It’s a fact. Sooner or later, the crazy, boisterous puppy who drove you mad and melted your heart in equal measure, will start to slow down into graceful seniority.

I was inspired to write this based on my current experiences with my oldest dog Pip, who is currently a few months shy of his 13th birthday. I want to ensure my dog remains active and healthy, so my quest is to provide the right conditions to allow him to continue to be as independent as possible and to enjoy as much of what he always has to maintain his quality of life.

Pip was diagnosed with Progressive Retinal Atrophy when he was about 5, so in essence he has been slowly losing his sight since birth. Fortunately the progression was slow enough for him to continue to adapt, and he competed in agility until he was ten. I only retired him because I felt I could no longer keep him safe, as he continued to charge around courses at the same out-of-control pace he always had done!

He has developed secondary cataracts in the last couple of years too, so is now functionally blind. Watch him scrambling around the rocks with the other dogs like in the photo above and you wouldn’t know.

Pip also has mild osteoarthritis in his hips and spine, not surprising given the fast and furious life he has led. We help him with a low dose of anti-inflammatory, but our main regimen is regular low-impact exercise and a balanced, varied diet.  

Not every dog will age in the same way, and this is by no means a definitive guide, but hopefully you will find some food for thought here as your dog reaches his senior years. So how do we ensure our older dogs stay healthy and active for as long as possible?

Don’t shorten your walks just because you think you ‘should’.

Inevitably, as dogs age, their exercise needs change. It’s easy to think this just means fewer and shorter walks, and more time in front of the fire. To a certain degree you can be led by your own dog and their actions and responses when it’s time for walkies, but it’s important to discuss this with your vet, particularly if you notice reluctance to go out.

Conditions such as arthritis are more likely to develop in older dogs, but with the right management, continued regular physical activity is an essential part of minimising the impact, maintaining strength in muscles to support joints; as well as for the longer term emotional and overall physical wellbeing of the dog.

There may be adjustments you need to make, but it might be that you alter the type of exercise rather than the length of time e.g. fewer ball games, less jumping or chasing. At a more sedate pace, your dog could potentially happily manage his favourite longer walk, even if it’s not every day.

Toy Play/Games
If your dog enjoyed playing with you as a youngster, there is no reason why this shouldn’t continue throughout his life. Play keeps us all young at heart!

You might simply have to make some adjustments to accommodate physical changes in the dog.

For example, Pip has always loved a game of tug. I used to be able put all my might into the game (and still lose!) These days I am mindful of his hip joints and spine, so if we play tug, I don’t pull at all. I put a tiny bit of resistance in my end of the toy so he can feel some tension, but ultimately, I let him ‘pull’ me. I move in response to him, so he is ‘flinging me around’ until I release the resistance and let him ‘win’.

I’m pretty sure Pip thinks he is the strongest and most savage dog in the world, he is so proud of himself in his little victory dances.

Managing Changes to Vision
Just like in humans, sensory changes are common in older dogs. Visual changes might include the development of cataracts, that cloudiness which prevents light getting to the retina.

I could (and probably should) write a whole Blog post just about this subject, living with a dog whose vision has been slowly deteriorating since birth, but here are a few things to consider:

  • Confidence in dimmer light levels can diminish with cataracts, so evening routines might need to change. Pip developed a habit of going out the door and immediately turning round to come back in when it was dark, meaning he didn’t have his bedtime wee. Then of course he was really desperate in the middle of the night! I now take him out on lead at bedtime to ensure ‘the business’ happens.
  • Make sure there are clear routes around furniture and in the garden that your dog can learn and become familiar with. Avoid putting anything down that might block those routes. This prevents the dog bumping into things, and helps to maintain his independence.
  • If you and the dog have relied on visual cues as part of your training or just in everyday routines, you might need to introduce new verbal/auditory cues. A very simple example is that Pip now can’t see me holding a biscuit towards him when he has gone to his bed after being outside. (I kid myself it limits muddy pawprints being trailed around the house – but I’m deluded!) I now say ‘take it’, so he knows a biscuit is coming towards him. He can smell it of course but doesn’t know whether it’s for him or not unless I give him this permission.

Managing Changes to Hearing
When our old lab Holly started to lose her hearing at around 12 years old, I actually saw it as a blessing. Having been sensitive to many sounds such as thunder and gunshots for a long time (we lived near a grouse moor at the time, not a war zone đŸ˜‰), it was wonderful to see her become a more relaxed and happy dog than she had been in her youth, simply by not experiencing so much of what worried her.

However, for many dogs, it is no doubt disorienting and distressing, so here are some things to consider:

  • Your aging dog might genuinely not have heard you call, so don’t get cross!
  • Because different frequencies can be affected, a dog might hear certain signals better than others e.g. a whistle over the spoken word. In Pip’s case I find clapped hands is now more effective than whistle or spoken word in helping him locate where I am.
  • You could also introduce additional cues such as visual signals if appropriate.
  • Be aware that a relaxing dog or one facing away might not hear your footsteps approach and be startled or even snap at a hand reaching out. Try and announce your approach with something the dog can hear or see.

I have heard suggestion of putting a bell on the dog, so you can locate him if he is no longer able to hear/respond to your call. This is not yet something we have tried yet, but I’d be reluctant to while Pip still has some hearing. Don't want to drive him nuts!

Mental Stimulation
Just like physical exercise, there’s lots of evidence to show that exercising the brain on a regular basis helps to maintain mental function. Any low-impact activity, game, toy or puzzle might fall into this category – but my number one go-to for this is nose work.

Whether it’s hunting for catnip-scented toys or sniffing out biscuits scattered in the grass – it’s all good.  
It’s the most natural of canine activities and every dog can enjoy some form of scent-work. Plus even when there’s physical or sensory deterioration in the aging dog, the sense of smell tends to remain relatively intact.

We try and take Pip to new places that we consider safe for him to explore. He might not be able to see the terrain, but he can still experience the novel smells there, and the problem solving and challenge of finding his way safely helps to bolster his confidence. (Of course, this is managed risk, as it is always overseen by a human ready to intervene should the need arise.)

Canine Communication Skills
It’s very common for even the most outgoing of dogs to become a little less sociable as they age, especially towards other dogs.

For some, the desire to protect their arthritic hips from pain might cause them to ‘warn off’ young bouncy dogs approaching.

For others there are communication changes that happen as a result of sensory losses. Dogs have a repertoire of lots of subtle visual communication signals, involving body language and the use of physical space, that serve to keep everyone getting along without conflict. Unfortunately, deteriorating vision may mean not reading or responding to other dogs’ signals, landing the older dog in hot water as he is perceived to have ‘challenged’ because he invaded space – while he remains clueless that he is the cause of the scuffle.

A dog who walks with a stiff gait can have a similar effect on other dogs, as he 'appears' to be challenging.

Living in our multi-dog household requires a bit of extra management, not least because Pip will literally walk into, or trip over, the other dogs. This causes, at best, grumbling and hard stares from the others. So, we engineer things, especially when there’s movement or tight spaces to limit the chance of friction.

Use What the Dog Already Knows
I guess this all depends on the dog’s experiences, so you will definitely have to get creative with this one. But if you are reading this while your own dog is still a youngster, take the opportunity to train as much as you can whenever you can!

For us, I find myself thankful for all the agility training Pip and I did, because I can use his directional cues ‘left’ and ‘right’ to guide him on a walk and I use the same cue 'walk on' for his ramp up into the van as we did for some of the agility equipment. He learnt ‘stop’ in Good Citizen training and this is now invaluable in preventing him from walking into things.

These pieces of training from his past allow him more freedom, and give him a bit more confidence because ‘he knows the game’ and what he's required to do.

Take Account of the Dog’s Personality
My aim is to maintain as much of what Pip enjoyed in his younger days. He was always a very active and energetic dog, adventurous and confident. So we try to allow him as much opportunity to continue to do that safely as we can.
However, if you have a long-time couch-potato who prefers his bed to any kind of ‘outdoor’ experience; don’t try to change that in his dotage! Look for activities that suit your senior hound.

Hydrotherapy was an option as part of Pip’s arthritis treatment, but he always HATED water. He would literally take a two-mile detour to avoid getting his feet wet. So we decided that, at this point in his journey, the stress of being in the water outweighs the potential benefits.

Yes, there are compromises to be made. Some of our more adventurous walks, like the narrow cliff-top path above the sea, are not safe for a blind dog going solo. We still go there, but the old lad stays on his lead on that section of the path now. He’d prefer not to be on lead, but it’s that or stay home, and none of us wants that.

Not just yet.

In summary, if your aim is to maintain your aging dog’s health, mobility, well-being and quality of life, the take home message is ‘don’t stop all the action’!  Make the adjustments needed to allow your dog to continue enjoying as much of what he always did as possible, until he no longer can, then adjust again.

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