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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.