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Teach Senior Dogs New Tricks to Stay Healthy
Tuning in to your senior’s needs.

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.”

Even for dogs at their healthiest, transportation can be tough, and older dogs often don’t hop into a back seat the way they used to. Haug suggests creating a surface that “provides stable footing but is not so firm that when the dog lies down, he’s uncomfortable.” For big cars and vans, there are ramps and steps; take breed and body shape into account when making your selection, however. If you have a Dachshund, you don’t want the short, steep steps, which are popular because they take up less space. Make sure the steps’ treads are deep enough for sure footing and wide enough to forgive a misstep.

It’s also a kindness to soften distractions such as sudden loud noises, and to avoid abrupt changes in routine. Older dogs can be more easily startled; as they’re less able to maneuver or defend themselves, they feel more fragile and grow more fearful, reluctant to play with new dogs or children, distressed by chaos and commotion. (Dr. Debra Horowitz, a veterinary behaviorist, notes that dogs’ neurotransmitter functions change with age—oxygen levels go down and brain chemistry is altered.)

Sometimes, the startle or anxiety is just because the dog can’t see or hear as well as he once did. Cataracts can start to form as early as age seven, for example. But overall, sensory declines are rarely as traumatic for dogs as they are for us egoridden humans; often the changes are so gradual that the dog adapts, and you might not even realize he’s blind or deaf, especially if you have other dogs and he’s following their lead. Susan McCullough, author of Senior Dogs for Dummies, says, “If you sense your dog’s hearing is going bad and he or she doesn’t already know hand signals, teach them now. If your dog is blind, now is not the time to change the furniture. Dogs are amazing, though, in their ability to compensate. I had a dog who still responded to vibrations, so I’d clap my hands and she’d come to me. Creativity goes a long way.”

Food for senior dogs isn’t as complicated as the marketers make it, according to Dr. Donna Raditic, a vet certified in alternative therapies and currently a post-grad resident in nutrition at the University of Tennessee. “Older dogs can eat the adult diets. The development of geriatric diets is a bit of marketing, plus some old beliefs that lowering protein levels spares the kidneys. Actually, we now know that older dogs and humans need more protein. The main concern for geriatrics is to watch calories, because they tend to be less active, especially in winter.”

Older dogs should be monitored for dental problems, like bleeding gums or tooth loss. Even bad breath can signal something as simple as tartar buildup or as serious as oral cancer, kidney disease or diabetes mellitus. And when dogs do fall ill, nausea can decrease their appetite. “Often owners think their dogs are being picky—they are not—they don’t feel well!” Raditic exclaims. “It can be very difficult to keep weight and condition on an old dog with a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract.”

Glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to be beneficial for arthritis, and anti-inflammatory pain meds can help, too. How do you know when your dog’s in pain? According to Haug, the signs are pretty obvious. Look for “restlessness, crankiness, irritability when handled, difficulty getting up or lying down, looking stiff, being unstable, moving very slowly. Sometimes, if they move suddenly, their joints scrape together.” She sighs. “The thing that’s underappreciated, even sometimes by veterinarians, is how much these dogs can benefit from pain medication. Some are restless at night, only because they can’t get comfortable.”

Check Your Assumptions
Another thing to remember is that you need to observe your dog closely, scrutinize your own assumptions about aging (some of us think getting old is the end of the world) and act accordingly. “The most crushing thing is this sense—I’m sure it’s not intentional—but it’s almost like the worth of the dog isn’t the same anymore,” Haug says. “People will stop giving heartworm prevention or shots; they say, ‘Oh well, he’s old, we’re just going to feed him until he dies.’” She pauses, then says quietly, “They deserve better than that.”

Ted Kerasote, author of the acclaimed memoir Merle’s Door, is a superb athlete; when his dog Merle couldn’t do the ski runs anymore, it broke Kerasote’s heart. Then it made him examine his own impulses. “The first thing to be clear about is whom you’re indulging. Very often, because we want to run or mountain bike, we delude ourselves into thinking, ‘The dog loves this,’ and we push the dog far beyond where he needs to go. The problem is, dogs age much more quickly than we do. Say you get a dog when you’re 30, you’re now 38 and in fine shape, and the dog is possibly geriatric.”

Kerasote is currently working on a new book, titled Why Dogs Die Young and What We Can Do about It. “Most of the people I’ve spoken with who have really long-lived dogs change their dog’s food periodically, seasonally,” he remarks,“just the way a wild wolf would have different food seasonally, and the way we would.”

The biggest factor of all, though, is real engagement. “We are very self-serving: Many of us live busy urban lives, so we buy a whole passel of toys and leave the dog alone all day,” Kerasote says. “The older the dog gets, and the more he’s been left at home, the more he spirals into this kind of depression. People may need to think about budgeting for a dog walker. Or your dog might even be happier driving to work with you, enjoying the ride, sleeping in the car, going for a few short walks and driving home with you. We tend to think, ‘Oh, that’s just an old dog, he loves just lying around.’ Well, have you given the dog a choice?

“You need to find ways to perk up your dog,” he continues. “I’ve never seen a dog who preferred playing with a toy to two or three friendly peers.” Of course, as the dog gets older, the key is finding other dogs who won’t be rough or over-exuberant. But the results are worth the search.

McCullough has one final reminder: Don’t write everything off to aging. A single imperious diva bark to summon you might not be a sign of reduced mobility or altered brain chemistry; it might just be a single imperious diva bark because it’s fun to summon you. Refusal to eat or mobility issues could be signs of other problems, not age-related at all.

There’s one thing age can’t affect, she emphasizes, and that’s the bond you’ve already forged with your dog. “With a puppy, you’re still building that bond,” McCullough points out. “With an older dog, the history’s been created; all you have to do is celebrate it. Revel in it. And when you’re uncertain what to do, let love be your guide.”

This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 53: Mar/Apr 2009
Jeannette Cooperman is St. Louis, Mo. based writer and editor.
CommentsPost a Comment
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Submitted by Dave | December 7 2009 |

My 10+ year old German Shepherd, Bodee, recently has left my life and I must say I miss him a lot. I adopted him a little over 2 yrs ago from the MSPCA and it was one of the best decisions of my life. I remember the day I met him and adopted him like it was yesterday. I can say in the 2 years I had him he went from being able to go for walks of about .5 miles to barely making it around my little yard but he loved getting out there sniffing around enjoying the outdoors to his last day. Over the 2 years I had to adjust to his aging from adding rugs around the home, to getting dog beds in multiple rooms, to giving medications and glucosomine for his last 8 months but all well worth making him more comfortable. Bodee absolutely loved kids and I was happy that one of his last days he got to meet my new neighbor's kids as while I know he wanted to run and play like he was a kid with them I know just having them come up to him made him so happy. So I would concur with the article that letting your older dog still experience the things that make them happy as they age will make them extremely happy. While I miss him a lot I will never forget my Bodee and urge everyone to consider adopting an older dog as the time may be short you have with them it can be very, very rewarding and memorable.

Submitted by Stephanie | February 28 2010 |

What a beautiful owner! I have always adopted and fostered dogs over puppies. I even adopted an older greyhound in 1992. We had him for 8 years and he was truly an "old sole". I now have 2 older pitbull mixes and one 3 year old pitbull. My older boys are really feeling their age. My Rudy is losing his hearing and having problems with his spine. I have him on medication and I spend alot of time just petting and keeping him comfortable. It is truly a sad thing to lose these great creatures and I do not look forward to that day. However, I would not have traded in one moment and yes, I believe giving an older dog the gift of love and happiness for a few years is sooooo worth it. They give so much in return!

Submitted by Leslie | July 5 2014 |

I'm sorry for your lost. Actually, the dog that me and my husband will adopt is a 10 years old german shepherd. We are now walking him out every weekend to get to know and bringing him home sometimes to be familiar with our place. We wanted to build a connection before getting him- coz having a dog is not just a hobby but a responsibility and a chance to care for a life.

I'm so thankful for sharing your story.

may I know if you have adopted a new dog?

Submitted by dianne elko | April 16 2010 |

very good article,very useful,very interesting.i just had to put my 'Lucky' down last fall :( and i have another that is coming up on 12 years,i agree we need to tune in to what they need,sometimes i think people don't for the old saying 'IF YOU DON'T THINK ABOUT IT,THEN MAYBE IT'S NOT HAPPENING'.any one who has loved a dog doesn't like to think about losing them.

Submitted by Dan | April 16 2010 |

What a great article. One other thing that seems to help our older dog is massage therpy. My wife is a massage therpist and she regularly massages our 10 year old sheltie, along with our other two dogs who love the attention just as much.

Submitted by diane | April 16 2010 |

You're right. This is a wonderful article. Four years ago I lost my 17-year-old Cocker Spaniel, Oprah. I didn't know if I would survive the loss. Three years ago came Zechariah, a black CS. A year after that brought Jeremiah, a 1-year-old silver buff CS, who was finally captured after running for 10 days in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Animal Control called me because they knew of my love for Cockers. Then, just before Christmas of last year, my vet called to say an elderly couple had surrendered for euthanasia a 10-year-old red Cocker. Would I take her? Yes, and she's become an unbelievable blessing. Daily walks have done much in reducing her obesity. A series of Adequan shots, plus the weight loss, has greatly relieved her arthritis. Her hearing is a little off, so we make compensations. She has gone from being unable to walk up - or down - the stairs to bounding along with the two boys. She finds it difficult to get on the people bed at night so, instead, she snuggles in her special orthopedic "couch." She lost the only life she'd known at 10 and she's bravely tackled and embraced her new one. I intend to make her remaining years as productive and as joyful as possible. The article on aging provided a wealth of good information.

Submitted by Ann | April 16 2010 |

Interesting story. I too have shared and loss my best friend in 2008. I know he wouldn't have left if he didn't need too. He was the most faithful dog who never stopped loving me. His love brought me through some pretty hard times. I still ache with his absence in my life. I know he will be forever in my heart waiting for me to join him someday.

Submitted by Leslie | April 18 2010 |

Rescuing older dogs is filled with a deep joy. I've had my new boy for only a year and he's 14. He was in shock for about the first 6 months I had him. He didn't know what had happened to his old life. He needed a lot of TLC and now I get sad just thinking how much I love him and will miss him. He's losing his sight and sleeps more and more. He loves the sun and comfort!! He's got a great retirement now. This is my first rescue and I know I'll stick with rescuing older dogs. One thing I think that would have made his transition easier for him would have been to have had information about his habits (where he slept, what he liked, what words he knew). I got a lot of medical information but nothing about his personality and stuff like that.

Submitted by Anonymous | August 22 2010 |

Get to the point.

Submitted by JAE | June 27 2011 |

Thank you for your article. I have a 14yr.old black lab/dalmation mix (with serious medical condition). She has a playmate (small 5 yr.old) who lives upstairs. When I see them chasing each other, it melts Fly's age and condition away. Thanks for reminding me of games I used to play with her.

Submitted by suzy allman | October 23 2012 |

One of our shepherds really likes the bed -- but as he aged, it was just too much for him to make the jump, and I was worried he'd slip back on his hips. We found the best little staircase for him -- wooden and pretty, to match the bed! We still have to hoist him into the car, but what the hay. He's worth every bit of effort and in some ways his "dotage" is adorable.

Both my shepherds are 11+ but still hike every day. They're terrific buddies. I agree with this article -- it's really important to provide non-slip surfaces, esp. on the stairs, so they don't come a-flyin' down one day! Just like old human folk. :0)

Thanks for the advice, and reminding everyone how special senior adoptions can be!

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