The Canine Senior Citizen

BY: ELISABETH CATALANO, MA, GDIP, CDBC, CPDT-KA

It is a fact of life. Aging happens to all of us, even our dogs. Depending on the breed and size of your dog, they can be considered seniors starting from 5 to 10 years of age. Larger dogs age faster than smaller ones so the bigger the dog, the earlier they will enter the senior stage. How each dog handles aging is similar to how people handle it, very individually. Ultimately, though we all slow down.

As our best friend ages, we tend to fall into a comfortable routine. The older dog doesn’t require as much exercise as their young counterparts, so the motivation to get out and do things together can decline. When our dogs were puppies, life was busy and chaotic. Potty schedules, training classes, socialization and play dates occupied much of our time. The young dog is usually pretty clear about their needs.

As dogs mature, the ease with which they are contented may come as relief. Mature dogs tend to mirror our own lifestyles and schedules. We may find that cuddling on the sofa is a mutually agreeable pass time. The averag adult dog sleeps anywhere from 12 to 20 hours per day. If yours is sedentary lifestyle, chances are that your dog is a couch potato as well.

That comfortable routine can result in us not being as aware as we should be regarding any health changes that may be occurring. Keeping your dog engaged physically and mentally can help you monitor their overall health,
keep them physically fit as well as stave off cognitive dysfunction. The good news is there are some good and simple ways to achieve this.

Never discount the value of playing with your dog. Play is a powerful bonding tool and will keep you and your dog connected emotionally. It is a great way to keep your dog moving and thinking. It is also a great stress-reliever for you! The way you play will, of course, need to be tailored to your dog’s ability. Older dogs can easily overheat or be overcome by the cold so take the weather into consideration. Much loved fetch games may need to be shortened and balls rolled more than bounced. Wrestling may need to be a much gentler game than it used to be. Physical over-exertion
should definitely be avoided with seniors.

Long slow walks are excellent for the senior dog. Slow walks, in particular, require them to move their hind legs independently of each other, which can help to maintain muscle mass. Rapid walking, on the other hand, lets the dog compensate for that complete movement of the legs by ‘bunny hopping’. Taking walks in new places can also be stimulating because the dog gets to enjoy new smells and investigate novel things.

Mental enrichment is not just for young dogs, older dogs need it too, maybe even more. Just like humans, if the brain isn’t used regularly, it can begin to
decline in its abilities. Food puzzles and games like find the hidden treat, or hide and seek (come find me when I call you from my hiding place) are perfect brain stimulators and easy to do. An easy food puzzle you can make at home uses tennis balls and muffin tins. You can hide the treats in each of the cups and put tennis balls on top to hide them!

Training is also important. Teach an old dog new tricks! Tricks are a great way to stimulate older minds and bodies. Tricks like take-a-bow can encourage the dog to stretch and moving from down to standing ca increase leg and hip muscles. You will need to keep in mind the physical limitations of older pets though. Arthritis can make getting into and out of a down painful. Be sure to provide non-slip surfaces for activities and soft bedding for frequent rests.

Training classes can be something the older dog enjoys and gets excited about. They get to go to a new place, spend time with you and get treats! What could be better?

Nosework, in particular, is an ideal sport for the older dog. There is not
much physical exertion required but the mental stimulation is abundant.
It is also a sport that is easy to do anywhere and does not involve a high cost.

For dogs that are very physically limited, keep your focus on olfactory, visual and auditory enrichment. For dogs that suffer from mobility issues, consider carriers, strollers, or car rides for outings. Introduce any environmental changes or increase physical activity slowly to prevent stress and injuries.

My now 13-year-old boy enjoys short walks exploring parts of our property he doesn’t usually get to see. The look of happiness and anticipation on his face when he gets to go on an adventure, just him and I, is priceless an worth every second spent with him. I’m hoping our senior time together
will last for many more years, filled with good health and mobility.

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