How to help your senior dog live it’s best life.

This months guest blog comes from Joe Nutkins of Dog Training For Essex And Suffolk. She is going to talk us through how we can help our dogs stay fit and healthy when they get into their older years. This blog massively resonates with me as Vinnie is a senior and is slowing down alot now.

Joe Colling Nutkins with her anmals.

Joe is a certified Professional Canine Fitness Trainer, KC Accredited Instructor, Accredited Canine Hoopers UK Instructor and a pet bereavement counsellor.

Joe works with famillies with their dogs from puppy through to senior but has a special place in her heart for the oldies.

Joe uses holistic therapies including red light therapy and zoopharmacognosy for her dog’s Merlin ans Ripley who are both Norwich Terriers. She lives with her husband, dogs, rescue hens, ducks and quail. One of which is a house dog called Echo!

Senior Dogs

We have all heard the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” but as the proud owner of one Senior Dog currently and two senior dogs a few years ago as well as being a dog trainer of senior dogs classes I can confirm that the saying just is very far from reality!!

I’d like to suggest a celebration of our older dogs and this blog is a general guide for owners of dogs approaching senior years and dogs in their senior years to continue providing mental stimulation as well as helping towards keeping them fit and active. I have now been the proud owner of three Senior Dogs, who loved doing new things at all ages and I got to spend 16 1/2 years and 13 1/2 years with Cassie and Taylor plus Merlin is currently 9 years old; they have all trained and worked with me from puppy through to their senior years. I am also a pet dog trainer and on top of regular classes and training session I run Senior Dog classes throughout the year to help provide a comfortable class environment for older dogs without younger excitable dogs causing any concern and covering a combination of exercises including brain work, body strengthening and awareness plus advice on enrichment and health of older dogs.

Working with so many older dogs it has been a real privilege over the last few years to speak to the owners and they tell me they are so pleased to see their veteran dog wanting to work again with them, or even better that they hadn’t trained their dog before but wanted to see how they did in the senior dog class and can’t believe how much their dog enjoyed it! Showing that it truly is never too late to start working with dogs – all ages and abilities can enjoy doing something new for the enrichment, bonding and fun of it!!

My own Senior dogs have just been up Mount Snowdon in Wales in May 2016! Cassie had a little extra help with a robust dog stroller when needed and we did have rests (I have ME so require rests while walking my dogs) and all three dogs loved the changes in terrain and things to sniff!! Keeping them mobile using canine conditioning exercises for their individual needs helps ensure they can do these more adventurous walks plus the brain work we do keeps the mind active and able to stay aware of surroundings and enjoy going to new places with confidence. Once our dogs become classed as Senior, over 7 years usually, I urge owners to continue their learning and play as well as looking into ways diet and other areas can contribute to keeping our Golden Oldies young at heart.

I adore Older Dogs – they have so much to give!

So, what is an ‘Older Dog’?

Senior ages tend to differ a little depending on the breed type of a dog. Smaller dogs tend to grow and develop quicker as Puppies but then the ageing process slows right down during adulthood so although classed as Senior at 7 years old they often don’t start showing their age until nearer 9-10 years. Compare this to Large and Giant breeds which take another 6-9 months to grow and mature as Puppies but by the age of 7-8 are often feeling the strain of long walks and vigorous exercise. This is a generalisation of course, as an exceptionally fit and healthy larger breed can still be very active at 10 while a smaller dog on a poor diet, overweight and not in good health can slow right down by age 6/7. But it’s valuable to understand that a larger breed dog slowing down in regular classes at 5-6 years old could benefit from adjustments to welcome the ageing process and help them thrive again!

There are a few things that we, our dogs caregiver, can consider when looking at our own dogs to determine if they are showing signs of aging:

* Eating habits can often change – either going off the food usually loved, or wanting to eat more.
* Changes in weight – either gaining weight quicker which needs addressing to help keep the heart healthy, or loosing weight steadily which can lead to issues with the body including organ function.
* Attitude towards walks seems to have changed, perhaps reluctant to go out for a walk or slower while out.
* Changes in hearing or eyesight – not hearing you get home at first or you notice they are surprised by movement and shadows or confuse you for other people nearby.
* You may spot that they take longer to properly wake up or physically get up after a sleep, which can be due to physical limitations and not specifically due to age but can be signs of joint stiffness or back discomfort.
* Activities they usually do with ease become harder work or they start mis-judging or avoiding things like jumping in the back door or getting on/off the sofa.

On identifying some areas above such as changes in sight or hearing, going off food or weight changes do book a vets appointment just to rule out anything medical – many dogs are not ready to be classed as senior at 7 years old and the signs you’ve noticed could be indicators of something easily adjusted with vets help. Once cleared by a vet or given some support through medication or supplements dogs can then start working on preparing for older age through strengthening the body with physical conditioning and strengthening the mind with brain work and mental stimulation.

Noteworthy considerations when owning or working with an Older Dog

I personally know of many older dogs who are physically in better condition and can impress with their tricks and training more then some younger dogs, I still feel it’s beneficial in the long term to understand how to spot some of the common changes often occurring with older dogs and how we can address them. Some of these changes can also occur in any age of dog, but if your dog hasn’t shown signs of them previously there is an increased chance of them starting once your dog is heading to double figures.

Changes in hearing and attention –
We’ve all experienced selective deafness with dogs! There becomes a fine line with dogs coming into senior stages of life where they could genuinely not be hearing us so clearly, or the usual routines and ‘rules’ have been relaxed enough that a dog is seeing what they can get away with or they are pretending and using their selective hearing!

Before going deaf some dogs can go through changes like tinnitus which will cause sounds to be distorted or unusual to them and can actually contribute to new fears developing. If you spot new behaviour responses with your dog when hearing sounds they have heard for years then that can indicate hearing changes.

Changes in vision –
One of the most common issues older dogs can develop with their eyes is a thickening of the lens. It’s quite natural and can happen gradually or more quickly and often dogs can appear to be walking into something invisible or into cobwebs so suddenly recoil when we cannot see anything there. There are eyedrops that can help reduce this and really helped Taylor’s eyes when he had exactly this issue age 10-11 years old.

Cataracts can develop at almost any age but are more commonly associated with older dogs. Cataracts can be slowed and turned around medically when caught early enough but can also be soothed and slowed through specific eyedrops and increasing specific vitamins. Cataracts can often be spotted when a dog’s eye starts to look more cloudy and blue if usually brown and can be caused by genetics as well as trauma to the eye, nutritional needs and other eye health issues.

Mobility and Activity Levels Declining –
As our dogs age they will have experienced more and more wear and tear on their bodies including the joints, muscles, tendons etc and this tends to add up to reduced mobility over time, just like with us! Arthritis is something often associated with older dogs but can affect dogs under a year old, however once a dog is considered Senior it’s definitely worth looking at ways we can help ease any arthritis discomfort or potential joint and mobility issues for the future.

What your dog does when younger can strongly affect how they are when older. For example if your dog jumps out of the car when you go out somewhere that is putting unnatural pressure on the front legs, shoulders, spine etc. Imagine that as a once a week walk for several years. Now imagine that is 4-5 days a week for several years!! Using a ramp or picking your dog up out of the car from now can really help reduce the front legs becoming weaker or painful.  Slippery floors can cause damage to dogs’ bodies from puppy age onwards as when slipping they will try to over compensate, tense the body and this causes unnatural gait and weight shifting which can tear ligaments, pull muscles etc. Having mats down on the floor especially where your dogs bed is or lays down, where they need to turn a corner etc will really help them for their whole lives.

When our older dogs start slowing down it is very easy for us caregivers to try and help them by stopping or reducing their activity, but this can actually cause our dogs to then be unable to continue at their new reduced level of activity due to muscle wastage, loosing interest or even gaining weight from not being as active! Although when they slow down they might not be able to do a 5 mile walk in one go or an hours agility class it doesn’t mean they need to stop completely! Shorter walks but to different places where there is varied terrain and new things to investigate keeps the mind active as well as the body. Trying activities like tricks training, canine Hoopers, Scentwork etc can be great to give your dog a new purpose and sense of enthusiasm, and doing something like canine fitness / conditioning, hydro (with vets referral) or even low level canine parkour can help with muscle strength, body awareness and enjoying their fun times with you!

One area that can really help dogs to continue with their regular walks, training, exercises etc is to ensure the body is prepared for the activity so there is less chance of injury or accident. Warming up can be done in a few ways and there are always more to learn that are more specific to your dog. If your dog has any actual physical issues I do advise seeking veterinary advice or seeing a canine physiotherapist or rehab professional to ensure your dog is getting the correct exercises to suit them.

By contacting a Canine Massage Specialist you will be able to work on a plan for your own dog to use that is specific for them and will help them in many more ways then just warming up. Canine Massage specialists will also be able to confirm what exercise suit your dogs body type and needs.

Moving your dog a little before exercise is also advisable. This may sound odd, getting your dog to move before they do more movement but for a warm up I mean do a few minutes of gentle or slow walking before they go off lead and run about or chase a ball. Guide your dog to walk in a circle one way then the other before starting a long walk, giving your dog a short on lead stroll before going down to the beach and running on the uneven sand. Human’s doing exercise do not go from sitting on the couch to running down the road, and dog’s shouldn’t either. So from the house or car give your older dog a few mins slower walking or mooching before they move onto running, jumping, chasing toys etc.

At the end of a walk giving your dog a chance to cool that body back down is just as important as warming up. So again if your dog has been running and playing with other dogs let them have a couple of minutes walking calmly with you before you reach home or go back to the car, if you are having a longer hike across hills and rough terrain then give your dog a few minutes sniffing and walking slowly on grass before going and stopping at a cafe for a break. If you are doing activities at a training class such as agility or heelwork to music you can finish by walking with your dog in a large circle clockwise then anti clockwise to bring your dog’s body back to it’s usual state.

Conditioning and Strengthening can play a really big role in all dog’s lives, especially those who are older. Conditioning work involves helping the whole body stay mobile and there are many ways to do this including general walks on different types of ground surface, help and advice from canine conditioning specialists, wag and tone training, physio, massage and chiropractic work and more. Conditioning also helps with body awareness which in turn helps older dog’s not trip over things while walking, not bumping into door frames while passing through doors etc. Strengthening work often starts with overall core work and then develops into targeting more specific areas, such as the back legs which tend to be one of the first areas to weaken in older dogs.

There are canine professionals who can help work out a plan for your dog individually, or check your local training centres for conditioning classes or sessions. You can also learn about canine conditioning more through places like Fenzi Dog Sports Academy who offer courses about Canine Conditioning which help with the understanding of the exercises but are not designed to diagnose or replace veterinary advice.

Alternative Therapies to help with Mobility and Comfort.

If you do find your older dog becoming stiffer or has pain or discomfort from joints or other issues, once diagnosed or confirmed by your vet there are many alternative ways of helping ease their symptoms. Hydrotherapy has become very popular for dogs of all ages and not only helps dogs post surgery to regain strength and mobility, but is also beneficial for older dogs who are feeling the strain on their joints and bones as the hydro pool provides relief from inflammation, reduces the stress or weight on the body or weak limbs, and can build strength to continue improving.

Laser therapy can help with issues including the skeletal and muscular areas, providing both pain relief and actively healing damaged areas. Laser can help older dogs to gain pain relief without pain meds and side effects and is non evasive also.

Massage and Ttouch is very good for older dogs for a number of reasons. Professionals will be able to design a programme to suit your dog best and provide relief from discomfort, anxiety, help them settle at home better and often will be able to show owners some methods they can continue at home which provides additional one to one time with your Senior dog, thus increasing your bond even further.

Chiropractors and Physiotherapists, again referred by your vet, will be able to diagnose specific issues with your dog that are more permanent or causing more pain, and then design a programme to help adjust your dog’s level of pain and discomfort leading to increased mobility, comfort, returning to walks, better metabolism and more.

Ramps for mobility.
It’s still important to help your dog do as much for themselves as possible as activity helps continue activity so instead of lifting them or picking up for steps try looking at introducing ramps for steps into home and garden. Bring in steps or a small ramp in areas where your dogs usually jumps down from such as the sofa or raised garden – these help keep your dog’s independence plus are good strengthening work and takes the force off shoulders and back through jumping down. For indoors there are many small ramps with a carpeted surface which look fine in the home.

Use of harnesses for mobility.
Older dogs can find their back legs are one of the first areas to become weaker and this can mean walking becomes harder work or even holding themselves up to toilet is more difficult. There are a vast amount of companies creating harnesses to help with mobility for dogs – including rear end to support rear leg weakness, full body harnesses to help a disabled dog start regaining strength in the lead after operations or alongside conditioning and physio work, harnesses to help a dog stand back up after sleeping or to help lift in and out of the car. If you find your dog has some weaknesses or difficulties with walking or standing or a side effect from pain medication, then using harnesses can really help your dog stay mobile and clean and protect your back more too!

Check ups with the Vet are more important with Senior Dogs –
Changes in our dogs body can happen much quicker when dogs are older so having check ups more regularly then once a year can help spot something as soon as it changes or appears. This might be a change in mobility, signs of arthritis, dental pain, loss of hearing or sight or might be changes in general behaviour. These checkups can highlight changes in the body quicker and diagnose issues to help treat. There are tests for older dogs to check for things like Cushings disease, Canine Dysfunction, liver and kidney function, how healthy the heart is and much more. I used to take 12 year old Taylor and 16 year old Cassie for their OAP checkups every 6 months or so. There are also urine tests that can be done routinely for older dogs at the vets to check for things like diabetes. You may decide that annual vaccinations are no longer needed once your dog is over 7-10 years older but so often stopping vaccinations means stopping annual health checks – please keep the health checks going!

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