Helping older dog owners avoid injury

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San Diego offers the perfect climate for dog ownership. With beautiful beaches, parks, trails and dog-friendly stores and restaurants, dog owners can take their furry companions just about anywhere. It’s one of the closest and healthiest bonds around, and can be especially beneficial for seniors who may be retired, living alone or simply working to stay healthy by getting outdoors and staying active.

However, it’s not an activity without risk. A recent study by University of Pennsylvania researchers, published in JAMA Surgery, found that from 2004 to 2017, 32,000 cases of fall-related fractures were linked to walking leashed dogs — a 163% increase, of which the majority were women.

As older adults recognize the benefits of exercise and are living longer, pet ownership has increased.

So what actions can senior dog owners take to keep themselves safe?

Kristin Schulz, a physical therapist certified in geriatric physical therapy, leads a Fall Prevention class through Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s Senior Resource Center. The class helps her patients focus on moves and strengthening exercises that can improve their walking experience and lower their risk of injury.

“Walking is the single best exercise for most people, and dogs typically make it more enjoyable and encourage us to be active overall,” said Schulz. “Falls or injuries can happen with or without a pet, but the good news is that many can be prevented. They may be more common as we age but they are not a ‘normal’ part of aging.”

The Fall Prevention program is an excellent resource to learn about common risk factors associated with falls and strategies to modify them.

“We take the entire class through a balance screening, which can help them identify specific areas where they can improve,” said Schulz.

One example is a test that requires participants to bend down and pick up something from the floor without losing their balance.

“As a dog owner myself, every day I am picking up toys, feeding them, and picking up after the dog while out on our walks.”

The Senior Resource Center encourages people to improve their strength and balance — rather than discourage exercise or even dog ownership. For strengthening exercises, Schulz said squats, lunges and standing heel raises are the most effective.

To improve balance, she recommends standing on one leg using support until you can do 5-10 seconds and up to 30 seconds, without it.

“We need to be able to safely stand on one leg to take a step with the other without wobbling,” she said. “With any of these moves, if you are new to exercise, make sure you begin by using support and work your way up slowly until you don’t need support.”

In addition to improving strength and balance, here are some helpful tips to make your walks safer and more enjoyable:

Wear shoes that are secure (no flip-flops), and have a low heel. Be cautious of running shoes that have rubber on the front toe, which can grip and trip on some surfaces.

Use a walking stick for safety if you feel your balance needs work.

If you tire easily, plan a route where you and your pooch can take a break in the shade and have a place to sit.

If your dog is fearful in some situations, be prepared by holding the leash with both hands and keeping your feet apart for better stability.

If you have a yard, let your dog run around a bit before the walk to burn off some extra energy. This will also help calm them if they tend to pull on the lead.

Look into special leashes and collars that can help prevent your dog from pulling.

If you’re just now thinking of becoming a dog owner, educate yourself on which breeds and mixes are calmer and which need more exercise. Also, consider older dogs that have outgrown their rambunctious years.

Consider a dog trainer or class to help with leash training and commands.

“My best advice is to know yourself and know your dog,” said Schulz. “Dogs encourage us to be more active overall, and working to improve your overall strength and health will help you both enjoy your walks together.”

This article features experts from Sharp Grossmont Hospital. For more health stories visit