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How to Keep Your Senior Dog Sharp with Dog Enrichment

Providing mental stimulation with enrichment activities is one way to meet our senior dogs’ cognitive needs.

Written by: Paul J. Kearney

Last Updated on March 21, 2024 by Dogster Team

senior dogs

How to Keep Your Senior Dog Sharp with Dog Enrichment

Enrichment activities for our dogs are like a daily crossword or Sudoku puzzle for ourselves to keep our minds fluid. The idea behind enrichment is to take something and add something extra pleasing to it to make or allow the activity to be enjoyed even more.

When are dogs seniors?

Dogs are considered seniors at different ages depending on size. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, larger dog breed dogs tend to have shorter life spans compared to smaller breeds. Although it varies, dogs can be considered seniors at age 7, with large breed dogs like Great Danes being considered seniors at age 5 or 6.

In my approach as a trainer, this is how I break it down: Small breeds are seniors around 10 to 12 years old, medium-size breeds are seniors around 8 to 9 years old, and large and giant breeds are seniors around 6 to 7 years old. Dogs of this senior age group are entering a part of life where enrichment activities and mental stimulation is of vital importance for a cognitively fluid lifestyle well into their elder (geriatric) years.

Related: 6 Things to Love About Senior Dogs

Providing mental stimulation with enrichment activities is one way to meet our dogs’ cognitive needs. For our senior dogs, this is one great way of proactively keeping canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CCDS) at bay. Providing enrichment activities has shown to reduce the incidence and severity of CCDS.

senior dogs
Providing mental stimulation with enrichment activities is one way to meet our dogs’ cognitive needs. Photo: Photoboyko | Getty Images

Enrich through feeding

Each meal is an opportunity to engage the brain. Foraging activities promote cognitive function and positive feelings of being fed in a way that involves more than just consumption. One way to create a foraging activity is to portion out our dogs’ daily rations into meals presented in products they eat the food out of or from something that engages the brain and promotes cognitive function. Here are some examples.

There is nothing like a snuffle mat for enrichment feeding for seniors. It’s easy for all dogs to do. You can either make one at home or purchase one. Photo: Melissa L Kauffman

Snuffle mat: This is my favorite food enrichment activity for seniors. Snuffle mats are easier to learn how to use than a lot of other enrichment activities. A snuffle mat is a homemade or bought toy that provides dogs with an opportunity to sniff and search for hidden treats. It typically consists of fleece strips tied on to a mat.

Just place the kibble or other dry food in between the loose ends of the fleece, which provide the hiding spots for the food. Snuffle mats provide a way to feed dogs using their natural desire to forage for their meals.

For raw feeders, snuffle mats can be loaded with dehydrated proteins. I make my own by thinly slicing proteins and placing them on racks in my oven at 175 degrees Fahrenheit for eight hours. I break up this homemade jerky and sprinkle that on top of and into the snuffle mats for my dogs to forage from.

Supervise any dog with a snuffle mat. Pick it up as soon as the dog is finished, so he won’t be tempted to go for the fabric and turn this feeder into a chew toy. If you have multiple dogs and one is a food resource guarder, do this with the dogs in separate rooms. Do not allow the snuffle mat to be around both dogs at the same time, as it can cause a fight.

Hide and seek: Dogs love to search for treasure, and it’s an awesome game to replicate in the home, plus it’s a fun way to feed them. Start by portioning out one meal into multiple containers, and hide them in one or two rooms of your home instead of just putting the food in one bowl. For those of you who do this, make this new activity easier for your dog by prompting him on a tour of where you hid the food treasures. Every time your dog finds each stash of food, mark that with the verbal cue “Find it.” After a couple of times of prompting your dog to find things and marking when he does, move on to letting him search on his own after you ask him to go find his treasure with the verbal cue “Find it.” For treats, you can use cups and let the dog figure out which cup the treat is under.

Related: Stuck At Home? Play This Indoor Game With Your Dog

Scatter feeding: A really low-level introduction to scattered feeding, and one super easy way to do a searching game, is to take your dog’s food and toss it up in the air. Let it spill all over the ground for your dog to find each piece individually. You can do this on the patio, in the grass, (as long as it’s not treated with chemicals) or in the kitchen.

The wider the scatter and the longer the search, the more fun will be had. Scatter feeding can also be done in and contained to a large cardboard box that your dog can reach into. Place a bunch of objects your dog cannot swallow in the box, like toys and an old towel, and sprinkle the food on the objects in the box. Your dog can root around through them to find food.

senior dogs
Swimming is a great low-impact activity for senior dogs. Photo: WasittT | Getty Images

Get moving

Swimming is excellent physical enrichment for our senior dogs. Swimming pools, slow-moving rivers and lakes that are free of green algae are safeplaces to take your dog swimming. Swimming works the whole body and is low impact. Even wading is amazing for our dogs, as the environment is always offering new sights, smells and sounds. (Note: Senior dogs and brachycephalic dogs should always wear flotation devices for safety.) There are also assisted swimming hydrotherapy centers specifically for dogs, usually used in rehabilitation from injuries, and all of these facilities also have programs for senior dogs.

Sniff this

Sniffaris are special walks (or parts of walks) where the dog picks where to go (as long as the environment and direction he chooses is safe.) Go at your dog’s pace, and let him stop and gather information from everything he can safely smell. Olfactory, visual and auditory enrichment can be particularly beneficial for our older dogs that have mobility issues. Allowing them to stop and smell as much as they choose to is a great way to engage their brains while out having this physical-fitness fun with you.

Dogs with more severe mobility issues can also be taken on walks in a small kid’s wagon or dog stroller, so they also can benefit from olfactory, visual and auditory enrichment without stressing their joints. This is a great way of getting out and about for our older dogs that don’t have the stamina they once used to. Gathering scent is a great thalamus workout — that’s the part of the brain that relays sensory information.

senior dogs
Take dogs with mobility issues on a walk in a stroller or wagon so they can enjoy the smells, sights and sounds. Photo: Melissa L Kauffman

Still agile

Seniors can still enjoy agility. Set up short courses in your yard to get your senior motivated to interact with you and have some good movement going through obstacles that are less stressful on the joints and are set at easier levels to accommodate aging bodies. Use pool noodles or bars on the ground for your dog to walk over instead of jumping over. Use a child’s play tunnel for your dog to go through. Create weave poles using orange cones or poles stuck in the ground set far apart from each other. As they improve, decrease the distance between each cone or pole. You can also make an obstacle course out of items in your home — couch cushions, cones, broom handles, Hula- Hoops or anything that you can set up for your dog to go over and around. Get creative, have fun and, most importantly, ensure that your dog is having fun.

Living a life full of enrichment greatly benefits our dogs. It benefits how they engage with the world, it benefits how they think and interpret each experience, and it benefits our relationship with them. Some of the greatest memories I have are stopping and smelling the roses with my dogs.

Featured photograph: MathewHayward | Getty Images

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