The old rule of thumb for calculating a pet’s age in “human years” is simple: Just multiply by 7. By that common guideline, a 3-year-old cat is a young adult, equivalent to a human 21-year-old. And a 10-year-old dog is akin to a human retiree.
Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t quite paint the full picture of how pets age.
In fact, a dog’s aging process is accelerated during the first few years of maturation and then slows down after that. After one year, a dog is actually considered to be 15 in human years.
Further, the specific breed of dog plays a factor in lifespan. Smaller dogs tend to live longer than medium-size dogs, who in turn live longer than large dogs.
“Although smaller dogs tend to live longer than larger dogs, they may mature more quickly in the first few years of life,” says the Lawrence Vet Hospital in Lawrence, Kan. “A large dog may mature more slowly at first but already be considered elderly at age 5. Small and toy breeds don’t become ‘seniors’ until around age 10. Medium-size breeds are somewhere in the middle in terms of maturation and lifespan.”
This Pet Health Network chart, courtesy of Fred L. Metzger, DVM, DABVP, offers a handy guide.
(Chart courtesy of Fred L. Metzger, DVM, DABVP)
The Pedigree website provides an automatic dog age calculator for those who don’t want to bother with the chart. Simply select your dog’s age and breed from the drop-down menu and the site will give you your dog’s age in “human years.” Of course, these charts and calculators are just guidelines. Owners should ask their vet about their pets’ specific aging issues.
What about our feline friends? Like dogs, cats mature more quickly during the first couple of years and reach adulthood relatively soon, but then age at a slower rate as time goes on.
By its second birthday, a cat has matured to about the same point as a human in his or her mid-20s. But from then on, you can add four “cat” years for each subsequent human year.
On average, Siamese and Manx breeds are said to live the longest, according to Purina. Some rare felines live past the age of 30 — which is pushing 150 in human years.
P. Elizabeth Anderson once had a daughter named Grace. Like any parents would, she and her husband cared for her, nurtured her and tried to keep her out of trouble. They took her on vacations and enjoyed her company around the house. “She was my constant companion,” says Anderson, a journalist in the District of Columbia.
So when Grace died unexpectedly at age 14, the couple was crushed. But because Grace was a dog, “I was unable to talk to anyone about this immense grief,” says Anderson, who wrote the book “The Powerful Bond between People and Pets: Our Boundless Connections to Companion Animals.”
The depth of Anderson’s devastation surprised her, but it’s common to feel that way after the loss of a dog, says Lori Kogan, associate professor of clinical sciences at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Some people feel so sad, in fact, that they wonder if the death of a human companion would have been easier. “People feel guilty because they feel worse when their dog dies than if a family member dies,” Kogan says. “And then they think they’re a bad person.”
But in reality, it’s normal. “There’s a reason you feel that way,” she says. One of them? Unlike the mixed feelings we have toward each other — and that arise after a person’s death — “our relationship with dogs is so uncomplicated,” Kogan says. Some might call it true love.
Research suggests the connection many humans feel with their canine companions is a lot like love. In one recent study in the journal Science, for instance, researchers found the same hormone associated with maternal love and passionate love, oxytocin, increases in both pups and their owners when the two species do no more than lock eyes. The same can’t be said for humans and wolves, the researchers found. The results suggest “a coevolution between human and dogs,” says lead study author Takefumi Kikusui, a professor in the Department of Animal Science and Biotechnology at Azabu University in Japan. That’s part of the reason why, he says, “it is very natural to form a bond between dogs and humans.”
Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus in the University of British Columbia’s department of psychology says dogs are a man’s best friend because we’ve domesticated them to be that way.
“We invented the dog and we invented it to fit in a certain niche in our lives,” says Coren, who’s written a series of popular books on pooches. “And so for at least 14,000 years, we have been … creating an animal which understands our communications and we understand its communications and they have a bond with us.” For example, if a person points to something in a distance, a dog will look in the direction of the finger, just like a human. But if the dog was a wolf? It would simply look at the finger, Coren says. “We’ve sort of wired the dog to read our communications,” he says.
For Anderson, who’s now a mother to a Maltese and a Yorkie, dogs can be more lovable than humans because “they absolutely go out of their way to please us,” she says. “They want to do whatever we want to do, their love is absolutely unconditional, they’re affectionate to a fault — all the kinds of things that humans enjoy in a relationship are the kinds of things dogs excel at.”
Over 54 million U.S. households own more than 77 million dogs, according to the American Pet Products Association. And those pups are pampered: Dog moms and dads spend $83 on grooming, $47 on toys and $330 on food and treats for their furry children each year, according to the association’s most recent survey of pet owners. “We have completely embedded pets into human culture,” Anderson says. “We give our dogs human names, dress them up for holidays, give them gifts, take them to church and grieve deeply when they die.”
Is that healthy? By most accounts, yes. Studies have shown, for instance, that simply petting “a familiar and friendly” dog can lower your heart rate, make your breathing more regular and relax your muscles, Coren says. In one unpublished study, people had significantly lower blood pressure just two months after adopting dogs when compared to pet-parents-to-be who were still waiting for their puppies, reports the American Heart Association. The organization concludes that owning a dog “may have some causal role” in reducing heart disease risk.
Recent research has emphasized how dogs can reduce stress and boost mental health. A 2012 study in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management of a 550-employee company found that workers’ stress levels declined over the course of the day if they brought their dogs to work. The opposite was true for dogless employees and those who left Rover at home.
“We know that stress and all those nasty things do bad things for our health” such as weakening our immune system and putting our hearts at risk for cardiovascular problems, Coren says. One answer could be right under our snouts. “Dogs that act like instant Prozac.”
Can you love your dog too much?
It’s feasible your attachment to your furry friend could go too far. “Just as you can have unhealthy relationships and attachments to people, you can have unhealthy attachments to pets,” Kogan says.
Say, for example, you use your dog as an excuse to isolate yourself from humans. “If you don’t have anyone in your life, that’s a red flag,” Anderson says. Research shows that weak social connections can be detrimental to physical and mental health, even making you twice as likely to die than being obese, a 2010 meta-analysis found. What’s more, Coren adds, “the absence of social support is one of the major contributors to depression.”
The good news? Dogs seem to have a similar effect on health as human companions. A 2011 study found that pet owners had better self-esteem, were in better shape and felt less lonely than people without pooches or other pets. It makes sense, Coren says. Simply taking your dog for a walk, for one, facilitates fitness — and human interaction. “You’re marching along with your version of Lassie, and [someone else is] walking along with their version of Benji and you stop to chat,” he says.
That’s particularly important today, when face-to-face social interactions are increasingly replaced with digital ones, Anderson says. “We’re a lot more mobile society, and it’s hard to make friends sometimes,” she says. Dogs can help fill that void. Even better? Unlike a human pal, she adds, “a dog will keep your secrets.”
Life with a dog is great. Life with a well-trained dog? Well, that’s even better. Showing off cool new tricks is one thing, but having a dog obey your commands in life-threatening situations is the most important reason to train.
And let’s face it—it’s much less stressful when you know your dog will listen to you, which makes for a better relationship.
We consulted professional trainer and founder of Pawtopia in San Diego, Colleen Demling, for all things dog training. From teaching the basics to the best methods of training to the true cost of lessons, we’ve got you covered.
Stay, Come, Leave It
The commands stay, come, and leave it—or any variation thereof like here, drop it, etc.—are the most important commands for your dog to not only learn, but to master.
“If you teach your dog nothing else, teach those three commands because in most crisis situations, those three can get you out of it,” Demling says. “If your dog runs out the front door without permission or sees a dead bird on the street—these are situations that directly address your dog’s welfare, and your dog needs to obey these commands.”
Start by teaching your dog the basic level of these commands in the comfort of his own home. Repetition and practice are key.
“It’s like learning a new sport,” Demling explains. “You don’t go to a tennis class and swing once—you swing again and again. Repetition is how we all learn.”
Once your dog has the command down in the home, it’s time to move to more challenging situations, like the dog park or the pet store.
“If we ask them to sit two or three times at home where it’s quiet, and then we go to the do park and they don’t listen, it’s not because they don’t want to,” Demling explains. “It’s because they don’t have the skill set.”
Trainer’s Tip: Practice commands until your dog can successfully accomplish the command ten times in a row. For example, ten sits in a row at the pet store or dog park is the consistency you’re aiming for.
How do dogs learn best? The answer is—it depends on the dog.
“Find your dog’s motivation,” Demling suggests. “This will entice him to learn. Remember not all dogs are food motivated. Some are play motivated, some are attention motivated, and some just want a good belly scratch when they are paying attention and doing what you want them to do.”
With all sorts of methods preached as gospel by various trainers, how do you know which one to follow? Find the methodology that works for you, and stick with it.
“The best methodology is the one the owner is passionate about,” Demling says. “You want the fastest and most efficient method for you. Find a trainer that will be flexible with your chosen method to help you hit your end goal in the most efficient manner.”
Trainer’s Tip: Choose your trainer wisely. There is no official governing body regulating who can say they are a professional dog trainer. Look for important certifications from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCDPT), the only independent organization that certifies dog trainers.
Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks
While you may think your dog is set in his ways, any dog can be taught new commands or behaviors, regardless of age.
“Old dogs can learn new tricks just like older people can learn new skill sets,” Demling adds. “It’s harder on the owner—it’s changing the habits with the owner and getting the practice in place so the dog can learn. The difficult part is not only breaking down old habits, but establishing new ones.”
The biggest problem for owners set in their ways is communication—or miscommunication!
“We keep trying to make the connection [to teach the command] one way and the dog really needs another way,” Demling explains.
Maybe it’s ignoring your dog for 20 minutes so they really want your attention, and then running through a couple commands before giving them a belly rub. Or perhaps using your dog’s meal time as a treat for executing commands.
“It’s shifting the way that we want to teach to the way the dog needs to be taught,” Demling says.
Trainer’s Tip: Praise the success in the moment. For example, when the doorbell rings, if the dog hesitates to bark three seconds, praise in that moment before he barks instead of waiting to correct the bark.
Healing the Pain
It’s a sad reality that some sweet, innocent dogs will suffer abuse in their lifetime. But you can turn their life around in more ways than one.
Rescuing an abused animal and giving them a second chance at life is wonderful. But helping them adjust and heal emotionally will turn them into a new dog.
“Normally with consistency and kindness, dogs can learn to trust much faster than people do,” Demling believes. “It’s addressing the problem and not sweeping it under the rug.”
If your dog shies away from strangers or from being pet, if he cowers in the corner or behind your legs out of fear, if he hides under the bed or whines when you are away—you should seek help. The amount of help needed will vary.
“It does depend on the level of abuse the dog suffered,” Demling says. “But set up a plan and deal with the issues.”
Trainer’s Tip: Does your dog shy away from men or strangers? Have a friend come to the house, walk inside and ignore the dog while dropping a cookie on the floor. Now a stranger is associated with dropping cookies instead of trying to approach the dog, which may have been bad for the dog in the past.
Price Tag of Safety and Security
A lot of pet parents shy away from professional training because they think it’s too expensive or not worth the cost.
“Consider the return on investment,” Demling suggests.”Put a dollar value on the cost of your time if you do training efficiently versus inefficiently, the cost of your frustration when you come home and something is destroyed, or even the cost of embarrassment when your dog misbehaves.”
Again, make sure you find a trainer with the proper qualifications to ensure you are getting your money’s worth. But also put the cost of a problem dog into perspective with these scenarios:
- Your dog sneaks out the open front door, runs into the street and gets hit by a car—this results in emotional devastation and a potential $2000 vet bill.
- Gashes from a dog fight at the park—$500+ vet bill.
- Dog eats something poisonous in the trash or on the street—$1000+ vet bill.
- Dog jumps up on grandma and knocks her over, causing injuries—medical bills or more.
“We normally spend $2-3 a day on coffee. Think about spending that money over a few months and that’s good for the rest of your dog’s life,” Demling explains. “It’s a priceless investment.”
Trainer’s Tip: If you notice behavioral problems with your dog early on, it’s best not to wait. Get a trainer on board early, when it should only take one or two sessions to fix the problem, rather than allowing it to become a bigger emotional issue.
The Bottom Line
Having a well-trained dog leads to a better relationship between pet parent and furry friend.
“If you have a dog that is not well behaved, that relationship can become strained with frustration, which will become a barrier to a deeper bond with your pet,” Demling says.
Taking the time to properly train your dog—and maybe spending a little money—could help ensure he has a happy, healthy life.