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Training And Care Of The Older Dog

by Debbie Connolly


As an animal behaviourist, I do get fed up of the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I’ve retrained dogs of 11 and 12, one of which had had the same serious behaviour problems for over 10 years.   Thankfully the dog did learn and finally got to go out in the car and enjoy what was left of his life.  How sad though it took so long for them to get help.

Even if you’ve tried before, we learn new ideas and techniques all the time, so don’t give up.  New gadgets are always appearing, some not good, some brilliant.  Even if your dog has been pulling for years, getting help to use a Halti or Gently Leader correctly can still solve the issue.

My own 12 year old Collie cross who is the nicest dog I’ll ever have has gotten a bit naughty of late.  He is a gentle, kind boy, keen to please and very affectionate.  However he started not quite coming back to a recall, sometimes turning and looking, but not bothering and not always responding to the first command.  Of course it turned out he was quite deaf and I had to go back to using more of the hand signals he learned as a puppy.  This has meant he understands again but also it has given him his security back.  He seemed worried that he could see my lips moving but not hear me.  Now he looks at the hand signal and is happy.

So don’t assume a naughty dog is just that.  As they age they may slow down a bit as joints stiffen and might not be able to turn or sit as quickly as before.  They may not hear you as well and simply not know you gave a command.  If your dog doesn’t know hand signals, start now.  Shouting loudly doesn’t help.  My dogs eat my own range of foods, Intelligent Feeding, which contain chondroitin and glucosamine to aid healthy joints.  Long proven to slow down joint degeneration, there are several foods on the market which contain it.  There are also many supplements from stores such as Holland and Barrett which you can add separately.  Start early, don’t just wait until the dog is showing signs of wear and stiffness, you need to try and put that moment off for as long as possible with maintenance doses.

If you own younger dogs, don’t assume your older dog always wants to go walking with them.  As my boy has got older, he does a bit more on his own.  He is a fit and active 12 year old although a little grey around the muzzle but he doesn’t want the walks he used to have.  You may have to look at curbing the length or type of walk and not throwing toys as much.  A friend has an older GSD/collie cross with bad hip dysplasia who is very collie personality.  She is obsessed about balls and can’t bear not to have one or walk without one.  Because her hips are so bad, she has to have only limited exercise and ball chasing which drove the dog demented.  I designed a series of toys and games for her so she uses limited physical energy but lots of brain energy.  You may need the same thing for your dog.

I recently came across the Nina Ottosson range of toys.  Described as brain toys, these can be a godsend to owners of bored or inactive dogs.  Not all dogs will get the hang of them quickly, one of mine needed instructions!    Some dogs can get a bit over excited, so use them sensibly.  You can also do your own simplified version, especially if your dog is a chewer by putting treats in a cardboard box.  Sellotape it up and poke a hole in the side.  Most dogs love tearing up the box to get at the treats.  For the older dog, especially if their exercise is being limited, this can be a way of giving them something to do indoors.

I am a great fan of homeopathic treatments even if sometimes I don’t quite “get “ them.  My own dogs have used magnetic collars such as “Bioflow” for many years as they aged.  The results have been mixed, ranging from a slight improvement to a quite miraculous one.  But using the collar meant I could put off drug treatment for my GSD who had appalling hips for many years.  With the collar and remedies such as Rhus Tox, Arnica etc he stayed drug free until the last 2 years of his life.  Considering he wasn’t expected to live past 6, losing him at 10 was extra time I was extremely grateful for.

Older dogs are often overlooked for rehoming because people fear they cannot learn and won’t adapt to new environments.  I have never known this to be true.  They may need a little longer and sometimes need to redo their basic training, but they usually get there in the end.  Some people fear taking on a dog who has lived outside because it won’t housetrain, but again they usually can.  I’ve adopted dogs like this myself, including a 9 year old GSD who had always lived outside.  It took about 3 weeks , but she was clean after that.

If your older dog starts to behave badly, or strangely or even shows a sudden serious change such as aggression, see your vet immediately.  I rehomed a large lurcher to a family several years ago and he adored the then 10 year old boy.  Last year, when the dog was about 9, he bit the child, now aged about 15.  It happened when the boy was cuddling the dog as he sat next to him on the sofa, something that usually happened with no problems.  He caught the boy in the face and he had to have some minor plastic surgery to fix the damage.  Some people would have whipped the dog off to the vet for euthanasia, but they had the sense to call me first.  Whilst sympathetic to the child’s injuries, I said to get the dog straight to the vet for a check up.  It turned out that the dog had arthritis in his shoulder. Up to then unnoticed, but as the child had put his hand on it and hugged, it hurt and the dog retaliated.  Thank God they got it checked.  Painkillers and joint supplements solved the problem and they are back to their regular cuddles.

Enjoy your older dog, but don’t forget they do slow down, go a bit deaf and sometimes even a bit senile.  Use your vet often and make sure your dog’s loyalty is rewarded.  Never avoid solving a behaviour problem because you have an older dog or avoid classes because you think they are full of puppies. Go along, you will be pleasantly surprised!

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