Lessons from a senior dog

As many of you know, I adopted my current dog, Earl, as a senior from Muttville Senior Dog Resuce. He came into my life three years ago and has amazed me with his resiliency and journey from a fearful dog into loving, feisty, spirited companion. The lessons learned from Earl are endless, but one lesson in particular that’s come to the forefront is the importance of continued exercise, learning and enrichment throughout a dog’s lifespan.

About six months ago, I found myself in the downward spiral of, “We’re losing him.” I didn’t have concrete evidence he was dying. I focused on what I thought was evidence of cognitive decline (read: confusion, heightened anxiety in the evening) and physical decline (read: occasional muscle cramps and limping, in addition to stiffness in his back legs).

I am beyond fortunate that our veterinarian, Dr. Ilana Strubel at A Well Adjusted Pet, specializes in rehabilitation for senior and injured dogs. She did not find any evidence of a serious underlying medical condition. For Earl, his symptoms were a sign that I needed to focus on building his physical and mental resilience.

Just because I train dogs for a living doesn’t mean I avoid training ruts. I deeply empathize with my clients because I often struggle with the same questions they ask me: 1) What does my dog need? 2) What can I do better? and 3) What am I missing? When it’s one’s own dog, and one’s own busy life, it’s harder to think clearly and objectively. When I took a step back from my increasingly hectic work life, I found the answers to those questions and began a process that has influenced how I view life with senior dogs and how I approach behavior questions with other clients.

In Earl’s case, the answers to the aforementioned questions were:

  1. What does my dog need? Earl needed me to increase the time I spent providing him with mental and physical stimulation. Instead of merely upping the amount of exercise he received, I needed to change up his daily routine strategically. Through the guidance of Dr. Strubel, Earl and I began a cross training program that incorporates strength, flexibility, balance, body awareness and endurance through training games on FitPaws equipment. By strengthening his problem areas, he’s in less pain and is less prone to future injuries. Plus, the training program doubles as excellent mental enrichment, and often tires him out more, and is more enjoyable, than a long walk on leash.
  2. What can I do better?  I needed to be more proactive and less reactive. I touch on this more in my post on training mindfully. In short, I needed to figure out how to maintain and increase his cognitive abilities through training and puzzle games, and strengthen his limbs and joints instead of waiting for the inevitable trip to the vet for pain meds.
  3. What am I missing? Earl was, and is, growing older. Anytime a client notices something worrying in their dog, behaviorally or physically, a trip to the vet is warranted to rule out underlying medical conditions. I wasn’t missing the symptoms, but I was jumping to conclusions about the best way to help Earl. Sheltering him in a blanket and mourning his decline was what I felt like doing, but was not the most helpful thing for Earl. Although senior dogs are more fragile, may have more aches and pains, and may need a bit more patience when it comes to behavior, they still need to use their brains and bodies. They need enrichment via puzzle toys, games with their guardians and learning tricks. They need exercise that’s suitable for their physical condition. They need proactive care, just like puppies, adolescents and young adult dogs.

Currently, Earl is thriving. To say he loves his cross training is an understatement, and through the guidance of our vet, he’s experiencing less anxiety and markedly less stiffness and pain. We joke that he’s the Benjamin Button of dogs because he appears younger today than he did a year ago.