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Old Dog, Good Dog

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Old Dog, Good Dog

By Jeannette Cooperman, The Bark

There’s something disconcerting about being middle-aged and watching my once-agile dog leap ahead of me into old age. No, not leap – she’s too creaky for that, stiff and slow almost overnight, it seems. She’s suddenly terrified of the kinds of storms she once danced through; she spurns a morning walk to go back to bed, circling awkwardly in an effort to get comfortable. Once down, she’ll lie there for hours on end, chin over the edge like Snoopy at his most dejected.

She’s depressed about getting old, I decide – never dreaming that it’s I who haven’t made the necessary accommodations.

“A lot of old dogs get what I call the shrinking world’ syndrome,” says certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug. “Their owners get in a rut with them; they start walking the dog less” (gulp) “and they don’t train the dog or teach him tricks. The dog doesn’t get as much stimulation and enrichment maybe they stop taking the dog to the dog park and there’s a significant decline in mental and physical challenges.” Stung, I mention Sophie’s arthritis. “So maybe she can swim. Or the walks are shorter. Or maybe you just take her into a wooded park, lie down on a blanket and let her look around and sniff.”

It’s the slowing we have trouble with; we expect our dogs to be the same forever. Instead, their senses of sight and smell grow less acute, their joints stiffen, or their legs may splay like Bambi’s on slick hardwood floors. Some develop a canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s: “It’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome,” Haug explains, “and it shows up with dementia, changes in their sleep-wake cycles – they might pace all night and sleep all day – vocalizing at night, forgetting their training. You say ‘Sit’ and they stare at you blankly.”

Other dogs develop anxiety disorders for the first time, anything from separation anxiety to storm phobias or nocturnal panic attacks. “The dog may be less social, not coming to greet you, or might get clingier with increased anxiety,” Haug says. “Sometimes they’re just disoriented; they go to the back door but poke their nose at the hinge side. Sometimes we see aggression and irritability. But because anxiety is one of the symptoms, the more you keep the dog stretched mentally, the more you are able to control some of those reactions.”

The wonderful paradox is that by working within your dog’s new limits, you can lessen the change in her responses. Choose games she can still play readily, amusements that don’t stress her, and she’ll be as eager as ever.

“Find new ways to connect with your dog,” Haug urges. “Teaching a trick is not only good for the dog’s brain, but it’s a fun, low-pressure way to do something that doesn’t require a lot of physical strength. The trick doesn’t need to be a back flip. They can bow, cover their eyes with their paws, flick their ears… “Grooming is another way to connect; so is hanging out on the porch or at the park.”

It’s not just the dog who needs to learn new tricks – we do too.

Next: How to accommodate your dog’s physical changes

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10:23PM PDT on Oct 19, 2012

WE have a rescue dog that seems to be around 9 or 10 years old, he is partially toothless and seems to be partially blind too, in some angles he can't focus; seems like he had a bad hit on his face that made him blind and knocked the teeth off, he was scared of all even to be cared, so needed long time to adjust and now he loves to get belly rubs and jumps happily to greet us, no more fear of noises or strange things, he seems to be so happy that has a nice smile in is face, we love him bunches and his furry buddies does too.

10:50PM PDT on Aug 26, 2011

i walked my dog every day and kept teaching her new tricks, even when she got old and gray. she was really happy and never lost her excitement to go have fun. she got a walk in her favorite park the day she died, even though i had to carry her most of the way.

3:42PM PDT on May 29, 2011

Our little man just turned 13 years old. The vet said he has the heart of a puppy. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

7:03AM PDT on May 2, 2011


12:01PM PDT on Apr 5, 2011

My Cavaliers are 12 and 15 respectively. The younger, a female, is under the care of a canine cardiologist for the heart disease often found in the breed and is on four daily medications.. The older suffers only from deafness and poor eyesight. They both have soreness and weakness in their legs. Now here's the thing - I'm the one who needs therapy. i find myself loathe to leave them as "something" may happen in my absence. I watch them like a hawk as they sleep (which they do alot) to be sure they are still breathing. I can't imagine life without them and I know they can't last much longer, It's feels like premature mourning. Does anyone else suffer from this phenomonen? Appreciate any good advice. Thanks.

8:00PM PST on Feb 20, 2011

Good article. My senior dachshund developed Cushing's Disease at age 10. He's now almost 12 1/2. He's on oral chemo drugs which compromise his immune system so I stopped his boosters and only gave him the rabies vaccine. Because he got no shots, I can't take him to many public places anymore. He recently lost his hearing. I had the vet check to see if he had impacted wax in his ears, but they are fine. He looks so depressed and sleeps most of the day & night. I decided to teach him hand signals and he seems much happier now. He also has a few good games of catch in him. I will see what new tricks I can teach him as suggested. Keep your fingers crossed it works!

6:23PM PDT on Oct 19, 2010

It is a great article.
I have had many older dogs.
It's so hard when the end is near.
I took my dogs with me on car trips and errands.
I love spending time and spoiling my animals.
They deserve our time and love.
They give us so unconditional love.

7:50AM PDT on Sep 14, 2010

Really good, pertinent article. And so so true. We had/have ramps all over the house and outside for the deck. When my Max developed doggie Alzheimer's and partial blindness, we put rectangular planters all along the deck to "guide" him to the ramp and even put side-barriers on the ramp top so he wouldn't fall. And a zillion rugs all over the hardwood floors, especially in front of the water and food bowls. Luckily, he had his buddy Rocky to follow around and he'd listen for Rocky to bark to join in and "protect" his home. When Rocky died much too quickly of liver cancer, poor 17-yr old Max didn’t last a month, howling and crying, wandering all around the yard looking for Rocky and wanting to be held. I was grieving along with him and thought of rescuing another dog to keep him company but then he was diagnosed with another painful hernia, this time too unstable to survive the operation - and we lost him just 30 days after Rocky.

But this article really focuses on what needs to be done for them, and that they are bored alone and sleep (or chew, etc) to adjust to that loneliness. We are their family and family needs to comfort, spend time not money on them and "play" together......They are pack animals, after all.

Now we have four rescues, our home is complete again and they interact so well. The oldest, at 12 or 13, is like a puppy again!

1:50AM PDT on Jun 27, 2010

good article!

10:17AM PDT on Jun 5, 2010

what a great article. its so important to keep your older dog engaged and happy, just as you would want to still be involved with family and friends and enjoyable activities... just with more naps and resting and a slower pace.

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