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Stay Young: Keeping Older Dogs Busy

You owe it to your dog to make sure their senior years are as enriching and fulfilling as ever, and then some.

by Susan Tasaki
October 12, 2021
Senior mixed breed dog playing with washable snuffle rug for hiding dried treats
dark_blade / Adobe Stock

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

Could your senior dog be … bored? While dogs certainly do love routine, they also benefit from the mental stimulation that comes from learning something new or having new experiences. Contrary to the old adage, you can teach these dogs new tricks—with adolescence out of their systems, they tend to focus pretty well on teaching moments.

“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 them 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.”

While we may think our older dogs are content to kick back more and interact less, in reality, the opposite is true. Their senses may not be quite as sharp as they once were, and they may not move as quickly, but having fun with their people is still a thrill. Moreover, it’s a thrill that can have a positive payback by helping them maintain their cognitive agility as they age. A little time and effort on your part will pay big and ongoing dividends in the overall quality of your dog’s life. Here are a few ideas that will provide your old pup with both physical and mental stimulation and make your dog’s senior years the best years of their lives.

Enrichment Ideas for Senior Dogs

Keep those neurons firing and log some quality time with your dog by playing games that exercise their mind.

Rotate Toys

Toys are one way to stimulate your dog both mentally and physically. And while it’s entirely normal for a dog’s passion for toys to wane with age, there are ways to revive it, such as by rotating toys weekly because novelty inspires interest.

Learning Toys

Interactive toys also pique curiosity. If your dog likes stuffed toys, look for those with “parts” that are intended to be pulled out of or off the toy. There are also toys explicitly geared toward senior dogs that could be just what your dog is looking for.

Nose Work

An easy way to add some change and excitement is Nose Work. While your dog is in a sit/stay, hide a treat or toy, then release them to find it. (Cheering them on ups the excitement level.)

Trick Training

Keep your senior dog’s mind healthy by teaching them a new trick. Teach your dog to balance a treat on their paw or muzzle.

Enrichment Puzzles

Treats hidden behind panels or under sliding blocks motivate dogs to use both their noses and paws. Swedish-made Nina Ottosson puzzles set the benchmark in this category.

Keep Your Senior Dog Active

An active dog is a happy dog, and that goes for senior dogs too. Regular exercise keeps your senior dog’s joints limber and muscles strong, helps control weight, and engages the brain — all of which slow the aging process and boost your dog’s quality of life. Not only do active dogs live longer, they live better, and your bond will grow.

Take a walk.

The senior years can bring a golden age of walking — not only does walking get your dog moving, the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the world stimulate their brain. Older dogs have more trouble regulating their body temperature, so avoid exercising when it’s very hot or cold. Keep an eye on your dog for signs of fatigue or overheating.

While you want to avoid steep hills, walking up gradual hills strengthens your dog’s hindquarters. If your route includes a steep downhill, consider zigzagging your way down to avoid too much stress on your dog’s front legs. Consider booties or paw pads with gripping treads to help your dog maintain traction on slippery surfaces.

Go for a swim.

Aerobic and low-impact, swimming is an ideal senior-dog fitness option, especially during warm months. While lakes or ponds are a fun and free option, submerged rocks or logs can make access tricky for senior dogs, and, in some cases, cold water can exacerbate arthritis or joint problems.

Canine pools offer warm water swimming in a setting geared toward older or injured dogs. The warm water helps loosen joints and stimulate circulation while building muscle. Some water therapy centers have underwater treadmills, so non-swimmers can reap the benefits. In all kinds of water, a canine flotation device provides a little extra buoyancy and security for older dogs.

Do daily stretching.

If you have ever watched a dog stretch after a nap, you just know they love it. And it’s good for them. Stretching helps keep your dog feeling relaxed while promoting flexibility. You can help these natural processes with gentle guided stretching of the rear and front legs to benefit the hips, spine, knees, ankles, wrists, elbows, chest, and shoulders.

Many dog massage books or classes include stretching, or try Doga, a form of yoga that works with human-dog pairs and incorporates massage. If you cannot find a Doga class in your neighborhood, there are several good DIY guides, including Barking Buddha: Simple Soul Stretches for Yogi or Dogi.

Play a Game.

Behind every graying muzzle is an inner puppy itching to play. Channel that inner puppy with enriching activities that keep them strong and agile. Three dependable options that provide both physical and mental stimulation for older dogs include:

Flatland fetch: For ball lovers with joint issues, retrieving low tosses or rolled soccer balls keeps all paws on the ground. Avoid Frisbee or high throws that encourage leaping catches.

Gentle tug-of-war: Tug at the dog’s level to keep stress off the neck.

• Agility lite: Zipping through tunnels, weaving between poles, even pausing on a floor mat (skip the table, jumps and climbing obstacles) captures the high-thrill fun of agility without the impact.

Get Your Dog a Friend

Perhaps the ultimate enrichment strategy is to provide your oldster with a canine friend by adopting a new pup. There are lots of caveats here—among other things, not all dogs want to deal with a new dog in their home. But when it works, it works splendidly.

If you think your dog might like company, try fostering—ideally, a somewhat younger dog of the opposite gender with a compatible personality. Some behaviorists suggest that the best age difference is around three years, while others say there are benefits to a larger spread; the older dog will teach the younger important social skills and appropriate behavior, and the younger dog will keep their elder busy and engaged.

For all dogs do to enrich our lives, we owe it to them to make sure their senior years are as enriching and fulfilling as the preceding years have been, and then some.

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Susan Tasaki

Freelance writer Susan Tasaki lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her Husky, who wishes they both got out more.