There’s something disconcerting about being middle-aged and watching my once-agile dog leap ahead of me into old age. No, not leap—she’s too creaky for that, stiff and slow almost overnight, it seems. She’s suddenly terrified of the kinds of storms she once danced through; she spurns a morning walk to go back to bed, circling awkwardly in an effort to get comfortable. Once down, she’ll lie there for hours on end, chin over the edge like Snoopy at his most dejected.
She’s depressed about getting old, I decide—never dreaming that it’s I who haven’t made the necessary accommodations.
“A lot of old dogs get what I call the ‘shrinking world’ syndrome,” says certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug. “Their owners get in a rut with them; they start walking the dog less” (gulp) “and they don’t train the dog or teach him tricks. The dog doesn’t get as much stimulation and enrichment—maybe they stop taking the dog to the dog park—and there’s a significant decline in mental and physical challenges.” Stung, I mention Sophie’s arthritis. “So maybe she can swim. Or the walks are shorter. Or maybe you just take her into a wooded park, lie down on a blanket and let her look around and sniff.”
It’s the slowing we have trouble with; we expect our dogs to be the same forever. Instead, their senses of sight and smell grow less acute, their joints stiffen, or their legs may splay like Bambi’s on slick hardwood floors. Some develop a canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s: “It’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome,” Haug explains, “and it shows up with dementia, changes in their sleep-wake cycles—they might pace all night and sleep all day—vocalizing at night, forgetting their training. You say ‘Sit’ and they stare at you blankly.”
Other dogs develop anxiety disorders for the first time, anything from separation anxiety to storm phobias or nocturnal panic attacks. “The dog may be less social, not coming to greet you, or might get clingier with increased anxiety,” Haug says. “Sometimes they’re just disoriented; they go to the back door but poke their nose at the hinge side. Sometimes we see aggression and irritability. But because anxiety is one of the symptoms, the more you keep the dog stretched mentally, the more you are able to control some of those reactions.”
The wonderful paradox is that by working within your dog’s new limits, you can lessen the change in her responses. Choose games she can still play readily, amusements that don’t stress her, and she’ll be as eager as ever.
“Find new ways to connect with your dog,” Haug urges. “Teaching a trick is not only good for the dog’s brain, but it’s a fun, low-pressure way to do something that doesn’t require a lot of physical strength. The trick doesn’t need to be a backflip. They can bow, cover their eyes with their paws, flick their ears…” Grooming is another way to connect; so is hanging out on the porch or at the park.
It’s not just the dog who needs to learn new tricks—we do too.
Easing Their Way
Start by accommodating your dog’s physical changes: Put down carpet runners, plug in a night-light, buy a memory-foam dog bed or steps or a ramp up to your bed. Luckily, dogs are so firmly entrenched as family members that manufacturers have responded with a variety of products that improve seniors’ quality of life: There are thermoregulating cooling pads for dogs who don’t handle heat well and heated beds for dogs with arthritis (there’s a reason old dogs are always sleeping by the fire in those chilly English country houses).
“Older dogs need softer toys,” notes Catherine Frost, brand and product champion for Planet Dog. Her whitemuzzled black Lab, Ollie, is the model for Planet Dog’s line of Old Soul toys, which are made from a compound that’s gentle on dogs with older jaws, sensitive teeth, reduced “snout strength”and weakened muscles and joints. Similarly, Senior Kongs are constructed with softer rubber.
“Their olfactory sense has probably diminished, so stronger scents are good,” Frost adds, “and high-contrast colors are important so they can see the toy clearly. But the notion that they don’t want to play anymore? That’s not true at all! To be able to lie down and just chew helps them relax and keeps them from being bored. You can’t ever assume that your dog doesn’t want to play.”