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Posted June 10, 2008

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Caregiver Care: When a Pet Becomes Caregiving Nuisance

Q. My 79-mother broke her left hip and hand six weeks ago. She has emphysema. She is cognitively fit and currently in a skilled nursing facility and hoping to return home.  One year before this fall she fell and broke her right hand. Over the last year she has progressively been losing her balance and falls often. The wind blew her down not long ago.

My problem is her dog. An 8-year-old Yorkie, who is not house-broken, bites and has some medical problems that are manageable but are progressive. I'm taking care of the dog but he is a burden and I do not want to keep him.

Before this accident my mother was not able to adequately care for her beloved pet. He isn't all bad, but not being house broken is a huge problem. And, he sometimes bites my mother (and others), which is a concern because her skin is thin and gets infected easily.

It will be sometime IF my mother is able to return to independent living. I don't see how she can manage this dog even if she does return. She has told me I can have him put to sleep as it will be difficult to find an adoptive home. But I know she doesn't want me to and will be heart broken.

I don't need the problem of this dog on top of my mother. Advice please? Mikki C., Stillwater, Oklahoma.

A. It must be frustrating for you to have to tend to an untrained dog while trying to give your full attention to your mother and her care.  Although the dog is one more problem on top of the many you are juggling, it's also clear that you don't want to do something that will cause your mother sorrow.  And, you're right to be concerned because studies have shown that for the elderly, pets are not just companions, they are a source of the person's sense of security and identity.
 
Having said that, a dog who is not house-trained and who bites is a problem that must be dealt with. If you are willing to try a few things to prevent that sorrow, I have some suggestions.  Call a veterinarian and ask if he or she can suggest a local dog trainer or provide you with some ideas to help you with managing the dog - although it might be tough, given the dog's age. Let the vet know that the dog sometimes bites and ask if there are ways that you can prevent this behavior.  In addition, call your local humane society.  They should be able to refer you to a trainer as well as give you tips on dealing with the dog or training it yourself.
 
Assuming this is not just an incorrigibly bad dog, it should be possible to eliminate his bad habits through training, making him easier for you to live with and for your mother to manage if and when she comes home.  If not, then do what you have to do, but you'll have the comfort of knowing that you exhausted your other options first.

This answer is provided by Melissa A. Goodwin, with years of experience working with volunteer caregiving programs that help seniors and family caregivers. Goodwin lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and can be reached at meesarj@msn.com.

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