Although senior dogs do slow down, they are probably still keen to go for walkies and get the chance to stretch their legs and sniff around. Exercising an old dog is still important to keep them active, happy, and healthy, even if they can’t go as far or as fast as they used to.
However, your dog will have changing abilities and they won’t be able to do all the runs, hikes, or ball chucking they once did to keep fit. As an owner, you must adapt your exercise routine to suit your senior dog. So what can you do to keep an older dog fit and active?
As with many things, prevention is often better than cure. In the case of older dogs, keeping them active will help to delay the onset of ageing and age-related conditions, such as arthritis, and will help to alleviate some of the aches and pains associated with getting older. Keeping them active will also help to prevent obesity.
Keeping your dog a healthy weight is crucial as they get older because their metabolism slows down and makes them more prone to weight gain. Gaining excess body weight will put additional strain on their heart and joints and put them at risk of secondary illness like heart disease and diabetes.
Meanwhile, routine exercise will also help to alleviate and prevent some stiffness and pain in your dog’s joints. Just like humans with arthritis, it’s important to keep moving to prevent immobilisation. If you let your dog stay still for too long, their body condition will worsen and ultimately, they will become weaker and their arthritis will progress sooner.
Before starting any exercise routine with an older dog, check with your vet to discuss your dog’s abilities and how you can improve your canine’s condition whilst keeping them safe and comfortable.
Just like any good exercise routine, you should warm up and cool down with your dog to prevent injury. Start and end any exercise with a gentle walk. If your pooch is comfortable with going faster, you can increase the pace slightly after a warm-up, but make sure you always follow your pooch’s pace.
You’ll need to go at your pup’s pace, so be patient and let them lead the speed of your stroll. Give them plenty of time to sniff around as this provides enrichment and an opportunity to have a brief rest. Your dog may need to sit and rest on walks too, and that’s fine. It’s a chance for them to catch their breath and watch the world go by for a moment, so take the time to sit with your pooch and be in the moment.
When walking an older dog, you will need to keep to a short route, just in case they get tired or need to head home early. Check your dog as you are walking and if they seem to be becoming tired, sore, limping, or showing any signs of discomfort, head home again.
Short walks don’t mean your pup has to miss out though. Consider driving you and the dog to the park so they can still have the chance to walk around it, and save them the walk there and back. You could drive to any other place they like to walk to so that your pooch saves their energy to spend sniffing and strolling with you, and the different surroundings will provide plenty of enrichment.
The last thing you want to do is to push your dog too far or let them become overtired as they will be more prone to injury and will be stiff afterwards. A good rule of thumb is that if your dog seems comfortable while walking, and shows no signs of stiffness or pain the next day, you’ve got the distance and duration of your walkies just right.
Dogs thrive on routine at any age, but older dogs especially. Keeping walkies short but regular gives them something to look forward to and means they’re less likely to become stiff. Regular exercise will help to prevent injury and stiffness compared to long periods of inactivity. Plus, short but regular walkies have a bigger positive impact than occasional long walks.
As well as keeping walks as long as your dog is able to manage, you’ll need to make sure you’re not walking them anywhere too strenuous. For example, hills and soft sand are difficult for senior pups to walk on and they are more physically demanding so should be avoided. If your pooch can only manage little walks, stick to flat and level terrain.
Old dogs are more sensitive to changing temperatures, so you need to make sure they don’t get too hot or cold on walkies. In winter, you might want to buy them a coat to keep the chill out and protect them from the wet and the wind. Beware of ice because an old dog is likely to fall and injure itself. Meanwhile, in the summer, you should walk in the cooler hours in the morning and evening. If it’s too hot or too cold, you’re best trying to find exercise you can do indoors.
As dogs age, their hearing and vision can deteriorate which will make them less aware of their surroundings and often leads to nervousness. Some dogs can even develop “doggy dementia” (Canine cognitive dysfunction). If your pooch develops CCD, you will need to consider their abilities and how to adapt both physical and mental activities for them.
Because of their changing senses, you’ll need to be more aware of your surroundings and be prepared to avoid any stressful situations or stop and distract your dog while the stimuli passes e.g. a noisy motorbike. Be prepared to stop and soothe your dog if they seek reassurance if something takes them by surprise.
With these changes to their senses, it may become impossible to let your dog off the lead safely. Hearing loss will make recall difficult, while impaired vision and unsteady legs make it harder for your pooch to navigate the terrain and avoid dangers, such as potholes they could trip on. Keeping your dog on a lead is often for their own safety. If you want to give them some room to roam, try using a harness and long line lead instead. This will allow them the freedom to explore safely at their own pace but still be under your control.
There are plenty of products you can buy to help your pooch get up and about. Ramps will help them get up and down the stairs or in the car more easily. A harness with a handle can be useful to offer your pup a helping hand whenever they need it.
If your pup has real difficulty walking, you can even purchase slings that help you take their weight safely, allowing them to keep moving all four limbs, but while you take the weight and pressure off their joints.
You can purchase prams for dogs, but you should try to keep your dog moving as long as they are able to, to prevent their body condition from worsening and to help them stay fit and a healthy weight. But these prams are a good option for taking your dog on a stroll to the park, then letting them out for a wander once you’re there.
You can find doggy massage therapists and physiotherapists who can help your dog, but you can learn the basics yourself too. Spending some time massaging your dog and providing exercises that can help to relieve pain, improve their body condition, and improve the range of movement in their joints. It’s gentle and can help your dog continue walkies as normal, plus, it’s a great excuse for a cuddle and some one-on-one time with your dog.
Swimming is a great way of giving your dog a low-impact, full-body workout. The water takes their weight so there’s little pressure on their joints as they move, so it can help to ease some aches and stiffness while allowing them to build their strength. Dogs of any age are often given hydrotherapy after injury or major surgery to aid their physical recovery, and old dogs benefit from it too.
Sometimes, pottering around the house and garden is enough exercise for your pup. And on cold or wet days, you might not want to take them outside and need some indoor enrichment.
You can play games like hide and seek with your dog, which will get them using all their senses to try and find you and encourage them to get up and moving around. Scent games are another super way of providing enrichment and easygoing exercise for your dog that you can do outside or in the comfort of your home. Also, you can even try and teach them a new trick! Yes, older dogs can still be trained up to perfection, so take a look at some of our top tips for training up your senior dog here.
Mental stimulation will help to tire your pooch out too and is important for keeping their brain active and prevent cognitive decline. You can buy puzzle toys to entertain your dog, but be mindful that toys that require complex problem-solving or fine-tuned movements might be too difficult for an older dog, depending on their mental and physical abilities.
Read our guide on enrichment and stimulation for older dogs.