Sue Bohlmann always loved big dogs. Golden retrievers, especially. Then she and her husband added a Bernese mountain dog to the mix.
“Big dogs have such a presence,” she said. “They like you to bury your head in their big chests or ram their big bodies into you. They’re just so comforting.”
But when their 4-year-old Bernese died suddenly and they had to put down their aging golden shortly thereafter, Bohlmann, 69, took a serious look at downsizing her dogs. “I wanted to make sure I was diligent in my choice, because I would be moving into my 70s with whatever breed we chose,” she said.
She and her husband, Pete, now share their Minnetonka, Minn., home with a couple of tiny tail-waggers: an energetic and agile 11-pound Havanese named Mateo and a 6-pound papillon-Maltese mix named Gretel, whose good looks make up for her lack of smarts, Bohlmann joked.
More than half of U.S. households own a dog that weighs less than 25 pounds, according to the marketing research firm Packaged Facts. The trend toward pint-size pooches has been documented since 2000, but has accelerated in recent years in part because of an aging population of baby boomers such as Bohlmann.
As these dog lovers head into their golden years, the notion of scaling down becomes more pressing. Bodies are aging, strength is waning and occasionally we are less sturdy on our feet.
“If you’re concerned about falling, having a big, boisterous puppy in your household could be challenging,” said Cindy Johnson of the Minnesota Animal Humane Society.
In addition, many senior high-rises and assisted-living communities have size restrictions, which make it difficult to bring larger breeds with you if you need – or want – to move.
And if you’re planning to do some traveling, small dogs are more likely to be accepted at hotels, fit better in a cramped RV and can easily be tucked beneath an airplane seat.
“They’re so portable,” said Bohlmann, who took both small dogs with her to Costa Rica one winter.
Another plus? Small dogs eat less, making them more affordable for retirees and people on fixed incomes.
Gauging energy levels
Depending on the breed, more petite dogs also may be less demanding, when it comes to things walking.
“One of the big concerns seniors have is being able to walk with their dogs,” said Carol Martin, owner of Tails of 2 Cities, a pet-sitting and dog-walking company. “It’s healthy for everyone to get outside, but the smaller ones are fine in the backyard, just chasing squirrels.”
But a dog’s energy levels and temperament can be just as important as size.
If you have young grandchildren who visit often, an easygoing Lab or retriever mix might be a better fit than a high-strung Jack Russell terrier that might not like having its tail tugged.
Grooming needs also might be a consideration. A short-haired dog won’t have to get to the groomer every six weeks like a poodle. Other small breeds, such as Lhasa apsos and spaniels, need frequent brushing to keep their coats from matting.
Age – of the dog, not just the owners – also plays a role.
Rescue groups and animal shelters encourage older dog lovers to consider adopting an adult dog, or even a white-muzzled senior. Adult dogs have outgrown their rambunctious puppy stage, and there are fewer surprises when it comes to their health and personalities.
“Many of us remember what it was like to get our first dog in our 20s or 30s when we first set out on our own,” said Johnson of the Humane Society.
“You get 55 or older, you might say, ‘No, thank you. I want a nice adult dog, easygoing, where I don’t have to worry about training and destroying the house.’?”
Older dogs can be a better fit “energy-wise,” said Jean Beuning, who runs Top Dog Country Club in New Germany, Minn., and is raising money to build a nonprofit sanctuary for senior dogs.
“Older dogs aren’t going to be bouncing off the walls if someone’s in a walker,” she said, or underfoot as a tripping hazard.
Plan for the future
No matter what breed an aging dog lover settles on, it’s important to consider the dog’s future, too.
“I know people who’ve set aside money in their will to care for their dogs,” Martin said. “At least you have a better chance of having someone help out if you go first.”
As for Bohlmann, she has no regrets about downsizing. She ended up needing neck surgery that would have made walking and caring for a big dog more difficult.
“A companion is a companion,” she said, “no matter what size.”