Getting Your Old Dog Ready to Learn New Tricks

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by Emily Fisher, CPDT-KA Scratch and Sniff Canine Services, Guelph

We’ve all heard the phrase “old dogs can’t learn new tricks,” but, like many idioms, there’s hardly a grain of truth in the literal meaning of the phrase. Senior dogs may have some limitations, but with fair accommodation they can learn with the best of them. If you have an old dog, here are a few things to think about.

Before getting into training your grey-muzzled friend, think about the foundation that makes learning possible. Stress, pain, discomfort, and cognitive decline are all factors in why so many think there’s just no point in trying to train an older dog.

Preventative health care is critical at any age, but as your dog ages it’s an even more important consideration. Bring your dog into the vet clinic for routine care and blood screenings, being sure to check for common ailments of the elderly, including kidney, liver, and thyroid function. Educate yourself by speaking with your vet and asking for resources. Your vet won’t know that you’re interested in learning about your ageing friend if you don’t ask!

Lack of mobility is a common problem for many older dogs, and the larger the dog the bigger the problem. Find a referral for supplemental health care, including chiropractic, physical rehab specialists, laser therapy, and massage. These treatments are not luxuries for an older dog; they could mean the difference between mobility and significant discomfort. Heat and cold therapy alone will go a long way to making your older dog more comfortable! Keep an eye not only on her weight, but also muscle tone. You can also speak with your vet about joint supplements. If you have concerns about your dog’s liver or kidney function, ask them about alternatives to so-called NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) for example, the injectable Cartrophen. While old age is inevitable, pain and discomfort doesn’t have to be!

Diet is another important consideration for older dogs (not to mention their younger friends!). There’s a lot of conflicting information about how to feed. Raw? Homemade? Kibble? Prescription foods? An excellent resource to get you started in you research is Dog Food Project (www.dogfoodproject.com). If you feel you’re in over your head with all the information you encounter, you can always hire a professional nutrition consultant to make personalized recommendations on commercial or homemade foods for your dog. Check out Sabine Contreras (www.betterdogcare.com), Monica Segal (www.doggiedietician.com), and Christine Ford (www.ohmydog.ca/nutrition) for guidance.

A mentally active dog is a mentally healthy dog. Never underestimate the power of a good sniff, taking your time on walks, and allowing your dog to direct the pace and direction. Teach your old dog new tricks!

Age shouldn’t be a reason to stop training. Find a positive trainer to help you work on appropriate training exercises with your dog. Your elderly buddy will think you’re nuts if you try to teach a walking handstand or run them in agility, but there is a world of options that can accommodate physical or sensory deficits. Some sports organizations, such as the Canadian Association of Rally Obedience (www.canadianrallyo.ca), have a “veteran” designation that allows for accommodations on course to suit the needs of older or disabled dogs. Never trialled? It’s not too late to start!

Scent detection is also excellent for older dogs because it is a mentally engaging yet a low-impact physical sport. You can make your own version of “scent detection” by hiding treats around your home or yard and helping your senior dog find them. Pretty soon she’ll be sniffing them out by herself! Continued training is the best way to keep your older dog sharp and responsive, potentially even staving off cognitive decline.

Even though older dogs will inevitably slow down, don’t take that for granted. Investigate all the reasons that your dog may be slowing down prematurely, particularly reasons related to pain and discomfort, and research to find ways to help your dog thrive well into her geriatric years. Keep her physically and mentally active and healthy, and you’ll reap the rewards of having a happy dog well into the twilight years.

Speaking of Dogs Rescue currently has a few older dogs available for adoption. If you don’t have a senior of your own, why not consider adopting an older dog? You may have fewer years with them, but they will be no less rich.