Having Fun with Senior Dogs
October 1, 2009

This fall my beloved pup, Comet, is quickly approaching her 11th birthday! Today, healthy dogs can live well into their teen years, so my family and I are continuing to help Comet stay healthy and active. We all know the right things to do for our pets: good food, exercise, veterinary care, leashes and collars with ID tags, and lots of love. But another thing we can do is provide mental stimulation for our pets so that their brains will continue to work as fast as they can. When pets are inactive or bored, their minds aren’t functioning to the best of their abilities. Animals can become depressed or sickly, and develop habits that may cause harm to them, or perhaps even indirectly shorten their lives. You can help your pet by introducing a variety of appealing and motivating activities, as it is never too late to teach a dog something new.

Although I know Comet is brilliant, she has never been interested in crossword puzzles or playing an instrument. But in the last few years we have found some fun things that keep her active and healthy. One of these things is agility. Ok, Comet isn’t going to win any prizes for this, but she does love the challenges as well as the rewards, which include belly rubs and kibble treats. Agility courses are like obstacle courses; there may be several different pieces of equipment laid out for a dog to follow with the direction of his guardian. For an older girl like Comet, we have a few inexpensive agility pieces coupled with a few homemade ones which she likes to use. Her favorite by far is the “tube,” a round, twelve-foot nylon tunnel made for running through (or in Comet’s case, strolling through), in which she patiently waits for a “go through” command. She also has some weaving poles, which are just that: poles for her to weave around, which provide a real mental and physical challenge for her. Other easy pieces of equipment include a platform to “stay and hold,” as well as an “up and down ramp” on which to walk. Comet LOVES her agility time with us, as she likes to please us and even show off a little. These activities give her mental and physical attention and something interesting to do!

There are many other things that can provide lots of interest to older dogs. Most of us like to play games, and Comet is no exception. She has a variety of interactive games which keep her mind churning. Most of the games involve hiding pieces of kibble that Comet has to find. One in particular is a game in which she has to find pieces of kibble underneath moveable pieces attached to a board. She sniffs, moves her paw this way and that, until she locates the piece with the treat. She has a lot of fun playing with this and—other than having to wash up a slobbery board when we are done—I have fun, too. Other variations of the game include hiding kibble pieces in cardboard egg cartons and underneath paper cups that are moved around. We also like to introduce a new toy every once in a while to keep her interested in playtime, one that is safe and soft for her older teeth. The ideas are virtually limitless. Offering dogs a variety of challenges will keep their brains humming and their tails wagging!

There are many products available that you can purchase, or you can build your own.  Most of these products are marketed toward younger dogs, but dogs of all ages can enjoy the mental challenge they offer.  The “Busy Buddy Tug-A-Jug” by Premier is a great example of a toy that can keep your dog entertained as she shakes out the kibble from inside the bottle.  It can be especially exciting for dogs if you have a “special” toy that only comes out on occasion.

Here are a few things to consider:

1.       Talk to your vet about your pet’s ideal weight. If she needs to lose a few pounds, ask your vet how much to feed her. Losing extra pounds can make a huge difference to an aging dog and can give her a lot more energy! Also ask your vet about the type and amount of exercise that is appropriate for your pet’s age and condition.

2.       Although your dog may slow down as she ages, it is important to keep taking her for walks. They may be shorter in length and not as quickly paced as they once were, but your pup deserves fresh air and exercise for her entire life.

3.       Shake up her routine a bit! Try introducing your pet to different parks or a drive. New sights and smells can be stimulating for dogs! This is especially important if your pet likes to meet new dogs and people.

4.       Read. If you read to your dog (and it can be anything you’d like) you are communicating with your pet. She doesn’t have to understand it all but will appreciate the attention and love you give her.

5.       At the end of the day, remember that a tired dog is a happy dog. Keeping your dog active mentally and physically is good for her.