Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Eric Sonstroem.

“This dog keeps me alive,” says Mike Farafinchan. Stradivarius – Strad for short – is the 12-year-old silky terrier he adopted in December 2017 through the non-profit organization ElderDog. “I have arthritis and he walks with me. He sleeps in my bed and gets up with me, even when I get up through the night. He’s good company,” says the 88 year old from Eastern Passage, NS.

Mike Farafinchan and his 12-year-old silky terrier, Strad, have formed a tight relationship since ElderDog brought them together. Photo: Supplied.

The retired ex-Canadian Navy officer says that he walks the dog twice a day; once in his big yard, then later in the day with the help of his walker, they head down to the mailbox or farther to the ocean. A lifelong dog lover, Farafinchan’s most recent canine, a diabetic pug, had to be put down recently. He has lived alone since his wife died five years ago. He decided that he now wanted an older, quiet dog. “Dogs are the best company in the world. I just don’t feel right if I don’t have a dog around.”

The unique relationship older adults have with their dogs is what, in fact, helped inspire Ardra Cole to start ElderDog, which is based in Rose Bay, NS. Launched in 2012, the organization helps to find homes for senior dogs with seniors. Why the match up? In many cases, they want a dog they can be old with, she explains, or they just don’t have the mobility or energy for a puppy.

“Almost all of the dogs come from seniors who need to move into assisted living, long-term care, retirement homes or into apartments where they aren’t permitted to take a dog,” explains Cole. Often they have lost a partner or their family home as well, and now have to give up their dog. “It gives them peace of mind knowing their dog is going into a loving new home,” says Cole, who is a university professor with a background in applied educational psychology, teaching and and community development.

In addition to helping rehome older dogs, ElderDog, which will soon have chapters in eight provinces in Canada, also helps new owners care for their dogs. This can range from bring the dog to their vet appointments and taking the dog for a walk to driving the dog to their grooming appointment, says Cole. “Helping do what has to happen for a senior to keep their dog. It’s not that hard to make happen. It’s a few minutes out of the life a healthy person and can mean the world to someone who is not able to do it.”

The relationship between older adults and their dogs, in particular, is the focus of Cole’s most recent research. “We mostly hear about the physical and social benefits that dogs have for seniors, which are important, but the deep attachment and love they have for their dogs goes beyond those benefits,” she says. “The significance goes beyond getting someone out walking; It’s about understanding the relationship between then and how they make a difference in their lives.”

Social isolation is an issue for everyone, but for some living alone, dealing with the loss of a partner or spouse, and with family members not nearby, a dog is often the only companion they have, she says. “Not being able to keep your dog, the loss is akin to bereavement. The relationship is as important as that with any human.”

Teri Morrison, 54, agrees. The Toronto-based writer has long been a dog person and lost her 14-year-old chihuahua last year. Without the “love of her life” she soon started to look to adopt a rescue dog, which can be a lengthy process. In the meantime, life presented itself with some challenges. Morrison, who has been treated for anxiety and depression since she was a child, left her husband at the age of 49, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease after a lifetime of symptoms and experienced a herniated disc. After her back surgery, her doctor recommended to walk and keep active as much as possible.

“But I’m basically lazy. I will not just go for a walk,” she says. Then through the winter, she ended up dog-sitting for a friend. “And it was amazing, I needed this for me mentally and physically. I got snowshoes and we went snowshoeing every weekend there was snow.”

After a series of health challenges, Teri Morrison found comfort and inspiration from her terrier, Lucy. Photo: Supplied.

In April, Morrison was able to adopt a rescue through the organization Save Our Scruff: Lucy, a four-year-old terrier mix. “We go everywhere together,” she says, her voice lighting up with joy. “We go hiking and we have a camping trip planned this summer. I have this awesome life. This little dog reminds me to take care of myself, to be patient with her and myself and to be a confident leader because she needs that.”

Dogs aren’t the only animals that will boost your wellbeing. “A companion animal in general, having a sentient presence is all that is really important,” says Cole. But, she continues, dogs are a little different, in how they interact, are more social and have a greater demand when it comes to care. “That feeling of being needed is important, and it’s amplified with a dog, so that the quality of the relationship is different.”

7 amazing ways pets can benefit your health

  1. A dog can help you meet your weekly fitness requirements.

A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that dog owners are 34 percent more likely to walk 150 minutes a week than non-dog owners.

  1. Older adults with dogs are more physically active.

Researchers at University of Missouri found that older adults who have a strong bond with their dog exercise for longer periods and more frequently.

  1. A dog can help you live longer.

Owning a dog is linked to living longer, according to a study published in Scientific Reports. Researchers looked at dog ownership registries and found that dog owners had a lower risk of death due to cardiovascular disease compared to non-dog owners, and a lower risk of death from other causes.

  1. Growing up with a dog can benefit your microbiome.

Studies have shown that children born into households that have a dog are protected against allergic eczema, and can also protect against asthma.

  1. Having a pet can help with making friends.

A research study published in the journal PlOs One found that pets help their owners get to know people, build friendships and develop a social network.

  1. Pets can help with high blood pressure.

Pet owners with high blood pressure are better at keeping their blood pressure lower in times of stress compared to non-pet owners, according to research published in Hypertension.

  1. Petting an animal can reduce stress.

Next time stress is hitting an all-time high? Pet your rabbit (or whatever pet you have). Stroking a live animal can help relieve anxiety levels, says a study published in the journal Anxiety, Stress & Coping.