While it’s said that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,’ engaging your older dog in mind and body-enhancing games can revitalize his health and spirit.
“With senior dogs, often the mind is willing and the body wants to follow, but it is not always possible,” says Amy Robinson, a certified dog trainer in Vero Beach, Florida. “Any interactive game you can play with the dog while it is lying down is a great way to engage the dog’s brain.”
With your dog's vitality in mind, here are some great games to try with your senior dog.
Games for Old Dogs: The Cup Game
Robinson suggests placing a tasty treat under a plastic cup and sliding it toward your dog. “He will likely tip it within seconds to retrieve the treat. Repeat this, but now place a small dish towel over the top of the cup. Some dogs will paw at it, others will tip it and push it around with their nose, and the real problem solvers will just pluck the towel off the cup with their teeth.”
Your dog doesn't have to be very old to get into a rut, says Robinson. “Once your dog seems to be a bit bored with the same old walking, eating and sleeping routine, that's a good time to start introducing some games. A good time to play a game is right after you return from being out. Your dog is already happy to see you, so the interaction is welcome.”
Games for Old Dogs: Hide and Seek
Ready or not, here I come! Hide and seek is another game you can play with your dog, says Victoria Wells, Senior Manager of Behavior and Training at the ASPCA adoption center in New York City. Wells suggests the owner hide somewhere in the home and call the dog. When the dog finds his owner, he gets a reward.
Hide and seek is not only fun, but also good for learning or reinforcing recall, so the dog comes when called. Wells recommends doing this for about 5 to 10 minutes. “You don’t want to do it for too long or the dog will get bored.”
Puzzles for Old Dogs
Wells also recommends interactive puzzles and toys that can store treats inside, but stresses that it’s important that the holes in the toy be big enough to get the treats out or the dog will become frustrated. Interactive toys are appropriate for dogs that can’t do more strenuous exercise, but Wells recommends clearance from a veterinarian before starting any new regimen of activity. Robinson suggests reserving certain toys specifically for interactive games. “If the toys are on the floor all the time, they are old news and the dog won’t be as motivated to play with them. Pull out the reserved toy and watch your dog’s eyes brighten!”
Sense Stimulating Exercises for Older Dogs
When should you start engaging your dog in mind and body stimulating exercises? According to Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a veterinarian in Pine Village, Indiana, when people start to say, "He's just getting old" (he’s slowing down and sleeping more) it's time. If people start these exercises early in mental decline, they should keep them up for 10 minutes. For older, debilitated dogs, one minute may be plenty. The goal is to work up to 10 minutes twice a day. Alinovi suggests several sense stimulating exercises;
- Put hair scrunchies loosely on different legs. This helps with proprioception (joint position sense)
- Gentle tickling on the face (touch - stimulates cranial nerves that can stimulate the mid-brain to help with tearing and salivation). For the weaker, older dog - same principle, but do it further from the central system (i.e. tickling toes enhances touch, local withdrawal reflexes, position awareness)
- When the dog is standing - gentle push against the hip - the normal reflex is to push against the hand - this is why dogs lean into you. If the dog doesn't push back, gentle swaying to stimulate the reflex
- For doggies with potty accidents: gentle pinching and tickling in the perineal region - around the tail head and potty parts.
A lot of these exercises can be the same for cats, says Alinovi, the only difference being that cats do the booty stretch instead of the lean. Cats can also be stimulated to play with tummy tickles.
“By stimulating local reflexes (pushing, toe pinches, etc) it strengthens local muscles; the movement inhibits pain directly at the local level of the spinal cord; and it sends information to the brain that these body parts are still here and need input from the brain - so, it stimulates the brain indirectly without overloading an older brain,” says Alinovi. “For some very debilitated patients, slowing progression of old dog signs, even just posture; for some dogs, improvement of the "doors" (urination and defecation); for some dogs, better movement, better pain control; I've had some dogs who surprise their owners and get down-right perky from these exercises. Many pet parents tell me these exercises extend their dog's life quality and time. Pet parents should look for a change, some subtle improvement, even just being able to push harder and stand longer - baby steps.”
Have an older cat? Check out Games for Old Cats too!