As dogs grow older, even the most energetic dog will experience some physical changes.
He probably won't have the stamina he once had, he'll lose some muscle mass and he won't be as physically adept as he once was. If he has some physical limitations (perhaps arthritis or cataracts), he may be hesitant to exert himself. However, it's still important for your dog to keep moving. Exercise keeps the body working as it should, helps keep him as strong as he can be and also can help prevent your dog from becoming overweight as he ages.
Before beginning any exercise program for your older dog, have a complete physical examination done by your dog's veterinarian. Your vet will then, depending on your dog's health and limitations, give permission for him to begin an exercise regimen or will prescribe exercise with limitations.
When I took my 11-year-old Australian Shepherd, Bashir, in for his annual exam a few months ago, his veterinarian and I talked about his exercise extensively. Here are some of her recommendations.
Walking with Reservations
My dogs and I walk just about every morning and Bashir's vet said this was fine, but she added some reservations. In hot weather, she asked if we walk early or late, and recommended I pay more attention to the temperature and humidity. Older dogs may not be as tolerant of hot, humid conditions and can overheat more readily than younger dogs.
Older dogs who walk with younger dogs may also push themselves hard to keep up and may get too tired or too hot. I watch Bashir more closely now and when I see him start to slow, even a tiny bit, I head for home. I drop him off with some cool water and then take the younger dogs out to finish their walk.
As Bashir grows older, I may need to slow the pace of our walk even more and eventually make his portion of the walk even shorter. I've done that with previous dogs as their physical abilities decrease and will do the same for Bashir when the time comes.
Swimming is Great
Swimming is a great, low impact exercise for older dogs. The water supports them nicely, taking the stress off joints that might be sore, and yet the dog can still get a good cardio workout.
If you have access to a pool or other calm body of water, that would work better than the ocean as waves could knock down an unsteady, older dog. However, if your dog loves the beach and is still strong, that's fine. Just remember to rinse all the salt and sand out of his coat afterwards.
Running can still be Fun
Bashir has arthritis but still loves to run. He can't keep up with the younger dogs and tires before they do, but he's still eager to run so I asked his veterinarian if allowing him to run as much as he wants to was a good idea. She was all for it. Running is great for the muscles and heart, keeps the joints moving and is great for keeping the dog mentally alert as well. Her only recommendation was to choose the times carefully, paying attention to the weather just as I do for our walks.
I let Bashir run as much as he wants and I let him slow down or stop when he's ready. I'm careful not to encourage him to continue running as he wants to please me so much he might push himself too much.
My veterinarian cautioned me that as Bashir grows older, depending on his health, he might reach a point where running may no longer be recommended. So make sure you get an okay from your veterinarian prior to letting your older dog go for a run, especially if he hasn't been running regularly.
When he was younger, Bashir enjoyed agility training. He knew all the obstacles and would fly around the course. Today, with his arthritis, I don't ask him to do most of the agility obstacles. However, since this is something he loves, I let him do the low impact obstacles such as tunnels, low height jumps, and the sway bridge. Plus, I created some other fun things for him to do.
Several 4-foot long pieces of 2-inch diameter plastic pipes placed on the ground are great for stepping over. This keeps Bashir aware of where he's stepping. If he's acting like this is too easy, I'll criss-cross the pipes and then ask him to step through them. A 12-inch wide, 4-foot long plank can turn into a low teeter-totter when a brick is placed under the center of it. A 3-by-3-foot square of plywood with a rubber ball placed underneath makes a great wobble board. I just ask Bashir to step on it and balance himself.
By creating low impact, low level obstacles, I keep my old dog's interest high while helping him maintain good body awareness and balance.
Trick Training is Awesome
Boredom is far too common in older dogs as their physical abilities decline. Trick training, however, can keep your dog's mental abilities as sharp as possible while the two of you have fun together. The tricks you do, or teach, can be tailored to your dog's physical abilities.
When he was younger, Bashir could do three dozen tricks, some of which were both mentally and physically challenging. However, I've narrowed his list of tricks to take into account his arthritic joints. I no longer ask him to sit up, stand on his back legs, or do tight spins. However, he still weaves through my legs, goes to his mark, touches items by name and many other of his favorite tricks.
When teaching tricks, start easy, keep the training fun and laugh with your dog. Choose tricks that won't physically or mentally stress your dog.
Follow all Exercise with a Massage
Bashir's veterinarian recommended that all exercise sessions be followed with a slow walk to cool down as a sudden cessation of movement after exercise could lead to soreness and stiffness. After that cool down, she prescribed a massage. I've been doing that for Bashir, both the slow walks and massage, and he's been far less stiff than he used to be.
There are many styles of massage and you might want to learn one or two different styles. What's important is to get the blood flowing and the muscles relaxed, especially in the area where your dog is prone to get still. For Bashir, that's in his shoulders and back.
It's hard for me to watch Bashir grow older but I can see his frustration, too, when he tries to do things that he's always done so easily and he finds it difficult now. My goal, then, is to make it easier for him to do what he wants or to offer him alternatives that will be just as much fun. The longer I can do that, the happier, and hopefully healthier, he'll be as he grows older.