It's hard to watch a treasured family member grow older.
Not only does his muzzle turn white and his eyes lose their brightness, but stiff joints and aches and pains make previous pleasures uncomfortable. Jumping high for a thrown toy and dashing through the waves at the beach may no longer be possible. Just because he's growing older, doesn't mean your old dog can't enjoy life; it just means you both need to find new ways to have fun together. At the same time, we need to make changes to help our old dog as he transitions through this time of his life.
Play Scenting Games
When the eyes don't see as well as they used to and the hearing fades away, your dog will still have his sense of smell. For whatever reason, this sense, in many dogs, continues to be sharp on into old age. Scenting games, then, are wonderful for older dogs.
Take three or four small cardboard boxes and drop a couple of treats in each one. Treats with a strong smell, like bits of diced Swiss cheese or pieces of Honest Kitchen freeze-dried mussels, are great. Encourage your dog to find them. If you need to show him what the game is, walk him to the boxes and point to the treat inside. If he can still hear, tell him, "Sweetie, find it! Yeah!"
When he's figured out that the boxes mean treats, then have him sit and stay (or ask someone to hold him) while you hide the treats. Then let him go find them on his own. You can coach and encourage him if he can still hear you.
Only do three or four repetitions of this game at a time. Not only do you not want to add too many treats to his diet, but you also want to keep the game fresh and exciting.
Go for Rides in the Car
If your dog loves car rides, this is an easy way to add joy to his life. The car rides needn't be long, but a half an hour jaunt around town or even up and down the local highway will be enough to make your old dog feel included in life. Plus, he'll be happy to get out of the house.
Some old dogs, especially those with arthritis, can no longer jump in and out of the car. If this has happened with your dog, and if he is too heavy for you to lift, adding a car ramp will make life easier. There are a number of commercially available ramps or, if you're handy, you may want to build one that suits both your car and your dog.
I've found that some of my old dogs were happiest when we went for a ride that took them to favorite places. If we used to walk at the local beach, for example, I'd take that dog to the beach. We'd get out of the car, stroll for a few minutes, sit on the bench, and watch people walk past, and then drive home before he got too tired. He got to ride in the car, had an outing to a favorite place, spent time with me, and he was a happy dog.
Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash
Adapt Favorite Activities
Training is always a favorite activity with my dogs and me. Not only is it my profession, but my dogs and I have fun with our training. When my dogs grow older I don't want to leave them out of our training sessions. Being excluded hurts feelings.
At the same time, though, I don't want to ask the old dog to do something that he's no longer capable of doing. For example, with puppies and young dogs we'll do puppy push ups: sit, down, sit, down, sit. With young adult dogs who have more skills, I'll make it more challenging: sit, down, spin, stand, dance, sit. With older dogs, though, I may ask for easy exercises that won't stress the body: stand, sit, shake paw, stand. I adapt the exercise so the dog can participate and feel included but it's not too difficult for him.
I do the same thing with games. If my old dog liked to chase the ball, instead of asking him to run, I'll toss the ball directly to him so he can catch it out of the air right where he is. Then he can give it to me. We're still playing ball but an adapted game.
Provide a Social Life
Far too often, as dogs grow older, they lose their social life. When they can no longer go to dog shows or sporting events, or go camping or hiking, they end up at home in the backyard with little social life. It's easy for the old dog to feel left out, especially if younger dogs in the family are continuing with these activities. Depression in older dogs is not unusual.
When possible, let the old dog continue to go to the dog show or sporting event even if he just hangs out and watches (or even naps). At least he gets out of the house. Add new activities that won't stress him; for example, old dogs make great therapy dogs. Old dogs visiting nursing homes can be awesome for both the dogs and the people being visited.
At home, invite your friend over who also has an older dog. The dogs might play for a bit or even just nap side by side.
When you go out front to get the mail or talk to a neighbor, take your old dog with you. Let the neighbors exclaim over his white muzzle and encourage them to tell him how wonderful he is. Remind your friends and family who know your dog that he is getting older. Let them know there is a standing invitation for them to come visit him any time they are in the neighborhood.
Photo by George Lucian Rusu on Unsplash
Spend Time Together
As your dog slows down but your life continues as normal, your dog may feel left out. He can no longer go on those camping trips or long hikes in the mountains, but that doesn't mean he doesn't want to go with you. He does; he just can't keep up like he used to.
You can't stop his aging, but you can find ways to spend time with him. Invite him up on the sofa so he can nap next to you as you watch a movie or read. Lift him up on the bed so the two of you can spoon as you take a nap. Take a blanket out in the backyard, spread it on the grass under a tree, and lie down with your good dog.
You may need to make changes to your schedule so you can do this, but it will be well worth it. Not only will your dog appreciate the time you spend with him now, but these memories will be with you forever.
Keep Him Comfortable
I lost my good dog, Bashir, last summer. It was so hard to lose him; he was a well loved dog who gave me so much. At the same time, though, he had arthritis that caused him a great deal of pain the last year of his life. My goal was to keep him as pain-free and comfortable as I could without drugging him into oblivion. I wanted him to be comfortable, pain free, and yet have a good quality of life.
Bashir's veterinarian became my partner in his health care. We visited her office often while we established a regime for his arthritis control. We tried a variety of things including medication, laser treatments, acupuncture, massage, and more until we found a good balance. As Bashir grew older and his needs changed, we added variations to his care.
As your dog grows older, talk to your veterinarian. Although quite a bit can be learned about your dog through the exam, he also needs to know what's going on at home. Fill in all the details about energy levels, activities, appetite, sleep, and all the other things that make your dog who he is. Then the two of you can work together to help your dog remain comfortable for the rest of his life.
Don't Grow Distant From Him
It's natural for us to want to protect ourselves from hurt. When a well-loved dog is growing older, it's natural then to try and protect our self from the pain of losing him. We emotionally detach from him; we distance ourself.
Unfortunately, if that happens, the one who suffers is your old dog. He's going to sense your pulling away and isn't going to understand why. He's going to be hurt. At this time in his life, your dog needs you the most.
Remain attached to him. Touch him physically; petting him, holding him, patting him as you walk past him during your normal routine. Give him a gentle massage when he's sore. Spoon with him when you both sleep.
Make eye contact even if his vision is dimming. Smile at him even if he can't see; he can hear it in your voice. If he can't hear, touch him and let him feel the vibration of your voice.
The death of a well-loved, treasured dog is always going to hurt even if it is his time to go. But remaining attached to him and loving him until he moves on gives him as much joy as you can provide.