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  • Writer's pictureDr Sandra Hassett

5 Top Tips for Exercising Older Dogs

As our best friends enter their golden years we need to reassess their exercise needs. Like us, their bodies change with age and we want to maintain them as active, healthy and pain free as possible for as long as possible. Here are some simple steps to take to help ensure this is the case for your best friend.

Exercise consistently and allow recovery time

Older bodies do not have the same reserve capacity as younger bodies. They take longer to heal and recover. So where as a young dog who normally walks 40 minutes a day can happily go for a 3 hour rampage on the beach and after a good night’s sleep be up and at it again the next day, an older dog cannot. They should not be encouraged to overdo the exercise and if they do exercise in a more vigorous or different manner then they need an extra day or two to recover. This is not to say they cannot do different activities and go on trips and excursions, just that we need to exercise moderation and allow them to rest the following day.

We also need to be aware that sometimes even seemingly simple changes can affect the mature dog. If they are not used to stairs and they move to a house with stairs this can make a difference to their mobility. If they now have to walk on slippery tiled floors where they were accustomed to carpet then they may have problems. If they are used to walking on soft, irrigated grass on the oval and now they are walking on hard, uneven tracks on the reserve it may have an impact.

So monitor the activities they do – how far they walk, where they walk, their home environment etc. Make changes thoughtfully and monitor their impact. If you think the impact is negative then make modifications. Maybe they need non-slip matting in the house. Maybe when the ground is very hard in summer you need to relocate your walks to a softer environment. Maybe when they go to the beach instead of walking from one end to the other you take a book and stop halfway so you can both enjoy the scenery before strolling back again.

Avoid or reduce high speed, high impact activities

High speed and high impact activities place far more stress on muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints than do low speed, low impact activities. As an example, a jump over an obstacle the height of their withers exerts 4 to 10 times more force on the tissues of the front legs than walking.

Joints in older animals often have reduced amounts of shock absorbing cartilage and synovial fluid. Muscles have more fibrous and less elastic tissue so they are less able to cope with these forces without tearing and damage. Also, as discussed previously, as tissues age it takes them longer to repair from damage. So not only do these activities do more damage but that damage takes longer to repair.

Unfortunately our four legged friends are often no better at accepting the aging process than we are. They still want to chase the ball, run with their friends and chase the birds (or possums, or rabbits …). It is not that we should stop them having fun, but we need to moderate how long they do it and how they do it. For example chasing a bigger ball requires less bending down whilst running to pick it up and bigger balls are less likely to bounce unpredictably. A ball that is not moving isn’t going to arouse their prey drive to the same extent as a bouncing ball so consider throwing balls to where they can’t see them land, so they have to slow down and search, or make them sit and wait until the ball stops before sending them to get it. Better yet, throw it into water and have them swim to get it. A few short retrieves is fine, 10 minutes continuous chasing a ball thrown by a chucker is not.

We love to see our dogs playing with other dogs but do be conscious of how long they are playing and how hard they are playing. This applies particularly when it is an older dog with a young dog. Often the older dog needs to stop but the younger dog just keeps insisting, or the older dog forgets their age once they are warmed up and ends up over-exercising. The situation is exacerbated if the younger dog is bigger and stronger. Monitor their play and insist on breaks so that you can tell if they still want to play when they are not super excited.

Use it or lose it – strength must be maintained

It is a natural part of the aging process that muscles lose mass and strength and it becomes harder to rebuild muscle mass when it is lost. There are certain activities that are essential to enjoying a good quality of life that need some strength. These include such activities as getting up from the ground, standing for any length of time, going up stairs, squatting to toilet and even getting in and out of the car. Unless your dog is pint sized and you can pick them up and carry them everywhere then we need to ensure that they maintain adequate strength even as they age.

In fact for bigger dogs loss of mobility is one of the most common reasons for euthanasia. Strong muscles also provide better support to joints and aging joints really benefit from this.

The best way to do maintain strength is to ensure that every day they do activities that strengthen the postural muscles but do not over stress them. Walking on its own does not require much strength, but add some resistance such as walking up an incline or walking in water and you will quickly see an increase in their strength. Working against resistance is also good because it cushions the joints and doesn’t jar and stress them. Doing some simple obedience exercises such as sit to stand or down to stand is a bit like us doing squats. If you incorporate it into some other simple tricks and add treats for a job well done then it is fun and mentally stimulating as well.

We all know the old expression ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ but don’t leave them sleeping in their beds for hours on end. Working against gravity is the simplest exercise for postural muscles. Get them up regularly even if it just to go outside or walk to another room for a treat and a pat. If they are having trouble getting up and this is the reason you are letting them lie then seek professional assistance. There are many ways we can help - from mobility aids to therapeutic exercises to medications.

Don’t lose balance

Falling over is just no fun and fear of falling can severely inhibit mobility – not to mention who wants to be hurt and scared! Sadly balance is yet another ability that declines as the body ages. The best way to slow this process is to keep gently challenging it. There are many ways to easily incorporate balance challenges into every day exercise without risking harm. Walking very slowly requires more balance and coordination than walking quickly. Walking very slowly over uneven surfaces is even more effective. So if you see a fallen log or rocks on a slope and your dog wants to sniff there then encourage them to slowly walk around the area and investigate. If there is an area of low growing plants, rocks or clumps of grass then encourage them to walk slowly through it, picking where to place their feet as they go. Don’t stick to the smooth and flat paths and think you are doing them a favour.

Unstable surfaces are also an excellent way to challenge balance. Note that there is a difference between unstable (moves under your feet) and slippery (if you lose balance you accelerate). This can be as simple as walking slowly over a foam mattress or the couch or a bed or in sand. Standing up on a car ride is also an excellent balance exercise.

The body has a whole system called proprioceptive system that is devoted to monitoring and adjusting where its parts are in space. Maintaining balance is one of the jobs of this system, tweaking muscles and tendons to make continual adjustments. You can feel this system at work if you simply stand on one leg and feel all the fine adjustments your body’s muscles make to keep you balanced. This is also a great work out for those muscles and helps them to maintain their strength. This applies particularly to the muscles of the core – the back and abdomen. Strong core muscles help enormously in movement, supporting the limb muscles and protecting the joints. So working on balance has many additional benefits beyond just not falling over.

Stop and smell the flowers

Sometimes with our older dogs we wonder why we are bothering to take them out at all. It takes 15 minutes just to go 50 metres as they shuffle along and sniff. Is it really worth it?

The answer is unequivocally yes! Though they may not be challenging their cardiovascular system or working their muscles to any great degree they are flooding their nervous system with sensory input and this is a very good thing. As with humans, one of the best ways to stave off the effects of aging is to remain mentally stimulated. Neurologic inputs in dogs from the locomotion and proprioceptive systems and from the nose, ears and eyes are a great way to do this.

So take your older dog to new places just to mosey around and sniff new smells and experience different sensations as it is very beneficial for them. If they can’t walk to the park anymore then drive them down, let them out to have a sniff, sit with them for a while to enjoy the sunshine and drive them home. Or drive them to the lake, let them walk on the beach and dip their toes in the water. Or take them to the coffee shop and let them lie on a comfortable bed whilst they scent the passers by and all the interesting new smells. This is so much better for them than to lie at home all day with the same smells, sounds, sights and tactile sensations.

Do be aware however that some dogs, as they age, become anxious when faced with new experiences. For these dogs try to develop a range of regular places that they feel comfortable to visit.

So, whatever your dog’s age, there are still many ways that you can both get out and enjoy quality time together!

Disclaimer: The information in this article is general in nature and not intended to provide specific veterinary advice. If your dog has specific health issues a thorough physical examination by a trained veterinary professional is recommended. Veterinary clearance before instituting any new activity program is also recommended.



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