bit of time in your beautiful city, where in the winter the local roads, no doubt, are still clogged at rush hour with St. Bernards carrying their humans to work in the snow. He has not been there in a few years but hears from sources that the place is crawling with multimillionaires who make their fortunes building huge backyard igloos and tunnels for people to walk their pets 11 months of the year. It is quite the pet-friendly city, ayuh!

   As for your situation, please accept kudos for showing such sympathy and concern for your mother – and for asking questions about whether you are doing the right thing, for both her and a new dog. Better to think it through than to go to the local pound, fall in love with a cute puppy, and present Mom with a pooch who will grow to 150 pounds, require 10 miles of daily running, and bark loudly enough to wake everyone from Boston to the Maritimes.

   There are multiple opportunities for her, but first, some background. AARP and others cite studies that show that pet owners enjoy lower blood pressure, stress and cholesterol levels than those without pets, and also have a lower risk of depression and heart attack. But the loss of a pet who has provided unconditional love for many years can be one of the most traumatic events at any age.

   An article in Psychology Today, paraphrasing Psychologist Julie Axelrod, reported that the loss of a dog “is so painful because we are not losing just one thing; we experience multiple losses at the same time.  We may be losing our primary companion, a source of unconditional love, a ‘life witness’ who provides security and comfort to us, and maybe even a protégé whom we mentor like a child. The loss of a dog seriously disrupts your daily routine, even more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives.”

   Another article in the same publication reported that grief – and its timeline – are different for everyone, and the challenges are many:

   There may be “depression, anxiety, pain, panic, shame, guilt, anger, regret and many more emotions,” it said. Some people need three months, or six months, or a year to process the grief and feel like their old selves. Some may get another pet; others will not. Some get through it by talking to friends and family; others need counseling.

   Now, experts agree that there is no age cutoff for getting a pet, although a 90-year-old frail person probably should not consider a 250-pound bull mastiff. How agile and strong is your mother – and does she have the balance of a champion figure skater, especially for the icy months in your climate? Will a dog with a ravenous appetite – let alone one that will eat nothing less than lobster and filet mignon surf-and-turf with dog food – bankrupt her? Would she be prepared to pay for vet bills, grooming and supplies? What if the dog eats half of the toys every day and she has to buy new ones?

   Other considerations:  Is the breed right for her? Will the dog need to race at a track – or will he require less exercise? Will he weigh a lot and be inclined to dash off as if he’s coming out of the gate at the Kentucky Derby, and take her along – all the way the emergency room or the hospital because of a serious and potentially debilitating injury, such as a hip, wrist or upper arm fracture? And you have to consider that you are closer to the frozen tundra than to South Florida. Finally, what will happen to the pet if Mom is unable to care for him or her – and, ideally, would she have the financial resources to leave money to help care for Fido one day? Obviously, you are the answer in this case, but for others the question is a valid one – is someone else ready to take in the dog?

   Now, after considering all this – and talking to your mother about these issues – you both may decide that a new dog will be just the solution once she feels that she’s recovered from Peachie’s passing. There are other alternatives, though. 

   She can volunteer at the local shelter – walk the dogs, help groom them, pet them, feel the love. Perhaps try that soon to see how it affects her emotions. She can also make it known that she’d like to try some pet-sitting for friends and neighbors, unless they have live-in Clydesdales. Granted, caring for someone else’s dog may feel like changing the diapers of another family’s grandchild, but, hey, it’s a start! And she could foster a pet as a shelter awaits a permanent adoptive family.

   You two should also talk to your local vet about other possibilities, especially if she wants her own dog and needs to make a sensible choice regarding breed, temperament and mutual needs. Example: Should she get an older dog who’s already trained and perhaps has less energy?

   The Sage would suggest another option to explore since you live in the same city: Consider an informal kind of dog-sharing. We are not talking about what’s done in Britain and elsewhere, even somewhat in the U.S.: legally sharing a dog between families, with a written contract that lists who’s responsible for food, vet bills, and whatnot and that lays out custody arrangements.

   No, the Sage is wondering if you and Mom could share a puppy and let the relationships evolve over time. You, for example, could take the lead in training the dog, but along with her. When you’re at work, or traveling, or want to get away for a night or a weekend, the dog could stay at her house. As Mom ages, perhaps you could drop the dog off after feeding and walking and avoid overnight stays, but give your mother the pleasure of that tail-wagging love and companionship during the day without risking physical harm.

   It would be incumbent on you to do your research, though. Dogs are typically creatures of routine and habit. Some breeds get stressed when they’re not in their own homes; others much less so. Some breeds become emotionally tied to one person and may suffer separation anxiety when away. Talk to your vet about canine emotions and temperament and discuss the best options to maximize the chance that such an arrangement will work out.

   Finally, if Mom ends up sharing, you will be the dog’s mother and she will be the grandma. It will be your responsibility to say, ‘BAD DOG!’ when you have to, and her responsibility to pet, cuddle and dispense all those sweet treats (not that you won’t, too)!

   Wishing you both – and any pet who may spend time with either of you – the very best.

   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage