For people with disabilities, getting a dog can be a life-changing experience. In addition to company and love, caring for a dog can get you out of your own head and off the couch at times when you wouldn’t or couldn’t otherwise. Owning a dog is a great way to meet new people and a great excuse to get out in the world (we’re talking pets here, not service dogs). But that doesn’t make dog “parenting” easy, cheap, or something you should get into without fully thinking through all aspects of the choice. For disabled people, getting a dog is even more of an undertaking!
If you’ve got disabilities or chronic pain and are thinking about getting a dog, ask yourself these 6 crucial questions first:
1. Can I afford it? Dogs cost a lot of money.
Dogs are fucking expensive… and that’s if they’re healthy. (Ask me about my dog Kismet and her two hip surgeries! Or just buy me a cup of coffee, hah.) Food is expensive (ask me about my other dog Arrow and the prescription food she has to eat now because her butt got too chonky!). Toys and grooming and everything else is, you guessed it, expensive. One thing some people leave out is travel: can you afford to board a dog, or take it with you? (Boarding dogs costs more than you think it will!) Are you willing to stay home if things don’t work out? You should also consider breed restrictions in your area: even if your dog is a mutt, if they’re primarily what landlords consider to be a ‘dangerous’ breed, you may pay more in rent or even lose out on housing options.
There are definitely ways to get by on less money! This isn’t to say that no person can get a dog unless they have thousands in their pocket to share. There are free and reduced cost shots and vets. And the cost of a dog is usually spread out over a long period…
Except when it isn’t. Emergency vet visits WILL happen. Your dog might need hip surgery, like mine, or get cancer, like my friend’s dog. How much money do you have / are you willing to spend? Realistically, can you swing a surprise thousand-dollar vet bill?
2. Can I afford it: pt 2. In terms of your pain and disabilities, getting a dog can cost a lot too.
I put pain after money because, shitty as it is, the former can influence the latter. The more money you have, the worse your pain can be. That’s because it allows you to buy toys and equipment and even pay someone to walk the dogs when you’re hurting too bad.
It’s not just money, though: if you have family members or a partner, or even helpful neighbors, they serve the same purpose. They can be sort of a release valve for when things are just too bad for you to take care of anybody but yourself.
If it really is just you without support, look in the mirror and really think about whether your disabilities fit with getting a dog. Are you comfortable making a commitment to walk a dog at least every other day for the next ten+ years? Even when you feel awful? Do you have the spoons to devote to taking care of another living creature? Even on bad days?
3. Can I accept that dogs have innate personalities I can’t train out of them?
I got both my dogs as puppies and trained them the same way: the older one, Kismet, ended up smart as a whip, devious, a leader, a little bossy. She can even do a bunch of tricks! The younger one, Arrow, is dumb and sweet and wants to be everybody’s friend and is happy to be a follower. She can sit. And sometimes stay. (There is one trick I’ve been working on for her entire life that she has yet to figure out, and she’s nine now.) They’re both crate-trained and better behaved than a lot of dogs I know. But no matter what I do or how hard I try to train it out of her, Kismet is always going to bark at someone that comes to the door.
So I ask you: are you prepared to deal with behaviors that fall within the normal range of dog behavior, even if those are unwanted behaviors?
As a friend who lives in a big city and got a puppy last year put it, “Your dog has its own personality and tendencies. Bringing a puppy home doesn’t mean you’ll be able to fully ‘customize’ a dog’s personality. You cannot program the dog. You can be a friend to dog, and caretaker to dog, but the dog is his own being. And you will never be completely in control of this other sentient being, no matter how good your training is.” Can you handle that? People with disabilities should understand more than the average person that getting a dog who’s in good health now doesn’t mean things will stay that way.
Bringing a puppy home doesn’t mean you’ll be able to fully “customize” a dog’s personality. You cannot program the dog. You can be a friend to dog, and caretaker to dog, but the dog is his own being. And you will never be completely in control of this other sentient being, no matter how good your training is.
4. Can a dog fit into my life, routine and living situation?
Is there a place in your world for the dog to be? People with disabilities getting a dog should know beforehand what to expect, especially if choosing a puppy or a large breed with a lot of energy– don’t be like the couple i know from high school who got a great dane puppy in a two bedroom apartment– but it’s important for everybody to ask.
- Do you have kids or roommates?
- How often do you travel for work?
- Is there a yard, or are you prepared to stand outside with them multiple times a day while they go to the bathroom?
- How stable is your housing? What will you do if your housing situation changes unexpectedly?
- Is someone available to take care of the dog temporarily if you are hospitalized or too unwell to care for the dog? What if you die?
- If a future partner is allergic to dogs, or you have a baby, or you move and it’s hard to find an apartment that lets you have a dog, what will you do?
- Under what circumstances would you relinquish this animal? If you realize that your dog is NOT thriving in your care, would you be able able to shelve your feelings and rehome it? No matter how much you love your dog, if their needs are unable to be met, can you find it in you to give them the life they deserve?
5. Am I choosing the right breed, type, age and size dog for me, my life and my disabilities?
Breeds and individuals have enormously different requirements: there’s a dog to match just about any lifestyle and activity level, but not all owners consider this. There’s a huge difference between getting a puppy of a large, energetic, wilful breed and getting an older smallish dog. It’s important for people with disabilities getting a dog to be aware of both size and potential behavioral issues.
How are you getting your dog?
I asked a friend who runs a rescue org what new owners should ask themselves, and she replied:
If you’re getting a puppy from a rescue org, do you realize and are OK with the fact that you truly have no idea or guarantee what it will grow into? The “breed” on the card is nothing but a well-intentioned guess. One friend’s mom was told that their puppy would be 50 pounds, and it ended up over 100! On the flip side, purebred dogs are still dogs and can have characteristics you don’t want. They aren’t insurance against the wrong choice.
Have you considered an older dog?
Older dogs are actually perfect for people with disabilities: they’re already house trained, they’re already grown so you know what size you’re getting, and they’ve already gotten past the “constant zoomies, mischief and infinite energy” puppy days. Puppies are very cute. But odds are that there is an older dog sitting in a shelter near you who would be a perfect fit.
6. Am I dedicated to being a good owner?
Do you understand what a dog needs from you?
How much do you know about dog training? Are you willing to learn more? How much patience do you have? How much time do you have to devote to training and petting your pup? Ready to wake up at 5 AM with a puppy and stand outside, praying for them to poop? Prepared for them to chew on the furniture legs, tearing around the house full of energy for literally years? Everything you do with a puppy has ramifications later on. If you don’t train them well, the next ten years aren’t going to be much fun for either of you.
Speaking of… puppies turn into dogs, and dogs turn into old dogs. Are you ready for that, emotionally and financially?
Still in? Well hot Diggity Dog!
This story might give you the impression that dog ownership is hard. That’s because it is! But if you know what you’re getting into, a dog can be an incredibly helpful, rewarding aspect of your life. Through some really tough and lonely times, mine have kept me company and laughing. And taking care of them sometimes got me moving on days when otherwise I would have been on the couch. So ask yourself these questions… and then go check out a local shelter! (If you’re in central Texas, Austin Pets Alive is an amazing group. That’s where I got Kismet!)
All photos except puppy photos by Ken from KenWalksDogs. He’s great if you are in the Austin area and need a dog-walker!
Fantastic information! I have always had dogs, even before I got sick, so I never thought about some of this, especially the expense part. Pets can be very expensive! Thank you for sharing
I love this post! All the points are so valid and spot on. I too, got myself a puppy about 2 years ago and never regretted it although like you say, the bills are crazy expensive (special diet, skin problems, etc). I had read that shelties could adapt to apartment living but mine, I think, is way more stubborn and mischievous than even the average dog of his breed. That’s what I love about him, though! P.s. I think he and Kismet would make good friends, honestly! 😉
I also wrote a post about my dog before, and one thing that was left out besides the commitments is how much puppies bite! I have a blood clotting disorder so I bruise and bleed easily – so it can be dangerous. And my friend who got a pup the same time has stability issues – so also a problem. Thank goodness he’s a little less nippy for now, although he still loves to chew instinctively.
These are such great considerations people should question before getting a dog. I’ve always loved the idea of having one, I know it can benefit health too. Sadly like you said the financial pressure and time and energy commitment means at the moment getting a dog isn’t right for me. I hope that as my health improves that will change and maybe I can get one 🙂