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How to Help Your Dog Stay Active and Enjoy His Senior Years

It recently hit me that my Axle would not live forever; to prepare for his golden years, I talked to an expert about the best activities for senior dogs.

Meghan Lodge  |  Sep 25th 2015


About a month ago, I helped my grandmother say goodbye to her furry companion of nearly 16 years. That’s when it hit me: My dog, Axle, will not live forever. With the average lifespan of his breed being 8 to 15 years, he could very well be considered middle-aged at almost 5.

Once upon a time, that would have been a very scary thought for me, as I used to think that dogs turn into sad, helpless creatures when they got older. As I have met more seniors, I now understand that active older dogs have become less of an exception and much more common.

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My grandmother with her beloved Harley. (Photo courtesy Meghan Lodge)

Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of keeping a dog, Skeeter, for a family member while they were between houses. At 12 years old, he had been all but written off as old and lazy. He moved slow and had started taking excessive naps. With a little TLC, including some pain relief from his arthritis, he definitely perked up while with us. He played outside with Axle, and he even chased a squirrel up a tree! Seeing Skeeter enjoying himself and running around like a much younger dog helped to ease my worries about Axle growing older.

To prepare for Axle’s senior years and to share with you, I spoke with Lisa Matthews, Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer and owner/operator of Pawsitive Practice Training, LLC, about activities we can do with our dogs when they are no longer young pups. Depending on your dog’s health and capabilities, she may be able to participate in many of the same activities even after reaching senior status. However, if your dog suffers from arthritis, as many older dogs do, you will want to engage in low-impact exercise.

“Of course, making sure not to overdo it is key. They may not want to walk as far, but sniffing is great for them. Doing more sniffy walks is really nice,” said Matthews.

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Skeeter, a little lighter around his eyes and nose, but just as handsome as ever! (Photo by Meghan Lodge)

“Older dogs need physical and mental stimulation,” Matthews continued. “They still love learning and want to be included in learning. Nose work can be really fun for them. Seeking out scent is natural, and teaching them to do so can be very mentally stimulating.”

Treat puzzle toys, such as the Outward Hound Mini Treat Wheel Puzzle, can be lots of fun for your senior dog. Since weight maintenance is a concern in older dogs, you can put her regular dog food in the puzzle instead of additional treats.

For dogs who still love to fetch but may be struggling with vision loss, balls like the BirdBall and the Chuck-It Whistler are great options. When thrown, air forced through the holes in the ball creates a whistling sound, which helps your dog track its location. There are many fetch ball options that can be used according to your senior dog’s needs, including glow-in-the-dark or flashing balls and softer balls for sensitive teeth.

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Old dogs still like playing with a buddy, too! (Photo by Meghan Lodge)

I also asked my social media friends what activities they enjoyed with their senior dogs. Many confirmed Matthews’ suggestion of nose work and letting potty breaks and walks evolve into sniff-fests rather than disciplined exercise.

For members of the Facebook group Atlanta Pit Bull Parents, swimming is a popular activity. Group member Heather Om stated, “Swimming was what my vet recommended most to keep her off her joints. I just have to keep her from bellyflopping in!”

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Axle watching his friend, Sookie, retrieve a ball from the pool.

Jennifer Okolie’s 8-year-old Pit Bull likes to lie in the shade, but her 10-year-old Rat Terrier who uses a cart to get around still enjoys more intense activities: “He carts to help with groceries and in the garden, rats under my neighbor’s chicken coop, and runs back and forth in the yard end to end, prancing and barking at the sky because he loves the sound of his own voice.”

Grooming is also a great activity to do with your older dog. Besides the typical maintenance grooming, many dogs enjoy gentle petting or brushing while lying next to you. Not only is this great bonding time with your dog, but science has shown that petting and talking to your dog can lower your blood pressure! This grooming time can also help you stay attuned to your dog’s physical well-being, especially when it comes to early detection of cancerous growths or worsening arthritic pain.

When it comes to activities with senior dogs, again, be sure to talk with your vet about any activities to avoid because of your dog’s health limitations. Other than that, be creative, have fun, and enjoy these golden years with your dog!

How will you help your dog enjoy his senior years? Let us know in the comments!

Read more about senior dogs:

About Meghan Lodge: Fits the Aquarius definition to a fault, loves animals, and is always pushing for change. Loves ink, whether it’s in tattoos, books, or writing on that pretty sheet of blank paper. Proud parent of Toby (cat) and Axle (dog). I’m a former quiet nerd who’s turned bubbly animal-obsessed advocate.