This article is part two of a two post series on maintaining healthy habits for senior dogs.
For keeping the body fit, the emotions uplifted and the mind young, exercise is king. Appropriate levels of exercise vary dramatically depending on the age, comfort level and health status of your senior companion. Even if all the two of you can do is take a leisurely sniff around the yard for 5 minutes, do it every day or better yet, twice a day.
Your companion would benefit even more if you can add some gentle conditioning into her daily life. Spend 5 minutes once or twice a day adding a few of the exercises listed below. Always start with a short walk as a warm up then do the other exercises. Start with only one or two repetitions of an exercise or two. As your dog gets more comfortable with the exercises you can add another repetition and an additional exercise. Remember to keep it light and fun.
Your dog should never be sore or overly tired by her workouts. If she pants excessively, her legs start to shake, or she tries to step away from the exercise, do shorter sessions and fewer repetitions and then build up. If she’s sore the next day (slower to get up in the morning or less interested in her walk), you should back off on her exercises, cutting the repetitions down.
Of course, it’s very important to get a clean bill of health from your veterinarian prior to starting any conditioning program.
Go for as long a walk as your dog can tolerate. If she’s sore the next day, or lagging behind more at the end than she was at the start, try shortening the walk by 30% and she should do better. If she can’t go for a walk at all, time for a visit to the vet to see what might be limiting her!
Without balance, the strength of the body deteriorates quickly. In order to keep her balance, your dog uses many “stabilizing muscles” in her trunk and legs. If these muscles have to work extra hard (for example in a dog that’s overweight, or walks a lot on slippery floors), the muscles get really sore and balance is compromised.
If your senior dog is active and free from lameness, these balance exercises should be safe to do:
- PLANK 101 – the stand - This may be surprising to many, but standing for 10 seconds is really hard for some dogs. Start there. Does your dog stand still and comfortably for the whole time without shifting her weight around or trying to sit or lie down? If not, start with this exercise!
- PLATFORM PLANK – If she does well with the basic stand and can do it for 30 seconds, have your dog stand on a low platform that’s only 2-4 inches high and 1.5 – 2 times as long as her body and 1.5-2 times as wide as her body. An exercise bench can work well. Make sure that the surface is nonslip. Start with just 10 seconds.
- COOKIE STRETCHES – Have your dog stand comfortably as in the “Plank 101”. Using a piece of her food, lure her nose toward her shoulder, then toward her hip, then between her front legs. Do both sides. She shouldn’t step out of place while doing this. If she does, don’t make her stretch as far. You can do this stretch every day with your companion.
- FIGURE 8 – If your dog can do all of the other exercises well, try this exercise to keep her spine mobile and help her balancing and stabilizing muscles have a bit of a work out. Use a cookie to lure her in a figure 8 around a couple of cones or trashcans. The cones should be set about as far apart as your dog is long from tip of nose to base of tail. If your dog is small or limber, you can use your own legs as the “cones”. You might need to use her favorite treat to do this the first few times. Only do one or two repetitions to start as this can be a little challenging for some dogs.
- BACK EXTENSION – Have your dog stand with her front feet on a platform or step that’s about ankle high. She should keep her head and neck neutral and in a straight line with her back. Have her hold the position for 5-10 seconds then help her step down.
- UP & DOWN PLATFORM – This one is particularly helpful for dogs that are starting to have a bit of trouble with the stairs. Set up a platform with a nonslip surface that’s about as high as your dog’s ankle. An exercise bench will work well for medium or large dogs. For smaller dogs a phone book wrapped in duct tape can work well. Have your dog slowly step up onto the platform and slowly (one foot at a time) step off. This sounds easy. For many dogs it’s a work out! Have your dog do this 2-3 times to start with.
If I could have one wish come true for my grey-muzzle patients it would be that their families have the tools and knowledge to help them enter their senior years with more enthusiasm, joy, and comfort.