by Hindy Pearson
Are you baffled by the words exercise and senior dog appearing in the same sentence? Do you believe that senior dogs no longer need exercise? That they’re quite happy sitting, or should I say, lying around napping?
I can assure you senior dogs need exercise, it is simply a matter of knowing the type, intensity and duration.
Time to hop on my soapbox for a moment or two folks!
Before I get to the specifics I have to know one thing –
- Are you exercising your dog at all?
- Do you want to but he’s unable to walk, or has lost interest?
- Do you believe old dogs don’t need any?
You exercise your dog
If you’re exercising your dog wonderful!
Can’t walk or won’t walk
If your dog isn’t able to move very well or seems to have lost all interest in going out, I’m sorry to hear that. Have you assumed it’s a natural result of the aging process and are leaving him be? What other behaviour changes have you noticed? I urge you to make an appointment with your vet ASAP. What many people consider to be natural signs of aging are signs of illness, or issues that will only worsen if not attended to.
Arthritis for example could be one explanation, your dog is in pain even if he’s not showing it. The good news is it can be managed with things like acupuncture, hydrotherapy, supplements such as Glucosamine/Chondroitin or New Zealand Green Lipped Mussels and medications. Other reasons could include vision loss or dementia.
Please, please, please book the next available appointment with your vet.
Old dogs are happy sleeping
I’ll try not to scream! Yes they may be sleeping more, no they may not be able to stay out as long or run as far. So what, adapt the exercise to suit their abilities. Imagine how depressed they must be, never doing anything.
Senior is a number not a condition
Yes I’m still on the box but I’m just about done….for now!
We have got to change how we look at seniors of all species, but dogs for the sake of this piece. Let’s talk about what images the words “old dog” or “senior dog” trigger in the minds of many. Is it of dogs that can barely walk, struggle to get up off their beds, spend their days sleeping? That’s sad.
Last week I met a few “senior” dogs who had more energy than a lot of young pups! Their guardians told me how healthy and active they were, and I could see the only thing senior about them was the fact they’ve reached the age where that title is given. They were running along the beach chasing sticks, playing with other dogs and having a blast. It was a beautiful sight to see.
I’m off the box
Let’s talk about how to exercise a senior dog, actually let me be more specific – a senior dog that is lower energy, has slowed down a bit or for physical reasons has to be careful.
Types of exercise
Walking is a wonderful form of exercise if you take it slowly. In addition to several pee breaks a day, I also take Red out for four walks. It breaks up the day for her, gets her out and about, but isn’t too taxing. I say we walk for about 10 minutes, sometimes a bit longer. In the nicer weather if I join my husband on a long walk with our other dog Jack, I put Red in the stroller so she’s included, then let her wander around the grass when we get to the park. New smells, new surroundings.
Watch where you’re walking
Pay attention to the surfaces you’re walking on. Stick to level ground and be careful in places like parks where slight slopes or unseen holes can cause your dog to stumble and injure himself. Caution is also needed on slick floors like those in shops.
Red has very tiny skinny little legs and she’s blind, so she stumbles easily in uneven grass. I like the grass because it’s cushiony so I keep to even patches, but we also walk on pavement because it’s a smoother surface. I find it safer if we rotate between the two.
Too hot outside you may find your dog panting, too cold and he’ll be shivering. Don’t let that stop you from walking your dog, you just need to take precautions.
In hot weather stick to early morning and evening walks, avoiding the midday heat if possible. Walk on the shady side of the street if there is one, and give your dog water during your outings.
In cold weather put a sweater and/or coat on your dog, and boots or paw wax if there’s snow and salt on the ground.
Common sense please
You may want to combine your workout session with his, but unless your senior is still as energetic as ever, you’re going to have to go it alone or walk a dog from a shelter. They’ll definitely give you a workout…but I digress!
Red would walk and walk if I let her, but too much too often and she gets a bit lame, a clear signal she’s overdone it. You have to be the clock watcher and sometimes the party pooper.
Swimming is an excellent form of exercise that burns off energy, is low impact and easy on the joints. Again you have to be the clock watcher and not let him get too tired. They’re not polar bears so do it on a nice summer day, and have towels at the ready for a quick dry.
Your dog may not be able to chase a ball from a ball launcher, but that doesn’t mean he can’t play a modified game of fetch. Instead of throwing the ball high and far, stick to low bounces and short distances, or a gentle roll across a carpeted or level grassy area. Don’t forget the water if you’re outside.
Some vets have water treadmills for physio on the premises, and is another great way to exercise your dog. I imagine availability and/or cost may not make it a viable option for everyone, but it’s worth looking into.
I couldn’t believe it either but yes there is such a thing. The term “downward dog” has just taken on a whole new meaning for me. You could search for a class in your area, or check out a youtube video. Run it by your vet first please!
What if even these are too much?
Then I highly recommend a visit to your vet, or a holistic vet, to discuss options for helping your dog gain some mobility. I’ve met people who have found a lot of success with acupuncture and supplements, so don’t give up on your dog. Until things improve ask if there’s any physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, muscle strengthening exercises or massage options to prevent muscles from atrophying due to lack of use.
In our house we’ve used ramps, strollers and slings and I know what a massive difference it has made in all of our lives. How can they help you with exercising your dog? I’m glad you asked.
My dog Jack became paralysed in August. It happened suddenly, within 4 hours I would say. After spinal surgery (his paralysis was the result of a disc that exploded in his back), he could only drag his back legs until the signals started getting through again. We used a sling to walk him for the 2 ½ months it took for him to recover enough mobility to walk without one. It provided much needed support and may be just the thing you need to help your dog.
The pet stroller has got to be one of the greatest inventions. Take it with you, let him walk a bit and when he’s had enough, put him in the stroller. Carry on walking and enjoy the day, or go home. Either way your dog gets his outing without any risk of injury or overdoing it.
Don’t leave your dog behind while the rest of the family enjoys a day out in the car. It’s understandable he’s too big to lift in and out, but that’s why ramps were created. Another wonderful addition to every home, it gives your dog back some of his independence. He can also join you in bed again…like he used to. Once you arrive at your destination, take out the stroller you brought and you’re all set to enjoy as a family.
Exercising your dog indoors
Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting you let your dog tear through the house, destroying everything in his path! Let’s be realistic though. There will be times when your dog can’t or won’t go out, but he’ll still need to get rid of some of that energy. That’s why games and interactive toys are the perfect indoor activity to release pent up energy and stave off boredom. Did anyone say mental stimulation?
What is mental stimulation you ask?
It is about keeping your dog’s brain active, and is important not only for senior dogs, but dogs of all ages. Were you aware that exercising a dog’s mind will tire him out as much as a game of fetch would?
The games I will talk about below are perfect for dogs of all ages, and definitely those with severely restricted mobility. There is no longer a reason for him to spend his life on his bed, get him involved and get him happy.
Add to them, change them around, or create your own versions to suit your dog. What is important is to start slowly, keep it simple then gradually increase the challenge. Too difficult from the outset and your dog will get frustrated and walk away.
Keep play sessions short, and end them before he loses interest.
Here are a few ideas to get you started
Put a treat in one hand, make a fist with both then hold them out to your dog. When he sniffs or paws the correct hand praise him and give him the treat. Get creative in finding ways to make it more challenging – how about getting two people to hold out their hands instead of just one?
The shell game
Take 1 easy to turn over cup, and with your dog watching place a treat under it. When he finds it praise him and repeat. You can add a cue like “find it” so in future he’ll know what he’s supposed to do when he hears those words.
Over time increase the difficulty by adding a second cup, then a third, still only putting the treat under one. How about moving the cups around?
Name the toys
Choose one toy and play with your dog. While playing keep referring to the toy by name (for example frog). To test how well he’s learned it put it on the floor, say “frog” and wait for him to play with it or pick it up. Reward him.
Next take the frog and one completely different in look, put them on the floor, say “frog” and reward when he chooses it, ignore if he doesn’t. Then name a second toy and repeat.
Teach your dog some tricks
Can he lie down? Give you his paw? Stay? Even if he knows every trick in the book, a refresher course is still fun and will get him thinking if you add a twist. For example, instead of just getting him to sit, create a sequence – sit, stand, sit, lay down, sit, stand, treat.
We used to love blowing bubbles as kids, why not have some fun with your dogs. Depending on mobility, blow them high and have your dog jump to catch them, or keep them low to the ground and let him bat them around.
A Kong is a rubber toy you stuff with treats or your dog’s meal. They’re durable, non-toxic and can stand up to some seriously heavy duty chewers. Put them in the freezer to make the contents and the activity last longer. Be careful of how much you give your dog and what you put inside, you don’t want him gaining weight.
Interactive puzzle toys
Another super way to get your dog’s brain active is through some puzzle solving. What I like about these toys is you can increase the level of difficulty, challenging your dog in stages.
How to exercise a senior dog – conclusion
There are so many ways to provide physical exercise and mental stimulation, there’s no excuse for a bored and unhappy dog. I truly hope you have found this post helpful, and if your dog is suffering from mobility issues, I urge you to make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible.
We would love to hear what you do to keep your senior dog active. Sharing tips and advice helps others, just leave them in the comment section below.
This post was written by author Hindy Pearson. She is a long time shelter volunteer, dog trainer, and runs the Saffy Pearson Resource Centre. A mobile centre offering free advice for people who share their lives with cats and dogs. She has a website called Caring For a Senior Dog and thinks the pet stroller is the greatest invention.