Ready for a four-legged companion?

As you might imagine, my job as a private patient advocate is pretty stressful, and the days can be long. When I come home, though, my two Cavalier King Charles spaniels are waiting for me. Their happy faces and affectionate natures immediately make me feel calmer and happier.

They are not service dogs — though this breed is often trained to assist people with disabilities and even perform search-and-rescue work. Rather, they are my companions and, though they aren't specifically trained for it, they provide me with emotional support.

A companion animal might be a good choice for a senior or disabled person who needs company — someone to talk to, someone to play with, someone to take care of. If you or a loved one have a physical, emotional or mental disability, a service dog can improve quality of life.

But there are a lot of considerations before you make this choice. Here are some questions to think about, with the help of Kate Dalman with Herzog German Shepherds in Crystal Lake.

Service or companion?

A service dog must be individually trained to perform work or tasks directly related to the handler's disability, while a therapy and emotional support dog merely provides comfort and coping assistance to an individual in some fashion. Service dogs, for example, help veterans with PTSD, and some are trained to assist people with vision and hearing disabilities.

Companion animals are not individually trained. Instead, the principal service they provide is simply companionship, meaning they may be indistinguishable from the family pet.

What size dog is best?

In general, big breeds are not recommended as companions for seniors because they are more expensive when it comes to food, grooming and health care. Also, it's hard to snuggle them in your lap. When they originated in the 17th century, smaller Cavalier King Charles spaniels were generally lap dogs for the ladies at court, and they're certainly my lap dogs!

Big breeds need a lot of exercise and, obviously, they take up a lot of space. So if the dog will be a companion for someone in an apartment or condo, think small. A small dog will work just as well as a big one when it comes to alerting you to danger or anxiety issues.

What breed of dog is best?

Breed is less important than temperament, says Dalman.

“When looking for a pup who's able to meet the standards of a service dog, it's important to find a dog with a medium energy level and good focus,” she says. “The pup shouldn't react negatively to new surroundings and stimuli, and it's best if he or she is motivated by food or toys.”

A therapy dog should be less excitable. “The dog best suited to this type of work is one with a calm demeanor who's motivated more by physical affection rather than food or toys,” Dalman says. “Dogs like this tend to become more in tune with the emotional needs of the person or people they're working with.”

Shepherds are well suited to being service dogs, Dalman says, due to their work-mindedness, loyalty, protective instincts, intelligence, strength and approachability. She cautions that they must be bred to service work because shepherds that were bred for police or military work wouldn't be as good a fit.

Puppy or adult dog?

Puppies are a lot of work for anyone, let alone seniors. They have a lot of energy and can be destructive. For companionship, an adult dog — maybe even a rescue — might be the best choice.

Dogs specifically trained for service or support start their training at around 6 months of age, when they're past the puppy stage. There are for-profit and nonprofit organizations that train and then match service dogs with handlers, or you can work with a reputable breeder who will know both the pup's parents, Dalman says.

“It's so important to first choose parents that both possess the qualities we're looking with regard to a particular assignment,” she says. “From there, we look at how previous litters have turned out, as that will give us a good idea what to expect in the current litter. Only then do we look at the individual pup's temperament and create a good match for the new owner.”

Will someone help with a dog?

Most dogs need daily or weekly brushing, occasional baths, nail trims and such. Is someone available help get to vet appointments and assist with grooming? If not, check with one of the therapy dog organizations in the Chicago area to see if you can arrange a home visit with a therapy dog from time to time — companionship without all the work.

I hope your canine companion will bring you as much joy as mine bring me.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.

A companion animal might be a good choice for a senior who desires company. Stock Photo
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