Keeping Your Senior Dog Young

Article contributed by Kang Nee of Cheerful Dogs.
Ph.D., CPDT-KA, Low Stress Handling Certified Silver, Pet First Aid Certified

Growing old is part of life. While it’s normal for a senior dog to slow down, there are many ways to keep that grey muzzle twitching inquisitively. And those canine grey cells humming actively.

How can we keep our senior dog young?

You start from day 1 when your puppy/ adolescent/ adult dog joins your family – through training, games and a good quality diet that enrich your dog’s mental and physical well-being throughout its life.

1. KEEP ROVER THINKING

Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS), similar to Alzheimer’s in humans, is a condition that may affect senior dogs. Behavioural indicators of CDS include:

  • disorientation
  • changes in how the dog interacts with family members, e.g. loss of interest in interacting
  • increased anxiety
  • decreased activity levels
  • changes in appetite
  • altered sleeping patterns
  • potty accidents

These may also be indicators of an underlying medical condition. It is important to rule out medical causes with your vet before self-diagnosing that your dog has CDS.

Keeping Rover engaged and thinking is one way to slow down cognitive decline. Here are some games you can play, using force-free, reward-based training and low stress handling methods.

Instead of feeding Rover’s meal in a bowl, hide the food in an interactive toy, like a Kong or Nina Ottosson’s range of food puzzles.

It’ll take Rover a longer time to extricate the food, with a low-impact game that engages both his mind and nose.

My 8-year old senior dog, Kiyo plays with the Nina Ottosson dog casino puzzle. He uses his nose to locate the treats, his mouth to remove the bone-shaped pegs, which then allows him to use either his nose or paw to open the drawers to get his treats. Starting Kiyo on games like these when he was younger helps to hone his skills over time. That way, he doesn’t get frustrated when faced with the challenges of the puzzle at a senior age.

My 8-year old senior dog, Kiyo plays with the Nina Ottosson dog casino puzzle. He uses his nose to locate the treats, his mouth to remove the bone-shaped pegs, which then allows him to use either his nose or paw to open the drawers to get his treats. Starting Kiyo on games like these when he was younger helps to hone his skills over time. That way, he doesn’t get frustrated when faced with the challenges of the puzzle at a senior age.

brush up on obedience skills. Makes it fun and enjoyable.

Don’t think that “sit”, “down” “stay” and “come” cues were only for Rover when he was younger. Have quick mini-training sessions to weave what Rover already knows into your daily routine:

  • Rover sits before the door opens and he goes for a walk.
  • Rover lies down before he gets a belly rub.
  • Rover stays before you feed him.
  • Rover practises his recalls with a hide-and-seek game that can be adjusted to his level of stamina and mobility.

Kiyo and I practise loose leash walking wherever we go. When the human and the dog at both ends of the leash are engaged with and attentive to each other, they share a special moment of companionship that lasts a lifetime.

Teach Rover to Target

Old dogs can still learn new tricks. This opens the potential to many low impact games that exercise Rover’s mind and maintain physical dexterity and condition.

  • By teaching Rover to target a ball with his nose, he can learn to push the ball towards you.
  • By teaching Rover to target your hand, you can guide him in a game of weaving between your legs.
You don’t need the fast weaves of an agility competition to have fun with your senior dog!

You don’t need the fast weaves of an agility competition to have fun with your senior dog!

2. Keep Rover Moving

If your senior dog has become less mobile, you can include low-impact muscle conditioning games into the exercise routine. Do check with your vet to ensure your dog is physically fit before implementing any exercise regime. These are some conditioning exercises that improve hind leg awareness, strength and mobility.

PLATFORM AND BALANCE WORK
  • Have Rover stand with his front paws on a low, sturdy platform. Start with as low a height as Rover is comfortable with. This platform could be a thick plank, a low step on a staircase, or anything sturdy and non-slip in your surroundings.
  • Stand facing Rover and slightly lean forward towards him. For many dogs, that slight leaning forward motion will prompt the dog to lean backwards, thus shifting its weight from the front legs to the hind legs.
  • Let Rover hold that stance for a couple of seconds. Praise and reward him with something he likes, e.g. a small food reward, and let him lean forward again. Work in incremental steps, as this exercise can be difficult for dogs who are not used to supporting their weight on the hind legs.
  • At the start, you may just complete one repetition and end the game. With time, as your senior dog develops better awareness of his hind legs and gains strength in supporting his weight on them, increase the duration of holding the stance, the height of the platform and the number of repetitions. He may even be able to sit while keeping his front paws on the platform – a skill that’s not as easy as it sounds!
Fig 4 - balance on wobbly platform

Kiyo demonstrates a “stand-sit” repetition on a skate-board.

Once Rover has mastered the art of balancing his weight on a sturdy platform, you would start all over, but on a platform that’s more wobbly, e.g. FitPaws ® balance discs. Rover now has to engage his core muscles even more to maintain his balance. 

Kiyo demonstrates a “stand” on FitPaws ® balance discs.

Other than the above games, hydrotherapy or swimming are suitable exercises for senior dogs who are comfortable in water. The key is to maintain an appropriate level of exercise for a senior dog so that both its mental and physical well-being are catered for.

3. Dogs with Special Needs

Some of the above games can be adapted for blind or deaf dogs. With blind dogs, one would have to use tactile or aural cues more effectively to guide them. With deaf dogs, tactile and visual cues would be key. One of the most important games to teach these dogs is that being touched is a good thing, so they won’t be easily startled when touched.

Set up the environment to reduce the risk of hazards to the dog, e.g. using non-slip flooring, and arranging furniture and objects so that the dog can navigate a clear and predictable path through the house. Each dog has its own needs. Observe and adapt accordingly so that your special needs senior dog can enjoy a mentally and physically fulfilled life.


In this article, I’ve only skimmed the surface on how we can prepare our dogs for life as a senior. Kiyo and I were able to make the smooth transition from the time he had two good eyes to becoming partially sighted, because of the 4 tenets of training I uphold:

  • Learn to read Kiyo’s body language as that tells me if what we’re doing is working or not.
  • Use low stress handling, force-free and reward-based training methods as dogs can learn effectively without fear or coercion.
  • Be consistent and fair in teaching Kiyo what I would like him to do, instead of focusing on what I don’t want him to do.
  • Working as a team to enrich Kiyo’s life and social skills so that as he ages, these skills remain with him.
Fig 6 - Kiyo at 2

Kiyo at 2, newly adopted.

Kiyo at 8 years old appears younger than when he was 2!

Kiyo at 8 years old appears younger than when he was 2!

If you’re uncertain about how to help and care for your senior dog, do check with your vet. Consult a qualified trainer or behaviourist if your dog has behavioural challenges such as fear, anxiety or aggression.

Useful Information:
  1. Lisa Rodier 2008. “How to Care for An Older Dog. Whole Dog Journal, December Issue.
  2. Kathy Sdao & Lori Stevens 2014. “The Gift of a Gray Muzzle. Active Care for Senior Dogs”. DVD, Tawzer Dog LLC.

Nee is a behavioural ecologist and certified professional dog trainer. Even whilst busy training dogs, she writes articles on dog behaviour modification and training for local and international magazines.

Website: www.cheerfuldogs.com
Email: kangnee999@yahoo.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kang.nee.9