Tips and Tricks for the Golden Years with Your Dog
It will happen to us all if we’re lucky – one day, we will be old.
My buddy Willis is by my side. He’s standing on his mat and swaying a bit, and his back legs are sinking, even though he’s a small dog. He gets confused these days, and wanders into small spaces and doesn’t remember how to get out. He’s waiting for the next treat I toss to him and trying to follow my movements with his cloudy eyes. He may fall asleep on his mat if I sit here long enough.
I’ve had Willis for 9 years now. I don’t know how old he was when I got him. Two different vets guessed he was 12 a few years ago, which would make him 16 now if they are right. He is a rescue, so I’ll never know. But I know things that used to come easy to him have now grown quite challenging and the days we have together are numbered. This is a really hard realization, and everyone who’s ever shared their life with an old dog knows the struggle. It’s not hard to love an old dog, quite the opposite. It’s just hard to see the time they have left get shorter.
But while Willis is here, I can appreciate every moment with him. He’s still the dog I fell in love with 9 years ago, and he has the same qualities he always had that make me laugh. His presence is still a gift to me every day, so any time I find something that makes his old age easier for him, I am glad to do it. It makes my life easier too, and that is important. For anyone facing the last years with an old dog, a dose of self-compassion goes a long way.
Here are a few things I have found helpful for Willis and our 16-year-old black lab Myla, and they help us because we know we are doing everything we can and enjoying every moment.
Old Dog, Old Cue
As Willis’ vision and hearing have decreased, I have stopped asking for some of the behaviors I used to request. I no longer expect him to sit or down on cue. I don’t want to ask him to do a behavior that may hurt or take longer than it used to, and his cues for both of those behaviors were verbal, which he wouldn’t be able to hear well at this point. But there are some behaviors he learned as a younger dog that I can capitalize on now to help him. One is targeting, also called hand target touch. Willis learned many years ago to touch his nose to my hand and to follow my hand in this manner for a treat. As long as he can see where my hand is, I can have him follow it where I need him to go. When he can’t see that the sliding glass door is open, I can hold out my hand and he can follow it through the doorway. When he wanders into a corner and can’t get out, I can show him my hand and he can target out of the corner. This gives him autonomy and prevents me from having to physically maneuver him all the time. I can also get a handful of treats and a loud clicker and click him for targeting my hand as a fun game. Old dogs need mental stimulation too!
The other behavior he knows that I can use to help him is matwork. He has gone to his mat on cue for years, and sits there while we eat dinner, and joins in when I practice matwork with the younger dog in the house. His mat is an anchor for him because when it is on the floor, it is a clear cue that he can see and feel, and he can go there for reinforcement. If you have an older dog who has never done matwork, it’s not too late to teach them. Simply place a treat on a mat so your dog goes to it, and then place treats one at a time on the mat so that they stay in one place. When they get good at it, you can move the mat around. If they relax enough to lay down on the mat on their own as you put treats down, you’ve given them a nice gift.
Think About It: What other cues does your dog know that can be used when they are older? What can you teach a younger dog now that will serve them when they too are old? And what behaviors will you no longer expect of your dog once they are old because they are too difficult for an older dog to do?
If a non-dog person walked into my house, they’d probably think we have a strange decorating style. I call it “old dog chic.” We have rugs everywhere throughout the house for both old dogs to prevent them from slipping on the hard wood floors. Myla the lab in particular is still very successful at doing stairs on her own as well as navigating through rooms, but she wouldn’t be if we didn’t have rugs throughout. You can buy a bulk amount at many local hardware stores, and then cut to fit the spaces you need. This way, you can also buy all of one color if you are interested in matching with your current décor. We have a strip on each of our steps leading into our living room, which were previously quite slippery. Again, this provides autonomy and freedom to an older dog who might otherwise be restricted.
Some restriction can be useful for safety, however. Gates in particular are quite useful for old dogs, so don’t throw them away after puppyhood. Willis has a small gated area for when we are gone, to prevent him from wandering and getting lost in a corner when we aren’t around to help him. When we’re home, his gated area also provides him space from the young dog in the house, as well as guests who mean well but might scare him by trying to pet him when he doesn’t see or hear them approach. We also have a gate blocking Myla in one room where she can access her dog bed and water, but not wander from room to room and risk falling if we aren’t there to help her.
If your dog has trouble standing up, you can use a towel looped under their hips to help hoist them up. Also, some dogs will still appreciate adventures even if they can’t walk well, or even at all. When my dog Phantom (RIP) was 17, he accompanied me on walks through the neighborhood even though he couldn’t walk anymore. He laid in a Radio Flyer wagon with a platform modification on it and rode through the streets like a king. I’m glad I could offer him those walks.
Think About It: What modifications or additions can you add to your house or your dog’s routine to help them get around, or stay put, more easily? How can you help them have freedom of movement and the ability to still be active without getting hurt?
Exercising the Brain
Even when a dog’s vision and hearing have failed, their sense of smell is often still top-notch. I like to hide treats in a blanket for Willis to find and find them he does! His body language looks alert and perky while he searches out his treats, and I know he enjoys his task. And don’t forget the old favorite, the Kong – it’s not just for young dogs anymore. You can fill it with tasty soft treats and top it with something soft and gooey, and your old dog can solve the puzzle.
Think About It: How can you exercise your dog’s brain even as they age?
When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go
I recommend belly bands to clients all the time for various reasons, but it was a client of mine who had to encourage me to use one for Willis – sometimes we all need a bit of support when our dogs are old (thanks, Mary!). A belly band is a male diaper that can be used if your dog is incontinent or just needs to urgently go. There are diapers for female dogs as well. If your dog is having urinary issues, obviously check with your vet to diagnose the problem. In my experience however, dogs can be incontinent for quite some time in their old age without it signaling the immediate end. They just need a patient person willing to do a little clean-up. Again, chances are we’ll all be there someday…. check out belly bands here: https://www.bellybands.net/
There can be changes in behavior when a dog gets older. Their dulled senses may prevent them from knowing you are approaching them, for instance, and if they can’t see or hear that you are there, they may turn quickly or snap out of confusion. You can prevent a fear response from your dog when picking them up, leashing them, etc. With Willis, I like to step into his field of (albeit, poor) vision and move my hands a bit to make sure he is aware I am there before I pick him up, instead of grabbing him without warning from behind. If he is sleeping and I need to wake him, I gently speak to him, pause, and then make sure my touch is very gentle so as not to startle him. I have also placed treats under his nose and waited until he smelled them and woke to eat them before interacting.
Older dogs can also start to exhibit behavior that may be hard for other dogs in the home to interpret. Willis and Myla both move differently than they used to, with jerky, uneven motion. They also get tired and stop in one place to catch their breath-if my young dog Emery is near though, he gets visibly uncomfortable. Think about it from his perspective – dogs who used to move normally now stumble, weave towards him, and stop and stare at him. Staring in particular is very threatening in dog language, but Willis and Myla don’t even know they’re doing it. It is up to us as the humans to manage these moments, and call Emery away. This prevents any tension from building in the household.
Live a Little
When all is said and done, life is short, and we don’t know when an old dog may have his last day. So today might as well be as wonderful as possible. What makes your dog happy? Is it chicken off your plate? Is it the chance to sniff the grass? Is it a car ride? Now is the time to give it to them. And you – what do you like to do with your old dog? Maybe you want to take pictures with them and make an album. Maybe you want to carry them to the beach and let them feel the sand under their paws. Maybe you would like to invite a person who has made your dog’s tail wag to come and see them for a visit. Maybe you want to watch them while they sleep and think of all the reasons why you picked them, or they picked you, that day you met. When I’m home with Willis, I like to put a jaunty bandana on him. He has acquired quite the collection over the years. The blue one with the roses was his first. He got it in his very early days with me, and he looks so handsome in it. I put it on him as a small gesture filled with intention that celebrates our relationship.
Think About It: What will you do to celebrate your dog, no matter their age, today?
While I’ve been writing, Willis has been on his mat by me. He wandered away at one point, and I brought him back with treats because I’d like him to stay by me. But there’s nothing more to train, no more behaviors to learn. I don’t need to ask anything of him anymore. There’s just time, little moments strung together, and we don’t know how many. So we sit together, me in a chair and him on his mat. I am so very glad to be sitting here with him.