6 Qs People W/Disabilities Should Ask Before Getting a Dog

Silhouette of a person in a wheelchair about to give a treat to a dog jumping up, another dog beside him. Text reads "6 CRUCIAL QUESTIONS People with Disabilities should ponder before getting a dog, janetjay.com"

This post was also published in The Mighty in March 2023.

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.

Two smallish terrier mutts, one brown wearing a sweater, one black and white, sit in front of the "i love you so much" wall in South Austin
Pretty cute, huh? But they took this trip without me. I was in too much pain and paid someone to walk them.

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: part 2. Getting a dog can cost a lot in terms of pain and spoons, 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 , or 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?

Kismet has been chasing tail since day 1

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 slow and sweet. She 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.

A black and white spotted dog named Kismet stands in high grass and smiles up at the camera
Kismet grinnin’ in the grass, pic by Janet Jay

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?

Two smallish terrier mutts, one brown and one black & white, in front of Lady Bird Lake and the Austin skyline behind them
Dogs are a great excuse to get out in the world! This is at Lady Bird Lake here in Austin.

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:

New owners should ask: ‘Am I obtaining a dog ethically? Does this purchase or adoption align with my values? Am I educated on issues around dog welfare in my community? Is this dog already spayed/neutered, and do I have a plan to do that?’ 

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. 

Divided into quarters: top left is very small black adn white puppy, reading "KISMET," below it a pic of the same dog as an adult facing the camera. Top right is very small brown puppy, reading "ARROW," and the same dog as an adult below, facing the camera. janetjay.com at bottom
Look how much these guys changed from what they looked like when I first got each of them!

5.5 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?

Two dogs, one brown wearing an argyle sweater and one black and white, standing on a rock in front of a creek

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, no matter how little you managed to sleep the night before, 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? 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!)

6 crucial questions people with disabilities should ponder before getting a dog, janetjay.com" on a background of a silhouetted person in a wheelchair giving a treat to a jumping dog

Unless otherwise noted, these are photos by Ken from KenWalksDogs. He’s great if you are in the Austin area and need a dog-walkertell him I sent you!

 


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One response to “6 Qs People W/Disabilities Should Ask Before Getting a Dog”

  1. Myah Coraline Kidd Avatar

    Your words have a way of touching hearts and inspiring minds Thank you for using your platform to spread love and positivity

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Hopefully this site will help you avoid some of the BS I’ve experienced over the last 20 years seeking treatment for my chronic pain, invisible illnesses & mental health challenges. Maybe it’ll even help you think about disability in a new way! But at the very least, I hope you learn something, and I hope it helps you feel less alone.

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