As we get older we become a bit wiser to the world and sometimes set in our ways. This is also true for our dogs. They have a list of tried and true behaviors that have worked for them in the past and they’ll continue doing them as they get older. Of course keeping them physically active within their abilities is very important but so is keeping them cognitively active as well. Keeping them mentally challenged is very important in their aging process.

As our dogs’ get older and are less physically able to do what they used to do in their younger years we have the tendency to restrict their world. We don’t go for walks as frequently, we don’t play with them as frequently, and we worry about their diminished sight and hearing. Consequently their world shrinks and this reduced stimulation and communication with the world around them can definitely affect their behavior and overall mental state.

Let’s Go for a Walk

Dogs have a very heightened sense of smell (with over 50 million sensors in their nose, they should!) so even a senior dog with a A walk in the parkdiminished sense of smell can enjoy a walk through the neighborhood. This doesn’t necessarily mean a long walk either. It could be a short, “let’s go smell something” walk. You can meander at your dog’s pace letting them explore and smell and fill their head with all sorts of information and messages left by others in the neighborhood. This can be a highly enriching experience for them regardless of their age. This SEEK and SCAN behavior is critical at all stages of their development.

Keeping your senior dog mentally challenged is easier then you think. Sometimes just playing games or using puzzle toys can be enriching as can teaching some simple tricks.

hungry dog food bowlMealtime = Fun Time

So breakfast and dinner are most likely still your dog’s favorite times of the day. Typically, food is a pretty strong motivator for our dogs but this can represent only a few minutes (if you’re lucky) out of our your dog’s day. So don’t just use a bowl for your dog’s mealtime. Think about making this event a little more fun and challenging for them by using some puzzle toys. These can be as simple as putting their food in a Kong toy or using one of the more complex puzzle toys available today.

The Kong – the King of Dog Toys

Kongs can be used for dogs of all ages and while the concept seems quite simple it’s a tool that every home with a dog should not be without. Using a Kong is a bit more of an art then a science. You’re really only limited by your imagination. You can use your Kong for mealtime by putting your dog’s food inside the Kong,, capping it with a bit of peanut butter or low-sugar yogurt and you’re done. Or you can also create a more complex recipe. Here’s a link with even more options.Beauceron / Australian Shepherd Dog with Toy at the Park And here’s another!

When we would like to keep our dogs occupied we like to stuff ours with an assortment of treats, cap the wide end with a little natural peanut butter and toss it in the freezer. This is an excellent method to use when crate training or when you want to keep your dog occupied for a longer period of time. Just take your Kong from the freezer and have your dog watch you throw it in their crate and in they go with a quick “kennel up”. All of a sudden their crate has become a magical place of full of wonderful treats.

Here are some other simple games you can play with your senior dog:

Find It – This brings out the hunting instincts in your dog. For dogs not used to hunting for their food this can take a little practice. Just start by either tossing some kibble or some tasty treats near your dog and tell them to “Find It”. This is their cue to go find the food and eat it. If your dog has some hearing or sight difficulties you might want to help them along by moving it closer to them. Remember you want your dog to “find it” and be successful.   You’re going to repeat this process many times while slowly tossing the treat reward further away each time and telling them to “find it”. Soon you’ll be able to move the game outside and in harder to find places as your dog’s skill and confidence levels increase. This is a great game to play with puppies too. Oftentimes a game of “find it” will replace some of that nipping and mouthing and pant-grabbing so often occurring during this puppy period.

Scavenger Hunt – This is a more advanced game of “find it”. In the scavenger hunt you’re going to hide all sorts of food and treats in your house in all sorts of ways – in small containers, inside paper towel tubes, in paper bags, small boxes etc. while your dog is safe in another room or in their crate – then you let them out to explore and say “find it” and off they go finding all of their treasures. Start out slow with treats hidden in more obvious places and then slowly progress to more challenging locations in more challenging containers. It’s a super fun game to play when the weather is too hot, too cold, or too rainy to play outdoors.

Hide & Seek – Dogs of all ages love to play Hide and Seek. Just have someone else secure your dog for a moment in another room or their crate while you hide somewhere in your home. Then let them out and have them find you. You can prompt them to find you with a little whistle or even say their name.  Be ready for some big time affection when they find you – they love it! You can also be ready with some special treats for a little reward too. You can play the game inside or outside always playing at your dog’s level.

Muffin Tin – This is a quick and easy way to create a puzzle toy from things you have at home. Use an old muffin tin and place a treat in each of the cups and then cover the cups with a tennis ball. Present this to your dog and tell them to “find it”. They’ll need to knock off the tennis balls to find the hidden treats. This is a pretty easy puzzle toy but still fun for your dog.

New versions of Old Tricks – You can easily modify tricks your dog loved in their youth but at a pace that’s more appropriate to their age. Just slow the action down a little or shorten up the distance. Chase a little slower, or throw the ball a little closer. Your dog will still love it.

The whole goal is to make their life a little more enriching and their days a little more exciting. It will help keep them young and help you continue to strengthen the connection with your senior dog.

Food Puzzle Toys – These come in all shapes and sizes and levels of difficulty. We carry a wide variety of puzzle toys at Four Muddy Paws. We can definitely help you find one that’s at the appropriate challenge level for your dog. Many of the food puzzle toys are also a great option for dinnertime as they can easily hold your dog’s dinner and it makes dinnertime a little longer affair and more mentally challenging as well.  Here’s a short video of our dog Foster enjoying his Kong Genius – just put some yummy treats inside of different shapes and sizes (a bit larger treats work best as kibble tends to come out more quickly) and let them figure it out and get their treats.  Remember to take up the toy when the treats are gone so they don’t continue to chew up the toy. (you can trade them for the toy by offering them an extra special treat for letting you have the toy).   If it’s dinner time you could put their use their kibble inside – it does make dinner time just a little more challenging.


The Nose has it

Some years back we did some Nosework with our senior dog Salem where he’s being trained to find a small tin of birch scent hidden either inside or outside in the environment. This could be in a box, on a windowsill, under a car, behind a tree, or anywhere. It’s absolutely amazing to watch him work the area until he “finds it” on his own. He loves it and you can take this skill onto the competition level too to earn titles, even with our seniors. Check out one of Salem’s training videos where he needs to “find” his birch scent hidden in our yard without any direction from us. This is an exceptionally large search area and this is the first time Salem had to “find it” in our backyard. Having a clicker trained dog makes it easier to communicate when he’s found the target.After only a few sessions he’s pretty tired both mentally and physically.

Science shows that you can teach your old dog some new tricks!

In case you’re wondering about the science behind the ability of older dogs to learn new behaviors because either they’re “too stubborn” or “just too old to learn” a recent study concludes that these are human motivated statements and not founded on any factual basis.  There’s been some great research done in Neuroscience and it confirms that “instantaneous” learning can occur at any age.  The key is for us humans to better understand our dogs and that we implement the correct strategies with our dogs.

This is a great read for both dog trainers and behaviorists.

Old Dogs Learning New Tricks: Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period. Angeline S. Lillard and Alev Ersir University Of Virginia 2011

Here are some more posts we’ve written about our senior dogs:

Big Adventure Time for Senior Dogs.

More Tips for Senior Dogs.

Written by Jeff Jensen – co-owner of Four Muddy Paws.