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6 tips for a safer walk with Spot

Health
Seniors walking dog on beach.

See Spot run.
See Spot pull his owner down.
See Spot’s owner in the emergency department with an injury.
This scenario is playing out more frequently as active older adults spend more time outdoors with their dogs. In fact, recent research has highlighted a rise in fractures associated with dog walking among those who are age 65 and older. On the other hand, many seniors are reaping the benefits of daily physical activity from walking their dogs.
So is dog walking good for seniors? Or is it dangerous? The answer is complicated. Dog walking is an activity that can be very beneficial to older adults. However, it also requires caution, says Dargan Ervin, senior physical therapist with Tidelands Health Rehabilitation Services at North Myrtle Beach.

The upside

First, the benefits.
Dog walking has a number of advantages for seniors, including daily exercise, fresh air, increased vitamin D from sun exposure and increased opportunities for social interaction with neighbors and other walkers. Pets, in general, can be beneficial to older adults because they offer companionship and a sense of purpose and routine.
Ervin says he’s seen the benefits of pet ownership—and dog walking, in particular—among his own patients. He has also observed the impact on patients of losing a pet.
“I had a patient that came in complaining of back pain and just not getting around well,” he says. “When I interviewed her family, I found that the change in her physical condition could be traced back to the death of her little dog that she’d had for so many years. Suddenly, she wasn’t going out three times a day walking him. Pretty soon she was having musculoskeletal issues from the lack of exercise.”

The risks

While many seniors can benefit from the daily exercise of dog walking, they should be aware of the potential risks, too. In addition to general precautions related to walking outdoors such as avoiding overexposure to heat and cold, being aware of surroundings and avoiding high-traffic roads, some older adults should be extra cautious of falls when walking their dog.
The recent study on dog walking, which was published in “JAMA Surgery,” found that walking canines can increase the risk of fractures in older adults. Researchers found that from 2004 to 2017 the annual number of emergency department visits among people age 65 and older for fractures that occurred while walking a dog increased from 1,671 in 2004 to 4,396 in 2017. In total, researched identified more than more than 32,000 such emergency department visits over that period.

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Ervin sees that side of the coin, too.
“Through the years I’ve had patients who were walking an excitable dog that saw another dog or small animal and took off,” he says. “When the person isn’t ready for it, they can be pulled down.”
In fact, Ervin says, people don’t even have to be walking their dog on a leash to be at risk.
“A patient of mine had been at the dog park where he was actually knocked over by another dog,” he says. “Now he’s being treated for a shoulder problem from the fall.”

Tips

Ervin recommends the following tips for seniors who are dog owners:

  1. If you are uncomfortable with your ability to safely walk your dog, see if a friend, family member or neighbor can walk your dog for you. Just remember that regular physical activity is still essential to your well-being. Therefore, you may want to walk along with the person who is walking your dog—or take your own separate walk each day.
  2. When you’re walking your dog, use a cane or walking stick in your other hand for extra stability.
  3. Take an exercise class focused on fall prevention or one that will improve your balance and physical conditioning. Classes like these are frequently available to seniors throughout the community.
  4. Be aware of your terrain and walk on flat surfaces. Avoid uneven ground and areas that are near street traffic.
  5. Make sure you’re wearing supportive shoes. It’s much easier to trip and fall when you’re wearing flip-flops than when you’re wearing properly fitted sneakers.
  6. Train your dog not to lunge and to be well-behaved on a leash. It may be beneficial to invest in a dog training class, if you’re able.

“It’s important to do an honest self-evaluation of your balance and determine whether dog walking is good for you,” Ervin says. “If you’re able to and properly conditioned, it can be a beneficial thing. But if not, it can be a dangerous thing. Talk to your doctor or see a physical therapist if you’re unsure.”

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