Adventuring with aging adventure dogs

Cody takes in the views (of some chipmunks) near the summit of our scramble.

This past October, my younger dog Buffy turned 7 and according to the standards, entered her senior years (don’t you dare call her an old lady though). She doesn’t act 7 and my recently…10 year old Cody, doesn’t either. In fact, two summers ago someone thought he was a puppy because he scrambled up a mountain in the rockies so easily. But their energy level and my denial does not change that they are aging and on top of it, they are not tiny dogs. Small dogs tend to live longer and often suffer from less aging related mobility issues. So denial is not going to do my dogs any good. 

Therefore, given that I’ve been dealing with this issue for a while, I wanted to offer some insight on what I’m already doing, and my overall strategy to keep my seniors healthy and adventuring with me for a long time. 

Supplements 

Enter the world of senior dogs and enter the world of supplements. Glucosamine, Chondroitin, MSM, omega oil, salmon oil…the list goes on and on. I am in no way a supplement expert but I will say that when I started to notice Cody was sore after big days out, we started adding supplements to his food and I tried several. I tried oils, glucosamine chews, and powders. I honestly did not see much of a difference until I tried Tri-Acta. A sport dog trainer recommended it to me and I have to say, I see significantly less soreness in Cody after big days. I even started giving it to Buffy in a preventative way last year. So if you haven’t tried it, I recommend it. But ultimately, you will have to find what works for your dog. Don’t forget your vet is there if you need to make sure it’s ok for your dog.

Diet 

Supplements are not the only important thing you want to get right, the food you feed your dog is also equally important. If your senior is not on a senior diet, I would reconsider it. The joint support in senior diets is important, but so is the lower calorie content. It’s important to keep your senior at a healthy weight. If your dog is overweight, that is more pressure on bones and that can lead to arthritis in the senior years. Keeping them trim and fit will keep them mobile and may help with arthritis. If you are not sure if your dog is overweight, a quick stop at a vet should help you. But in general, ribs should be just slightly visible or easy to feel for dogs with thick fur and hips should be defined from the top. 

Fitness

Fitness is obviously important for any adventure dog and as they age, you shouldn’t assume they can do the big hike they did years ago. But, I’m going to assume your dog is fairly fit, or used to the activities you already do together. So what I’m going to talk about is fitness training. Working on improving the overall muscle strength, especially for stabilizing muscles. So how do you work on that? Well first, you’ll need some props for your dog to use. An aerobic step, balance board, small mat, even a rolled up towel can work. The goal is to get your dog to step up onto a higher surface. This may seem like nothing, but it actually shifts the weight and works their muscles. So work on teaching this skill. You can lure your dog to start, or shape the behaviour by saying “yes” or clicking a clicker every time they start to interact with the object. Be sure to use lots of rewards. Your dog will LOVE his fitness training. Once you have mastered getting both front paws up, start to work on the back paws, this one is trickier for most dogs. You can even offer variations like one paw up, or do two paws but on a wobbly surface. Make it fun, change things up, and start small. Just a couple reps to start and work your way up. Your dog can’t tell you if they are sore, so start small. 

Training

I have recently been thinking about my cues. I have exclusively verbal and hand signal cues for my dogs. Lately, this hasn’t felt like enough. My dog Cody is a  rescue who was poorly socialized and although his life has been greatly improved through training and counter conditioning, he is still my anxious dog and I worry what life will look like for him once his hearing starts to go or his eye sight. Already, as of several years ago, he started to struggle to see in low light conditions. I asked the vet about this and was told it was normal, like humans, dogs in middle age start to lose their perfect eyesight and this starts with low light conditions. So how will he cope if my normal cues can’t be heard or seen? Well, the answer is to teach him some tactile cues, which means cues involving touch (don’t mistake this for pressure – you shouldn’t be pushing your dog into a down, that’s manipulation, not a tactile cue). Owners of deaf or blind dogs will be familiar with these. So I’ve started to make a list of cues and will start introducing a tactile version this year. One important cue for us is his auto-watch. Cody gets scared of other dogs when he is on leash so he can be reactive. He is fairly good at automatically checking in with me when he sees a dog, but sometimes he struggles and I have to say “yes” in a particular tone for him to turn to me. Since this is on leash, I plan to use a tactile cue of touching one of his back legs. I’ll work on this by working from afar with other dogs and touching his leg before I say the “yes” he is used to. Always introduce a new cue before the old one. Make sure it’s not at the same time, and make sure that you pause for a couple seconds in between. 

Last words

My day job is all about risk. How to assess, mitigate and manage it. That’s how I’m approaching adventuring with my senior dogs. It’s a balance between keeping them active and not going too much. I learned that last summer when I pushed Cody very hard on what was a much more challenging scramble than expected. He limped the last km to the car and I realized he can’t do it all anymore. Still adventure with your seniors, but keep in mind they might go harder than they should, and prevention goes a very long way. I know I plan to keep getting out there with my dogs as long as possible.

Try something new: Self-isolation edition

Well I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t see this turn of events coming. 2020 didn’t start off the best but I didn’t think I would be sitting here in March getting updates every 15 minutes on new closures for recreational facilities, ski hills, schools, businesses, and offices. It felt a bit surreal a week ago. I was asking myself, why is this progressing so quickly? Why is the response so serious? Then I remembered I’m a Risk Analyst in my day job so I crunched some numbers and saw what I had been missing. This isn’t like SARS. It’s not like H1N1. It’s not anything like the flu. So we really do have to try and stay home.

The good news is that our dogs are pretty psyched about us being home more often. So what can you still do safely with your dogs to take advantage of some extra time together? I thought I would put together a quick list:

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Try something new: Backcountry skiing & Snowboarding

The look of joy.

I love backcountry skiing and snowboarding. It is my favourite sport in the winter and it has required me to buy some expensive gear and get lots of training. This article is not about the human aspect of backcountry skiing so if you haven’t done this before, then I recommend finding a good guiding service and signing up for avalanche safety courses to get you started. This article is about what to consider when you go with your dog. 

I occasionally bring my dog Buffy backcountry skiing. The reason she doesn’t come all of the time is that big objectives or very complex terrain (i.e. big avalanche terrain) is not an appropriate outing for a dog who has zero understanding of avalanche slopes and risk. I cannot think of a worse thing than triggering, even a small slide, and having my dog caught up in it (short of my human partner getting stuck in a slide). So if the risk isn’t low, my dog Buffy stays at home, even if backcountry skiing is her favourite thing ever. No exaggerating, she is obsessed. So please, consider not bringing your pooch into big avalanche terrain, instead look at days out with your dog as a more active form of a dog walk and stay on low angle slopes and in stable conditions. 

So if you have somewhere safe to ski with your dog then you can consider trying this activity. But first you have to evaluate if your dog is up for it. I tried backcountry skiing with both of my dogs. Cody came several times one season to see if we could get him hooked but we couldn’t. He was just trying to keep up all day, looking fairly miserable. It was not his cup of tea. He’s far more my skijoring dog than my touring dog. This sport is not for all dogs. Your dog needs to be able to travel through deep snow pretty easily and to not freeze. Some people put on coats on their short haired dogs which can work, but always consider that you might be out there longer than expected. So if your dog has the stamina (or if they don’t but you can carry them in your pack the rest of the way) and the ability to stay warm, then you might be ready to give it a go. 

How do you get started for a day out? Well firstly, pack a first aid kit that includes items for your dog such as extra gauze, wraps that clings to itself for pressure, and be ready to carry out your dog if necessary. The most common injury to dogs while backcountry skiing is coming into contact with a ski edge and cutting a paw or leg. So being prepared for this is very important. My dog Buffy has learned to stay clear of our gear, but not all dogs will take this into consideration. Also pack some dog snacks, water, and poop bags to keep your dogs poop off the skin track.

Next up, make sure that your dog has an excellent recall. This is critical. You’re going to be letting them off leash on the way down for sure and if your dog goes after an animal, this can be VERY dangerous to everyone involved. Don’t believe me? A couple years ago in the rockies some people went backcountry skiing with their dogs and the dogs chased a moose for over a half hour. They didn’t catch the moose, the skiers got a hefty fine, and the dogs were ok. However, that moose may have died. Wild animals need calories to stay warm during the winter months and 30 minutes of flight running cut into that moose’s calories and it would have to find enough calories to replace them in order to survive. Dogs should never be left in a position to harass wildlife, so if you do not have a history of a good recall, then work on it with lots of rewards and a long line over the summer and you’ll be ready to go next season. 

Now, pick a small objective to try first. You will want to see how your dog handles this and when they are just learning, there will be a learning curve. Buffy’s first few times out, she was too excited on the way up. She would wonder on an off the skin track, playing in the snow. She quickly smartened up though and learned to conserve her energy for the intense down hill sections. Make sure to watch your dog carefully and make sure they are following your line and understanding the game. Most dogs will get this right away, it’s fun, the humans are finally fast! 

Buffy enjoys some corn snow laps in Utah.

Finally, my last words on it, make sure your dog is having fun and be safe. This goes for any activity, but not all dogs will love this sport. If your dog looks like Cody did, miserable and relieved to be back at the car, then leave them at home when you go. And always trust your gut for conditions. There was a day two seasons ago where I debated bringing Buffy since it was an area where we would be getting easy small laps, but it wasn’t without risk and it was the first warm day of the season (something that can increase avalanche activity). I left her at home. At the parking lot I saw others with dogs and ran into my neighbour who said he was sad I didn’t have Buffy, which made me question my own decision. Well, on the way up to our first lap, My partner was caught in a an avalanche. He managed to ski out of it and it wasn’t huge, but it was big enough to injure or potentially burry Buffy, who normally would have been on his heels. Always trust your gut and never put your dogs at unnecessary risk. 

Try something new: Skijoring Part 2

Buffy and Cody demonstrating a “line out” before we start to skijor together

In my last post, I introduced skijoring as a new activity for you to try. So if you’ve got your equipment and you are ready to give it a shot, this article will focus on some tips for success. 

How to get started

Setting yourself up for success means planning ahead and putting in a bit of training. If you have never done any pulling sport with your dogs, you need to teach your dog to pull. You might be thinking “oh my dog can pull” but pulling while on a walk is very different than pulling you on a ski track where they can’t just stop to sniff every couple of seconds. 

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Try something new: Skijoring Part 1

Skijoring is a Norwegian term which translates to “ski driving”. Its origin lies with horses and skis. You get the idea, slap on some skis, let the horse pull you and try to hold on and stay upright. It’s actually still a sport with horses, but in recent years, it’s become a popular activity with dogs. So what am I proposing you try exactly? I want you to consider trying skijoring with your dog (or dogs if you have more than one). That means strapping on some cross country ski’s, investing in a proper harness and skijoring kit, and hitting the trails.  You’ll feel the magic of working as a team with your dog to glide over the snow, the wind on your face, the excited look of your dog, it will be the best experience of your life. There you have it, you are ready to go. … Just kidding. I’ve broken down this post into two because there is quite a bit of information to include. This post will talk about the basics you need to get together before you start working towards getting on skis with your dog. 

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A new decade, a perfect reason for trying something new…

It’s New Years day and it’s a big one. We are starting a new decade and that might be the perfect motivation for some to try something new. There are lots of new things you can try, but this post will focus on what you should consider for trying some new things with your dogs. I will follow this up by more detailed posts every two weeks on specific activities and my advice on getting into those activities in particular.

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Why shock collars do not make sense for adventure dogs… or any dogs

60bd9e3b-0319-45e1-9117-351f634a9837I have seen a disturbing trend in the adventure dog world lately. I have seen trainers promoting the use of shock collars as a means to control a dog so that their client can hike with their dog off leash. Those trainers are selling these devices as “remote training” devices which do not hurt the dog. But the reality is, they are shock collars, and this is being promoted instead of using scientifically based methods which are proven to work and not harm a dog’s wellbeing. Seeing this trend, I felt I had to write something to try and provide more information about these collars. 

So here we go, this is probably going to ruffle some feathers. In fact, I fully expect to get some messages or comments from folks after posting this. But I cannot keep quiet anymore.  Continue reading

Why the correct number of dogs might be N+0

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I recently read an article on Outside Online titled “Why the Correct Number of Dogs is Always N+1”. The article, advocated a number of reasons why adding another dog to your family is a good choice, and easier than you will think. 

As a professional dog trainer, I cringed while reading the article. I support multi-dog households. I myself, have two amazing dogs. But adding another dog to the mix is not always the right decision and should not be described as “easier than it looks”.  Continue reading

Adventure Report: Hiking Abbott Ridge in Glacier National Park (Canada)

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Buffy and my partner taking in the views on Abbott Ridge.

Glacier National Park (Canada) is located in between Yoho National Park and Revelstoke Mountain National Park, about an hour east of Revelstoke British Columbia. This park is known for being home of the Rogers Pass, a pass made famous for it’s big mountains and intense avalanche activity (sadly made famous when the rail was trying to build through the pass and a large avalanche in 1910 killed 62 men, eventually the rail was re-routed through a mountain via a tunnel). The park is a mecca for backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the winter and home to several camping sites and many amazing trails in the summer. The mountain range that runs through the park is the Selkirks, which run all the way down and into the states. The mountains in this park are big, steep and in the winter, covered in deep powder. 

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