Once upon a time, you probably had a puppy that was as self-motivated as any human three year old— happily running in circles for no particular reason at all. And maybe at some point, as your dog aged, you were secretly (or maybe not so secretly) happy to see a bit of a decrease in his energy level. But now he’s an older dog, and you realize that he has really slowed down. To a point, that is perfectly natural.
Just like us, as our dogs enter into their senior years, they become more sedentary. Maybe they hear less and see less and just aren’t as stimulated to get up and move anymore. And maybe you think, “Well, my dog seems perfectly happy to just lie around and sleep. Why should I force him to exercise?”
The answer, of course, is that it is good for him. Just like it is good for you. Inactivity makes dogs more prone to obesity which puts them at increased risk of other serious, medical conditions such as:
- Heart disease
Unfortunately, your dog lives in the moment – that one where he is content to snooze in the sun. He’s not capable of seeing the bigger picture, but you are. That means it is your responsibility to get him up and moving.
I am not going to tell you what to do with your dog for exercise. I trust that you already know that dogs like to walk and to run and to play games like fetch and tug-of-war. And if you’ve known your dog since he was a puppy, you already know where his personal interests lie. Instead, I will give you tips about how to exercise your senior dog.
1. Get the green light
First, see your veterinarian. Your senior dog needs a complete physical examination in order to make sure that he is healthy enough for increased activity. Serious metabolic disorders like heart disease, diabetes and common aging problems like osteoarthritis need to be ruled out or addressed as possible reasons for your dog’s inactivity before a change of lifestyle occurs.
You may also need to change your dog’s diet to accommodate increased caloric requirements or special medical needs.
And, there is a very real possibility that your dog may experience some aches and/or pains associated with his new routine. Since most human pain medications are NOT appropriate for dogs, you will want to talk with your veterinarian about what you can safely administer to your dog if he needs pain management.
2. Take baby steps
I know your dog is a senior, not a puppy, but take baby steps. Depending on just how out of shape your dog is, you need to begin slowly. You wouldn’t start a new exercise routine by entering a marathon or bench pressing your own body weight. So don’t expect your dog to come right out of the gate running three miles with you that first morning. This is about you working together with your dog; it’s not about him keeping up with you. Be especially aware of your dog’s attitude, his breathing and even his heart rate. If he looks at all over-exerted, stop. Do not force him to go on.
3. Consider the surface
Always remember that your dog is not wearing the latest, ergonomically-engineered footwear. He’s just walking on his poor, little, old, tired feet and he presumably hasn’t been doing much on them recently— by way of stimulating tough calluses. Stay away from:
- Blistering hot pavement
- Freezing snow and ice
- Ridiculously rocky terrain
That is not to say that your dog should always only walk on perfectly smooth and level surfaces. First, those might be too slippery for him. But more importantly, there is benefit to walking up and down reasonable slopes and on somewhat uneven surfaces with some traction. He has four legs. That means if one of them is stiff or uncomfortable, he can shift his weight off of that leg. That makes him more comfortable in the short term, but can result in muscle weakness in the long term. Making your dog maneuver a bit on those less-than-perfect surfaces can make him use all four of his legs.
4. Mix it up
Just as you should change up the walking/running surfaces, you should change the routine itself. You want to keep your dog mentally interested and stimulated too. Don’t always take the exact same route. Don’t always play the exact same games:
- Get your dog a new kind of toy from time to time
- Take a swim
- Teach your old dog a new trick
- Visit a dog park
- Make new friends
5. Do NOT play through the pain
As mentioned above, you should have already talked with your veterinarian about appropriate pain medications. Now you should use them, if they are indicated. My clients often remark, “Oh, I don’t think he’s in pain. Sure, he walks stiffly or is occasionally a little lame, but he doesn’t cry.” The reality is that dogs don’t typically whine and cry when they have chronic discomfort; they just carry on. So it is up to you to appreciate the signs. Have your veterinarian watch your dog walk, stand up, lie down, etc. Evaluate his gait and talk about what indicators you should use to determine if and when your dog needs pain medications in order to maintain a healthy and beneficial exercise routine.
Finally, constantly tailor and re-adjust any exercise program to your dog’s individual situation and changing abilities – whether that means your dog gets stronger and can do more or becomes frailer and needs to do less. Remember, at the end of day the point is to enjoy each other and have fun while working toward a happier, healthier, senior dog.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
Exercise Your Senior Dog
Exercise do's and don'ts for older dogs.
We want our dogs to live forever, but they don’t remain puppies for long. By the time they reach middle age, most dogs start to slow down because of arthritis, illness, injuries, or the aging process. Being overweight makes all of these problems likely to occur at a younger age.
Exercise is essential for dogs of all ages. It helps maintain muscle tone, a healthy weight, joint flexibility, good circulation, and overall health and happiness – but when movement causes pain, it’s only natural to slow down or stay still. That creates a vicious cycle in which inactivity contributes to pain, pain reinforces inactivity, and the dog’s health deteriorates.
How can you safely help your sedentary older dog resume an active lifestyle? Here are some exercise do’s and don’ts.
1. Go to the vet.
Before starting an exercise plan, take your best friend to your veterinarian, who can check his weight, overall condition, and range of motion. (When you schedule the appointment, be sure to let the staff know that you want an in-depth wellness examination, not a cursory appointment.) Your vet can then help you plan an effective exercise strategy.
2. Consider physical therapy.
Consider seeing a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (CCRT), the veterinary version of physical therapists for humans. CCRTs design exercise programs for individual dogs to help them recover from injury and safely improve their strength, balance, and range of motion.
3. Have your dog lose weight.
Help your overweight dog lose weight, as that’s one of the best things you can do to help an older dog remain mobile. It also helps to feed a diet that doesn’t contribute to inflammation.
For weight-loss tips and recommendations, see “Identifying Arthritis in Dogs,” WDJ October 2016, and “Helping Your Dog Lose Weight,” September 2009.
Note: An article on “Weight Loss for Older Dogs” will appear in the January 2017 issue.
4. Start exercising your dog little by little.
Help your dog start exercising gradually, starting with short, low-impact walks on smooth or flat surfaces. Watch for symptoms like limping, wanting to rest, or other signs of discomfort, and let your dog take breaks as needed. When starting an exercise program, soreness the next day indicates that you did too much. Exercise can be increased gradually as long as it doesn’t make the dog feel worse.
5. Go swimming!
If she enjoys the water, take your dog swimming, as swimming puts less pressure on sore joints than walking or running. Some veterinary clinics have therapeutic swimming pools or underwater treadmills that help arthritic dogs exercise without stressing their joints.
6. Play games!
Play games that your dog enjoys to keep him active and interested, such as hide and seek. Keep the game short (10 minutes or less) and simple.
“I have to put in a plug for nose work and sniffing games,” says WDJ contributor Mary Straus, “because they tire dogs out without strenuous activity. We have dogs competing in nose work at very advanced ages who are no longer able to participate in other activities.” For more information about K9 Nose Work, see “Sniff This – You’ll Feel Better,” (WDJ, April 2013) and the National Association of Canine Scent Work.
7. Try supplements for dogs.
Experiment with nutritional supplements (“Identifying Arthritis in Dogs,” WDJ October 2016), medicinal herbs (“Herbal Remedies for Arthritis Pain,” November 2016), essential oils (“Therapy That Smells Great,” this issue), and other remedies that may increase your dog’s range of motion and activity level.
8. Give your dog a massage.
Hire a canine massage therapist or learn basic massage techniques and use them to improve your dog’s flexibility, circulation, and muscle tone. Massage helps relieve stiffness and joint discomfort, and speeds recovery from accidents and injuries. As a bonus, massage can deepen the bond between pets and people. For guidelines, search for books on canine massage at DogWise.com or visit petmassage.com or dogmassage.com.
1. Strain your dog.
Don’t strain your arthritic dog’s joints by playing catching games, spinning, running on sand or other soft surfaces, running on streets and other hard surfaces, racing up and down stairs, or expecting your older dog to jump onto or off of furniture, car seats, or other heights, even if she shows no signs of pain or discomfort. Keep movements slow and steady, and provide assistance or a support ramp or pet steps as needed.
2. Be inconsistent with your dog’s exercise.
Don’t be a weekend warrior. Just like their human companions, dogs who exercise infrequently are more likely to injure themselves than those who do a smaller amount every day. A few minutes of daily or twice-daily exercise will produce greater benefits than longer sessions once or twice a week.
Let your dog show you what her comfortable pace is, and respect that. “For the last few years of my Shar-Pei Piglet’s life,” Straus says, “I let her choose where, how far, and how fast we walked. She knew her limits and never went farther than she could handle, though she would stop and rest in a shady spot for a while when she needed to before continuing on. Despite severe arthritis in all four limbs, she was still mobile when she passed away at age 17.”
3. Be too rough with your dog.
Avoid roughhousing games, even if your dog loves them. Too-vigorous activity can damage arthritic joints, surrounding muscles, and supporting ligaments. This includes racing around with other dogs and crashing into each other.
4. Exercise your dog without a warm-up.
Don’t ask your dog to get up from a prone position and immediately take off with you as you run or jog. Warm-ups are crucial. Start with five to 10 minutes of slow, gentle movement, such as a slow-paced walk. If your dog is comfortable moving faster, increase the pace for another five, 10, or 15 minutes, depending on your dog’s condition and ability.
If he enjoys games like running from one person to another when called, or searching for someone who’s hiding, take time to play. Then, before going home or back into the house, spend five to 10 minutes cooling down with a slow-paced gentle walk.
5. Let your dog gain weight.
Don’t let your dog gain weight, especially if he isn’t as active as he used to be. Reduce food portions as needed, and pass over high-fat or high-carbohydrate diets in favor of foods with high protein levels, which help maintain lean muscle mass.
Keeping your older dog mobile depends on the right exercise as well as the right diet, and learning what works is worth the time and effort involved. Best of all, helping your dog feel better and remain active is a project you can both enjoy.
CJ Puotinen is the author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care and other books.
How to Care for Your Senior Dog
Everyone and everything gets older, and dogs are no exception. Advances in veterinary medicine enable dogs to live longer than ever. This means that we must learn how to properly care for our senior dogs.
As your dog's caregiver, there are many ways you can help make his golden years comfortable and happy. Senior dogs are such a delight, and these sweet old souls deserve the best of everything.
Brisk walking is an ideal exercise for human and hound. The benefits include a stronger heart, lower blood pressure, more energy, denser bones, and a lower risk of depression. In dogs, regular walks can also reduce common behavior problems. There’s no set rule for how far or how long a dog should walk. Just work slowly toward a goal and slowly increase your speed and how far you walk. A trip to the vet for your dog and a doctor’s checkup for you is recommended before starting an exercise program.