Canine Brainpower

Joey is edging toward 13. His muzzle and paws are grizzled with gray, his eyes clouded with cataracts, and his hearing certainly isn’t what it used to be. He eats a quality senior diet that helps him maintain a healthy weight and meets his nutritional needs. Joey also takes medications to keep him pain- and symptom-free from canine intervertebral disk disease.

Joey’s owner, Merry Jordan, cajoles him into taking daily walks and drags favorite toys to hidden locations in the house so that the Dachsie can scent his way to his most wanted playthings.

According to Gary Landsberg, DVM, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and a partner in Doncaster Animal Clinic, Jordan is doing everything right to mentally stimulate her dog.

“A lot of people [who own senior dogs] stop exercising and interacting with their dogs,” Landsberg says. “Maybe because the dog is suffering from disease or is not capable of doing what she used to do. Or, owners often think it’s not necessary to keep an older dog active. “

When is a Dog Old?
“A senior or geriatric dog is, by definition, one that is in the last 25 percent of her expected life cycle,” explains Robert T. Goldston, DVM, author of the veterinary textbook, Geriatrics and Gerontology of Dogs and Cats (W.B. Saunders Company, 1995, $89.95), with senior being the first half and geriatric being the second half of that 25 percent. In general, however, senior status starts at 7 years of age and geriatric at around 10 years of age, depending on the dog’s size. Larger dogs typically age more quickly than smaller dogs.

“Mental stimulation greatly improves both the longevity and quality of life of all senior dogs,” Goldston says. “Just like our muscles and joints, the brain needs its exercise. The use it or lose it principle’ is equally important in preventing senility in geriatric dogs as it is in aged humans.”

So, how do you keep your older dog mentally stimulated? According to Goldston and Landsberg, by doing what you’re already doing and providing an enriched environment.

Something Old, Something New
“Do everything you did in the past with your dog, but know her limits,” Landsberg suggests. A regular schedule of eating, exercise, playtime, training, riding in the car, and other activities offers continued opportunities for your dog to learn.

Goldston also recommends adding something to your dog’s life: a new puppy. “By far the best activity for mentally stimulating senior and geriatric dogs is the near constant [attention] they get from a young puppy.”

Before you commit to buying or adopting a puppy, arrange a few opportunities for your senior dog to interact with a few different puppies. Some older dogs, especially those with painful conditions, won’t appreciate a pesky new pet around the house.

For exercise that stimulates the mind, Goldston suggests controlled exercise allowing them to utilize their available senses of sight, smell, hearing, etc. A simple walk provides sights, sounds, and smells, touching on many of your dog’s senses. If you normally walk a certain route with your senior dog, take a new one. Devise three or four routes near your home, and your old dog will get new stimulation each time you take her out.

Stimulation and Accommodation
But what if your dog has a medical condition that prohibits her from exercising much? “Give your dog alternatives,” Landsberg suggests. “Favorite chew toys, toys your dog manipulates to get food, and new toys can stimulate her mentally without a lot of physical activity,” he says. You can also teach your dog new commands or even tricks that don’t require much body movement. The effort of understanding your request, then complying, will exercise her mind.
“And then there’s just attention from you: Probably the most important mental stimulation in less mobile pets is a daily time for the owner to just pet, scratch, rub, talk, squeak toys, hand feed, etc.,” Goldston notes.

Finally, consider accommodations that will help keep your dog active and involved. “Adapt to the needs of the pet,” Landsberg says. If your dog doesn’t do steps as well, use a ramp. If she can’t see well, improve the lighting, and use scent cues.

It will take some work to mentally stimulate your older dog, but she’ll be happier for it. And a happier dog typically has a happier owner at the end of her leash.      

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