It can break your heart to watch your dog struggling to do things he did with energy and verve only a few years ago. The pup who bounded onto the couch with one leap has suddenly started to do it in three careful stages. You can see a certain stiffness of movement. He doesn’t get up from his bed as quickly as he used to. He’s getting old.
You may have noticed that the people who are sedentary in their habits tend to look and move as if they’re older than their years, while the active ones tend to be more youthful in appearance and activity. There’s a very good reason for this: one of the oldest rules of nature is that we lose the abilities we don’t use. Humans and dogs are similar in this respect. If you want your old dog to maintain his physical capabilities, or even regain them, the key to this, more than anything else, is exercise.
Now, you can’t grab your 13-year-old dog and put him through a 10-mile run if he’s been limited to a 20-minute walk for the past ten years. But there is a lot you can do to build up his stamina, strength and flexibility and put a little joy and fun in his older years.
Ready! Set! Stay! Before we begin…
As with humans, before dogs begin a regimen of exercise, their physical condition needs to be assessed. Take Spot to the local vet and have him examined. If you have an animal physiotherapist in your area, make an appointment for him there, too. Your medical expert will be able to detect any underlying health problems you might not be aware of, as well as provide advice on dietary supplements, medication and so forth. They will also be able to give you information regarding the types of exercise your old dog can undertake, and provide facilities like hydrotherapy to build up ageing muscles.
If your dog has been mostly sedentary, then they’re probably a little overweight. You have to do something about this. Excess fat puts strain on their hearts and joints and will shorten their life.
Swimming with your old dog
Some dog breeds with dense musculature and short legs, such as English and French bulldogs, are not built for swimming, so first make sure your dog is able to swim before diving right in. Swimming is easy on the joints, great for the muscles, and mammals burn more calories maintaining their body temperature in cold water than they do actually swimming, so it’s great for weight loss, too. Try whenever possible to be in the water with your dog. You’ll be able to get him out of trouble and you’ll greatly increase the pleasure he takes in the activity. If he shows signs of difficulty or fatigue, get him out immediately.
Walking is a perfect exercise: it’s an activity you can undertake together, it’s relatively light on the joints and it’s very enjoyable for your dog. It’s also the one activity that you can do for practically your dog’s entire life. If your dog is not used to walking, or is a bulldog, pug, or other breed associated with breathing difficulties, start with short, slow walks and build up duration and speed slowly.
Aim to increase by 1-2 minutes per week until you’re up to about half an hour. Then start looking for walks with uphill routes. Walking up hills will build muscle and stamina.
If your dog can take a half-hour walk with uphill components with ease, then you might want to consider running. Start slowly and work up gradually. If your dog shows any signs of fatigue, stop, let them catch their breath, and then start up at a slow walk.
Balance and range of motion exercises
Part of the stiffness that accompanies old age is caused by the fact that muscles become accustomed to certain ranges of motion only and lose strength when they’re used in other positions. Range of motion and balance exercises will do wonders for your dog’s strength and flexibility. You can try these exercises.
A good old game of fetch will provide bursts of short activity, interaction with you and stimulation. Be sure to watch your dog for signs of fatigue. If you’re interested in other games you can play with your trusted companion, check out Quick and Dirty Tips.
By deciding to help maximize the pleasure of your dog’s final years, you may find yourself enjoying your interaction more and more. While increasing his physical capacity, and stimulating him mentally is important, even more important is giving him your time and company. You’re doing a good thing and, who knows? You may even find your own health improves.