Do you own a senior dog or a dog that is moving into their senior years?
There are things that we want to watch out for and things we want to do to help prepare them to either moving into senior status or once they are senior dogs. We want to support them from a physical and mental standpoint to live longer, healthier and better-quality lives.
So, we can't stop the aging process – not for ourselves or our dogs, but there are things that we can do to make the journey easier and better quality by doing some simple K9 Fitness exercises like strengthening, balance and flexibility.
Of course, as we all know, the earlier we start K9 Fitness with our dogs the healthier they will be, but it's never too late to start. So, don't think that because you have an 8, 9 or 10-year-old dog that you haven't been doing fitness or other type of physical exercise with that it's too late. It's never too late to start something.
In this article, I am going to reveal five different things that you want to consider when doing K9 Fitness with a senior dog. Of course, before you start any kind of K9 Fitness program, you always want to check with your vet to make sure your dog is cleared for any kind of K9 Fitness exercises, especially if they've had any kind of injury in the past.
First, always make sure that you do a warm up routine with your dog before you start any kind of K9 Fitness exercise routine. A warm up routine can consist of walking in a fast pace or trotting with your dog for 4-5 minutes to help warm up the muscles, get the blood flowing and increase the heart rate and body temperature. You can also do some circles to the right circles to the left to help stretch out the spinal and core muscles as well as some figure eight weaves throughout our legs. Doing exercises on cold muscles can cause soreness, or even injury so take the time to do a warm up routine.
There are some things that are important to focus on for our senior dogs, one of them being mobility and balance. Of course, we want to make sure we have a balanced fitness program, but as our dogs move into senior years, building strength for mobility and support, as well as increasing balance and body awareness, are important. Flexibility and range of motion are also things to consider and there are some basic exercises that our dogs can do to help with all of these and keep it safe for them.
1. Stretching / Range of Motion
The first thing is stretching and range of motion. Adding stretching exercises and basic range of motion exercises can really help keep that flexibility going with our dogs. A couple of easy ones we can do are the nose to shoulder and nose to hip stretch.
If you haven't been doing this with your dog and you're just starting out, make sure that you allow your dog to only stretch as far as they are willing. They will let you know as far as they are willing to stretch. If they haven't been doing fitness exercises, their muscles are going to be short and tight. They won’t have the flexibility that other dogs have who have been doing this for a while. So really pay attention to what your dog is telling you.
The exercise is performed by either standing over top or next to your dog, letting your dog lick some yummy food in your hand while you very slowly begin to lure their nose to their shoulder. This should be slow and controlled to the shoulder and back to center. Then lure the nose to the hip and back to center, again, slow and controlled.
Do the same number of repetitions on each side, letting your dog decide how far they want to stretch. How many you do is going to be different with the senior dogs than it will be with the younger dogs. Senior dogs generally, unless they've been working or involved in competitive sports their whole life and are still in good condition, may want to only do 2-3 times on each side a couple of times a week.
2. Range of Motion & Stretching
Have your dogs go into a down-stay in front of you. Slowly walk around them in a circle one rotation and then reverse it and circle around them the other direction. As you move in a circle, your dog’s head is going to follow you. A couple of reps (one each way equals one rep) a couple of times a week is great for increasing range of motion and stretching the neck muscles (and bonus points as it also acts as an obedience exercise).
We also want to make sure that we are stretching the core and the spine, so with your dog in a sit and then in a down position, having them stretch out for some food. We want them to stretch their neck, spine and core by having reach for food right above or in front of them, but not coming out of position. We just want them to stretch enough where they get that nice stretch from the neck to the lower spine. And the whole core gets a nice stretch both from the sit and from a down positions.
Having your dog go from a sit to stand and down to stand are two great exercises that not only increase core strength but also strengthen the front and the rear end. Just using the dog's own body weight is enough resistance with senior dogs to begin building muscle strength. Ideally, we want their back legs to kick back in the sit to stand and keep the front legs still and, keep all 4 legs still when doing the Sphynx down to a stand, but this may take practice. You can help keep the movements slow and controlled and help get the form that you want (square sit and Sphynx down) by using food.
Another way to help build strength is having your dog walk up and down hills. Now, we don't want steep hills for the senior dogs, but if you have a gradual hill, walking (or doing a little bit faster pace if your dog is capable), up the hill is great for rear end strengthening.
Make sure when you're coming back down, however, that you are walking in a wide, zig zag type pattern. We don't want the dogs going straight down as that puts too much pressure on the front end of your dog (Dogs already put 65+% of their body weight on the front end). So, when they're coming down the hill, even the ones that aren't very steep, we still want them making some very long gradual “Z” patterns. Yes, we want to increase strength on the front end as they are coming down the hill, but we want to do it in a safe manner.
4. Balance and Body Awareness (Proprioception)
As our dogs age they start to lose proprioception and body awareness. Many times, when they are either walking or playing, they miss step. And if they step wrong, and they lose their balance, then of course, that can potentially cause an injury. Therefore, we really want to improve the balance and body awareness with our dogs and by doing some simple exercises, we can help them with this.
Weight shifting is a great way to increase body awareness in senior dogs. Start by having your dog in a stand or a square sit (no sloppy sitting with one foot out or on one hip). Place your hand behind their shoulders close their midsection and push just a little bit, but not enough to push them out of position. As you put some pressure and then let go, they need to use stabilizing muscles to stay in position. By doing some weight shifting, your dog is improving body awareness and balance. You can do this a few times on each side in either a sitting and/or a standing position.
You can also have your dog stand or walk on either some balance pads strategically placed on the floor or, you can even use couch cushions! While walking across 2-4 of these, they must balance themselves and therefore are again using stabilizing muscles as well as mental awareness to keep them upright.
Cavalettis are also a really great way to increase body awareness! You can purchase a set or build your own! Start with the Cavaletti polls (or 1” PVC pipes) on the ground. Let them just walk over them. Let them figure out how to step over them without stepping on them.
As they get better, you can raise them up, put them into the cones with the poles only being wrist height to begin with. Be careful on how high you put the poles for your senior dogs.
Generally, many of our senior dogs, even the ones that are healthy, may have some potential joint issues just by nature of the aging process. So be careful how high you bring these poles up. Even for healthy dogs, as they age things can start to deteriorate a little bit.
5. Signs of Fatigue
It’s important to watch for signs of fatigue in all dogs. Senior dogs will fatigue faster than young dogs so knowing the signs of fatigue will be very important.
Some of these signs are:
Hesitating on doing an exercise
Unwilling to continue with an exercise
Coming out of or can’t hold the position
These are signs that either the dog isn't ready for that exercise or they have moved into a state of fatigue. Pay attention to this and adjust the next time you do an exercise saying to yourself, “I definitely saw some signs of fatigue at 3-4 reps so this time I’ll only do 2 reps”. Even consider keeping a journal to help keep your dog safe.
The key is keeping your dog moving. There's that old saying of a body in motion stays in motion, a body at rest stays at rest. The same can be said for our dogs. If we just keep them moving and do a little bit of flexibility, balance work, and a little bit of strength building, we can help them stay healthy throughout their senior years!