Features January 2013 Issue

Dog Care When You’re Down

How to manage dog-care tasks while temporarily disabled.

No one likes to think about having major surgery. The thought of being temporarily disabled is scary enough, but when you factor in caring for your dog or dogs by yourself afterward, the fears multiply. Don’t worry! The following tips will help you navigate your recovery with ease while taking care of your canine companions. (The tips can easily be applied to caring for other pets as well.)

With advance preparation, you should be able to manage your dogs – and your own physical rehabilitation – with ease.

All of my suggestions are grounded in real-world experience. I was diagnosed with degenerative joint disease in both hips about three years ago. I was on a daily protocol of palliative measures until it became too much to bear the pain and restricted range of movement caused by this disease. At least I had (and needed) time to research a place for me and my two Siberian Huskies to stay before and after my surgery.

Fortunately, I have good friends who also have Siberians; they hosted my dogs for the two days I was in the hospital and then all three of us for a few more days, while I recuperated before transitioning to home. Having these details worked out way in advance allowed me to concentrate on the next vital challenge: preparing my house for our return in such a way that would take into consideration my post-surgery restrictions.

Walk On
I was lucky; I saved some equipment that my mother used following surgery she had a few years ago. I initially kept the tools because I wanted to use them with clients who were training their dogs to do hospital and nursing home visits. Little did I dream that years down the road I would be using these tools.

The first tool was a walker, which I would need (as my mom did) to move around the house after my surgery. My older dog Binks was used to seeing the walker because “Grandma” would come over with it when she baby-sat her “grand-dog.” My young girl Cricket was not used to it; she’s almost always a little wary around novel items. The saving grace is that she’s also curious.

I got the walker out and used it around the house a few times during the week before my surgery. It didn’t take that much time for her to get used to it, though if your dog is very wary or frightened of new things, I would suggest renting or buying a walker at least a couple of weeks before it is needed so that you can desensitize and counter-condition your dog to it.

Start acclimating your dog to the walker by positioning it in a highly trafficked location in your house, and placing super yummy treats near it. The next step is to touch it or lean on it while feeding high value treats to your furry friend. Allow it to creak or rattle in a natural manner, but don’t try to purposely frighten your dog with it! As long as your dog seems to accept it, increase your interaction with it until you are actually using the walker to move around the house, dropping tasty treats on the floor behind you while you walk with it. I recommend dropping them behind rather than in front of you; the last thing you need to have happen is for your dog to block your forward access and cause you to trip and fall. This is especially important if you have very small dogs.

After a few games of Hansel and Gretel (and the trail of breadcrumbs), your dog should associate the funny two-wheeled and tennis ball-covered appendage with good things. Using the walker prior to surgery will also give you the opportunity to see if any dog items such as beds and crates are in the path of your walker and will need to be moved to another location during your recuperation.

Note: If you have a ball-crazy dog, and your walker’s legs are covered with tennis balls, you may want to remove them or replace those rear walker legs with some other tip-protectors. Most drugstores sell handicap assistance accessories or you can go online to find them. Physical therapy practices can also give you a list of local medical supply stores where alternatives can be purchased.

Whatever Grabs You

Grabbing tools may appear to our dogs as an alien arm with a weird opposable thumb or a threatening weapon. But they are very useful for picking up tissues, clothes, and other personal items from floors or lightweight cooking items and supplies from shelves. I found one to be super helpful for picking up metal dog bowls from the floor, filling them with food, and then replacing them on the floor in my dogs’ eating places – especially after I strained my back and could not bend over without spasms overtaking me.

It’s very important to get used to using one of these tools a few weeks before your surgery, not only to get your furry friends used to it but also so you can develop the habit of using it. It’s so easy to forget your bending restrictions and suddenly lunge over to pick up that food bowl from the floor. If your body gets used to using this tool over a couple of weeks, it will be second nature to you by the time you have to depend on its daily use.

Poker anyone?
I’m actually talking about the wrought iron fire poker – not the card game! While the grabber is a great tool for picking up many things, it doesn’t do a great job of lifting anything heavy. I have a two-quart flat-backed water bucket outside for my dogs’ additional drinking needs. The grabber can’t lift or maneuver anything that heavy. That is when I spied the little hook extension on my fireplace poker. Voila! It worked perfectly to pick up the bucket so I could re-fill it and put it back down outside. If you don’t have a fireplace poker, an umbrella with a j-style handle will work well, as will the handle of a cane.

Yes I “Can” 

The food bowl scenario was pretty easy to resolve. Picking up my dogs’ water bowls to clean and then fill presented another challenge. Their usual water bowl was a four-quart stainless steel bowl with sloped sides. There was no way the grabber was going to pick that up so that I could clean it and refill it. One thing that could help was to substitute their other smaller straight-sided stainless steel kennel bowl for their regular one, which solved the problem.

Now, how to fill it? Enter the garden-variety (literally) watering can with narrow spout. The narrow spout is very important. This allows you to stand up fairly straight and just tip your wrist slightly so that the stream of water goes directly down into the water bowl from a height of about 3 feet. This is by far my favorite use of an ordinary household item to solve my daily dog care challenges.

Believe in the Easter Bunny

I found that Easter baskets are the perfect shape and size for carrying dog food bowls, grooming items, or supplements from one area of the house to the other. Long, narrow basket handles are perfect for holding onto while you hold onto your walker arms. Plus, you can carry multiple items at once reducing the need to make many trips from one area of the house to the other end.

Those are the major things I found to be useful when I had my first hip replacement surgery. Before I have my next one, I plan to teach Cricket how to take off compression stockings; none of the dressing tools are really helpful with that!

Other preparations
In addition to gaining experience with the tools described above, it’s invaluable to prepare your home in other ways for your brief (we hope) disability.

For example, make sure you have an adequate supply of your dogs’ kibble or canned food, and place it in a location that makes it as easy as possible to retrieve and put in their bowls. If you feed a home-made diet, make sure to prepare (and freeze) enough for several weeks, as you may be tired and not up to extensive food preparation – yours or your dogs’! I feed mostly a dry food so I made sure that the week before my surgery I stocked up with a large enough bag to last a few weeks post-surgery. I also stocked up on treats, as well as my food and sundry items.

You may also want to have your dogs groomed before your big event; you will be in no position to do this for some time afterward.

I have medium-sized dogs so I don’t need to pick them up for any reason, but if you have tiny dogs, training them to jump up on a chair or sofa so that you can reach them without bending over can be very helpful.

Author and trainer Nannette Morgan is shown pre-surgery with her two Siberian Huskies, 6-year-old Cricket (left) and 14-year-old Binks. All three have made it through Nannette’s first hip replacement surgery with flying colors.

Another thing to consider before your surgery is your dog’s response to common cues and his behavior in general. If he is rusty in responding to your cues to sit, leave it, or down, practice now so that he is up to speed well before your disability; this will pay off in spades for your recovery and his ease to acclimating to the temporary disruption of your normal life. If you don’t have the time for this or it’s beyond your capabilities, enlist the help of a good positive reinforcement-based trainer to help you polish your dog’s rough behavioral edges.

Getting help
If you have very small, senior, or couch-potato dogs, they may be perfectly happy to keep you company in your newly less-active life. But if your dogs are young and/or highly active, they may be unable to adjust to a suddenly sedentary schedule. Do all of you a favor and find, interview, and get your dogs accustomed to going out with a professional dog walker or enlist the help of trusted dog-savvy friends to help out. Do this far enough in advance of your surgery so you have time to find another person if the first one doesn’t work out! And then schedule the person for as many walks as your dogs will need in order to reliably stay calm at home.

If you are unable to allow your dog to potty outside in your fenced yard, your new dog-walker or trusted friends may be able to help by taking your dog out to potty and then cleaning up after her.

Stress reduction
Doing all of the pre-op preparations above helped to de-stress me before my surgery. I’m very much an independent type of person, so having to rely on others was difficult for me.

The only thing that I needed to have help with was someone to walk my dogs. As soon as I was able, I started picking up after my dogs in the yard, using the long-handled pooper scooper set I started using after my back strain. And soon enough, because I hadn’t hurt myself by overdoing household and dog-care tasks, I recovered – and improved on! – my previous mobility. It was a relief to be self-sufficient again.

Nannette Morgan, CPDT-KA, ACDBC, offers private training and behavior consultations in Santa Clara County, California, with her Pawsitive Pals Dog Training (pawsitivepals.net). She credits her furry family, Dr. Binks and Nurse Cricket, for helping with her recovery.

Comments (17)

Before surgery I trained my 4lb 13 year old Chihuahua to climb into a large soft sided 2 handled purse. I attached a rope to the handles I could pick up with
a grabber and tranfer to my hands. It's the safest way to pick up a small dog without bending or squatting . It provides complete body support for the dog.

Posted by: Kujosweet | March 7, 2018 6:08 PM    Report this comment

I really enjoyed this article. And I hope you're feeling better soon! I myself have a progressive neuromuscular condition, something like MS but not MS, and so over the years I have gone through all the stages from cane to walker to small wheelchair to power wheelchair. We use many of the same methods that you list.

I wanted to add two more suggestions, one that can be implemented immediately and one that will require some plan ahead training.

First, as far as planning ahead, training your dog to bring you their food bowl is a huge help in many situations. Because this is an everyday requirement for us, we've ended up using soft silicone dog bowls which are easy for the dog to pick up and carry and wash nicely in the dishwasher. If you have metal dog bowls, you can add on a Velcro carry tab. These are only for the dogs to carry when empty, but can still be a great help. Similarly, every dog can be trained to bring you their leash, another big help with the added bonus that dogs trained in this skill tend to be less likely to just go bananas as soon as the leash comes out, making them physically easier to manage when you do want to put the leash on.

(if you have a new permanent disability or are facing a long term convalescence, you may even want to train the dog in the classic "get dressed" service dog behavior where the dog helps you in putting on her harness by first putting her head through the loop, and then presents first one side and then the other to make it easy to hook up both the harness and the leash.)

Second, something you can do immediately if you find yourself unexpectedly ill or injured. When you yourself are under the weather, I strongly recommend keeping a written log of when you have fed the dog and given them their medication if they take any. It's a small thing, but it can really help.

You can do this on paper, on a checklist kept on the refrigerator, on a magnet board, or as reminders on your phone. Whatever works for your household.

That way when you take an afternoon nap or just feel a bit foggy you'll know in the evening whether you already fed the dog or not.

Also, At our house we keep the checklist on the refrigerator so that if I happen to be sleeping and my son goes ahead and feeds the dog, I'll know. Because, let's face it, many dogs are going to absolutely swear that they have not been fed for days, so they're no help in this regard. 😉🐶

One other trick with a similar goal is that every morning I count out the dog's treats for the day, which includes 20% of his kibble ration, and put them in a separate container. That way I don't have to try to remember what he's gotten throughout the day, and we have had no problems with his weight management during my illness.

I have other friends who have had acquired disabilities and found that in the first year the dog kept getting fatter and fatter because they couldn't quite remember what treats they had given each day, and because there is a tendency to try to make up for not being able to play with the dog physically by giving them a few treats. Which the dogs figure out really quickly!

So making it easy on yourself to track treat consumption just helps maintain your dog's health, particularly if he may be a little less physically active than when you're feeling better. It's also a really good time to introduce treat dispensing puzzle games as this gives the dog something to do while you're sitting on the couch and helps stretch out the time between treats.

So these days when I have a friend with the dog and the friend is temporarily incapacitated, one of my favorite convalescence gifts is a puzzle toy for the dog.

Again, great article. Thank you so much for sharing it.

Posted by: Robin J. | September 24, 2017 3:43 PM    Report this comment

Another option for owners who can't lift heavy bowls full of water:
I keep a non-breakable bowl in the tub underneath the tub's water spout. My dog jumps into the tub when he wants water. It's easy to fill the bowl by simply turning on the water. It's easy to empty the bowl by just tipping it down the drain. And it's easy to clean (I fill it with soapy water when I take my shower and use a brush to scrub it out while my conditioner soaks into my hair).
I actually leave the scrub brush underneath the bowl to keep the bowl at a slight angle so that air gets underneath it to keep the bottom dry.
Super easy. And I don't have to constantly wipe down the floor under the water bowl.

Posted by: EMH473 | September 17, 2017 3:20 PM    Report this comment

As the owner of two young, active Portuguese Water Dogs, figuring out a way to provide daily exercise was at the top of my list. If you invest time in training them to retrieve frisbees oror other toys reliably before you are laid up, it is possible to burn off lots of excess dog energy easily. The result is cuddly companions rather than zombies bouncing off the walls.

Posted by: Alice P | September 17, 2017 11:42 AM    Report this comment

This was right on time! I have a chronic neurological disease that's very unpredictable. Usually, when I'm unable to take our (still very lively at age 8) Irish setter on her daily 1-2 hr. walk, my husband subs for me. But this week he's recovering from a toe injury, so I've got no backup. (We used to have walkers take her out for an afternoon session with a dog group, in addition to her morning long walk. But the service we were using became extremely unreliable--showing up 2-3 hours late or not at all--and I've had no luck finding another in our area.) This post is a reminder that where there's a will there's always a way... Thanks!

Posted by: califgrl | September 14, 2017 10:02 PM    Report this comment

I love WDJ, especially since Nancy Kerns is in my neck of the woods, and we are both addicted to off leash wilding with the pooches. Altho only 63, I have had the misfortune to be laid up for a few months twice "non weight bearing". My left ankle was shattered, requiring pins and a plate, and 2 years later the right ankle that I had shattered 30 years ago required a replacement (utter hell of a recovery) but fantastisic results. So now I can hike with the dogs again. Since I have 4 high energy dogs, it was a challenge (not to mention the horses, ducks, cats, and chickens). My very kind neighbors took care of the livestock). I very briefly boarded the dogs, but then exercised the dogs with my car. Not difficult when the left leg was out of commission but real tricky when the cast was on the right. Noted that I live in a very rural area, and would wait to do this at 2-4am. Cars can't see one's dogs, and while some 30% give the thumbs up signal, 70% race by as if they are late to work! So don't think of doing this if you live in a congested area, or aren't willing to do it in the dead of night. Also, dogs have no conception of rolling wheels, so keep their leash short, and use a harness, not a collar, so if you have multiple dogs, no one will injure their esophagus. I thought that I invented this, but my vet told me that hunters do this to condition their dogs for hunting season! And the dogs need to be on the driver's side, for visability. If their speed/age differs you can split up the pack. NEVER go faster than the want to-gauge you speed to them.

Posted by: abbeyrhode | September 14, 2017 4:09 PM    Report this comment

Very good post. As someone who has had 5 joint replacement surgeries, I can attest to the wisdom of acquiring and practicing with assistive devices in advance of any planned surgery, and engaging with an Occupational Therapist for ideas appropriate for your specific post-op needs. As a follow-up to this post, I would like to see WDJ keep the needs of readers with temporary or chronic mobility/ability issues in mind in articles on training strategies. Perhaps I have missed the articles that do so, but many have been the times I've read an article and thought "wish I could still do something like that with my dogs." The best professional trainers should be able to suggest alternative strategies to achieve similar ends.

Posted by: JMT1414 | September 14, 2017 2:43 PM    Report this comment

Great post. I am still recovering from foot surgery and with 7 animals it has been a challenge. The grabber has been a great help. I use a knee walker, and the basket made a large difference. Everyone has gained weight while I've been limited (5 months now) but overall they get used to the new way things are done. Pockets and baskets and aprons are all good ideas. Thanks - Lorian of dogdaz.com

Posted by: DogDaz Zoo | September 14, 2017 2:13 PM    Report this comment

Could you let me know the brand of the grabbing tool you show? Some of them can grip properly, or they just can't handle anything more than a soft drink can!

Posted by: LoveGSDs | September 14, 2017 12:21 PM    Report this comment

I have been there 3 times with 3 Great Danes. It does take a lot of preparation and making sure that you have the right tools on hand to take care of your self and your dogs. My Great Danes water bowl was the biggest stainless steel bowl I could find. It is very very big! I had it up stairs in the wash room to keep it off the wooden floors downstairs which did not create a problem for them at all. But when it came to my surgeries it did create a problem for me. The size of the bowl and going up and down stairs. I only had use of one arm. I would dump this bowl into a bucket and take the water down in the bucket. Then retrieve the water bowl to wash it and take it back up to the wash room. I would fill it with my large water can. Feeding I took one bowl at a time in stead of the three bowls that I use to do. They adapted very well to my disability and knew I could not work at a faster pace. Dogs are so smart and know when to be gentle with you and how to tip toe around you. I never worried about having my surgeries knowing that staying calm and knowing my dogs will adapt as easy as I do.

Posted by: Peanut33 | September 14, 2017 12:18 PM    Report this comment

One thing I didn't see addressed in your article. I had to have knee revision surgery that resulted in limited mobility. I spent most of my day in a recliner or on my bed for over three months. I was fostering a female doberman at the time and she kept me company. BUT since I was incapacitated, she also became very protective of me and did not want strangers coming near me. This made it challenging as she had to be confined when the different medical personnel came for home visits. Please be aware that an otherwise friendly dog can become protective in these kinds of circumstances.

Posted by: Holly M | September 14, 2017 11:30 AM    Report this comment

Love the tool apron idea! I'm facing back surgery in the near future and hopefully won't have to use these great ideas for too long ... so glad people.shared!

Posted by: 1jannyw | September 14, 2017 11:16 AM    Report this comment

A long handled dustpan would be helpful to set your dogs bowl on if you can't bend to pick it up.

Posted by: BettyG | September 9, 2015 5:37 PM    Report this comment

I trained my Doberman to retrieve all the dogs empty food bowls, saves my arthritic joints and was esp helpful when I broke my foot. He brings them to the sink to wash.

Posted by: Rod | July 25, 2014 11:25 PM    Report this comment

Occupational Therapists are also a great resource for problem solving pet care during recovery from an accident or illness. If you are being seen by an OT and they didn't think to ask about pet care-please bring it up--pet and child care is in our scope of practice. I am an OT and would like to add that some people will also modify their dog dishes if they are unable to reach down to them (duct tape a pvc pipe or broom handle to the dish) for easy pick-up if the bowl is not empty (similar items sold online). Some people are able to sit in a chair beside the dish and lean to their good side (according to the surgeon's restrictions) to pick it up as well.

Posted by: waydinyan | September 2, 2013 2:00 PM    Report this comment

Wow... this is almost word for word what I did before, during and after my hip replacement surgery. I live alone, have 2 Corgi's and friends stepped up ... dogs were only with them 3 days and then we were all back home together. Had some help with the walking for a week (3X a day) and then we were ready to be on our own. Used many of the helpful hints here... covered it well... it can be done!

Posted by: Nancy D | May 5, 2013 12:27 PM    Report this comment

Attach one of those tool "aprons" from the local hardware store to the front of your walker... they have lots of nifty pockets for holding things - books, pens, dog treats, etc

Posted by: McGuires_Mom | May 5, 2013 12:02 PM    Report this comment

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