Senior dog enrichment

Health and Wellbeing

The most important aspect of enrichment for older dogs is making sure that they can still join in fun activities and be a part of your life. This does mean you will need to adapt to your dog, but it allows the pair of you to enjoy some quality time together and keep your senior pooch happy in their twilight years.

Senior German Shepherd

The first step to providing enrichment is adapting your home and routine to make life easier for your old dog and allowing them to join in with everything your family is doing. After that, it’s a case of providing your pooch with plenty of age-appropriate exercise and enrichment that is fitting for their changing physical and mental abilities.

ADAPT EXERCISE TO SUIT YOUR DOG’S NEEDS

Throughout your dog’s life, walkies are one of their favourite things because it’s both quality time with you as well as a chance to explore the outside world and all the delightful sniffy spots it has to offer. Walkies with an older dog should be adapted to be shorter, gentler strolls with lots of sniffing so that they aren’t putting a huge physical strain on your pooch, but still providing lots of enrichment and stimulation.

If your pooch is still confident exploring, you could drive somewhere new and enjoy a stroll somewhere you’ve never been before. This opens up new smells, sights, and textures underfoot for your pooch to explore.

SLOW DOWN AND STAY SAFE

Exercising an older dog is still important to keep them healthy and active. Keeping them moving will help to keep their joints working, as well as help to prevent obesity where the added weight will put an extra strain on their body and puts them at risk of conditions like heart disease and diabetes.

However, you will need to make sure walkies are adapted to your pooch’s abilities. So let them set the speed, keep walkies short, and put lots of focus on sniffing. Rest whenever they need to and remember, being on a walk isn’t always about walking. Sitting outside and watching the world go by, feeling the wind in their fur, listening to the birds, and smelling the air can all provide just as much enrichment for them.

SPLIT UP FOR WALKIES

If you have another, younger dog in the household it means you might need to consider walking your dogs separately. Not only does this mean each dog can have an adequate walk suited to their individual needs, but it also gives each pup valuable alone time with you which will be a great source of enrichment.

STAY SOCIAL

Just because your pooch can’t race around or play “ruff” and tumble anymore doesn’t mean they should give up their social life. Set up some doggy playdates with other senior dogs, or calm pooches that aren’t likely to try and roughhouse with your canine companion. Having the chance to socialise and keep doing what dogs do is sure to enrich your pooch’s life.

KEEP UP PLAYTIME

Your pooch might not be as playful as a puppy, but as they get older, playtime will become as important as exercise to help keep them physically and mentally active in a safe and moderated way. Playing also gives your dog the opportunity to have some focused time with you doing something fun and definitely keeps boredom and undesirable behaviour at bay.

But, old dogs can’t run around so fetch is out of the question. And given their tottery legs and dwindling strength, games like tug can be too much too. You should stop doing ball chucking because it’s likely your dog will hurt themselves.

Instead, you should provide plenty of low-intensity games that challenge your pooch mentally and are adapted to suit their needs and abilities. The key is to try and modify games, like swapping fetch for scent work like hiding their ball for them to find.

Kongs stuffed with Pure aren’t just perfect for puppies, they help to keep old dogs occupied too. Because many older dogs can become anxious, a soothing toy like a Kong, a snuffle mat, or a LickiMat are all great for allowing them to self-soothe as well as keeping them busy.

KEEP THEM MENTALLY STIMULATED

You should continue training with an old dog to strengthen your relationship and provide some mental stimulation. Just make sure the tricks you ask for are appropriate for their ability and keep sessions short. Teaching an old dog new tricks is more than possible, and it actually helps to prevent cognitive decline.

Puzzle toys and scent games are a great way to engage several of your dog’s senses and get their nose and brain working for a treat. These sorts of activities also help to test your canine’s cognitive ability, blowing the cobwebs out of their brain and helping to prevent cognitive decline in old age. Plus, using their nose and trying to problem-solve in this way can be just as tiring as a walk, so it’s perfect for enriching the lives of dogs who can’t go for long walkies anymore. You can buy toys or make your own puzzles and games to keep your pooch entertained, or try some scent games.

One such scent game will help your dog to enjoy a good game of fetch at a more leisurely pace. Keep your dog in a down/stay (or hold them in place with a collar or lead) and toss their toy a little way away, into long grass if possible. When you let them go to find it, they will probably rely on their nose much more to track it down and bring it back to you.

Other scent games include just scattering their food around the room and allowing them to find it. If you’d like to add an element of challenge for your pooch, you can hide the food in toys or puzzles for them to find. Try a few of our DIY enrichment ideas below, or adapt some DIY doggy boredom busters to suit your pooch’s abilities.

DIY AND EASY ENRICHMENT IDEAS FOR OLD DOGS

Had a parcel lately? Keep the box and packing paper. All you need to do is scatter some toys or treats inside, scrunch the paper up to hide them all, partially close the box, and then offer it to your dog and watch them try to figure out how to get their treats!

You can also use a box and stuff it with upright toilet roll or kitchen roll tubes (so it forms a sort of honeycomb structure) and hide some treats inside. Your dog will have to pull the tubes out to get to their tasty reward.

Another super easy enrichment idea is to take a towel and lie it flat on the floor, scatter some treats on it, then grab the centre of the towel and slowly twist your hand so the towel swirls into a spiral, hiding the treats in the folds. It’s a great alternative to a snuffle mat that takes literally seconds to set up and doesn’t require anything you don’t already own.

The muffin tin puzzle is another easy enrichment idea. Take a muffin tin, put some treats in each of the cups, then cover them with a tennis ball and watch as your pup noses their way around to try and find the food.

ADAPT GAMES FOR YOUR POOCH TO PLAY

As well as making puzzles, you could play simple, low-intensity games at home like hide and seek. Have someone keep your dog in one room, or sneak out when your pooch isn’t looking, and call them. They'll have to use their nose and ears to find you and need a big reward afterwards. If your pooch is a little more active, you could turn it into a game of round-robin and have you and one other person call the dog to you in turn so they must walk back and forth between you. Just remember to only do what your dog is able according to their ability and energy level.

TURN ON THE TELLY

If you want some snuggle time, you can put some doggy TV on for your pooch to enjoy for some visual and audio stimulation. There are loads of high-quality videos on youtube you can access for free that range from footage of bird tables to virtual dog walks.

While you’re sitting watching together, give your dog a big cuddle or even a doggy massage to help ease any stiffness and aches they might have and provide them with some quality bonding time with their favourite human. After all, quality time spent with their human is one of the best enrichment activities any dog can have, whatever their age!

Dr Andrew Miller BVSc MRCVS

Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS

Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.