My beloved Smooth Collie, Finney, turned 9 years old this past February. It was the first winter that I noticed any real change in him. He has been gray around the muzzle since he was about 3 years old, and the years from age 3 until now have all kind of blurred together. Until now.
Finn made it clear this past winter that the cold bothers him. Older dogs tend to not handle extreme temperatures well. Finney rarely asked to go out this winter. When he did, he would run outside, do a No. 3 (pee and poop at the same time), and then run back in just as quickly as he could to resume his place next to the heater.
This year, the snow was brutal to walk on. Aside from it being cold on Finney’s feet (he doesn’t want to wear dog boots; we tried), the deep snow was very hard to walk on, and winter is hard on old bones and aging muscles. The rock salt on the street burns. On some days the ice was so sharp it could cut his feet. I worried when he fell through the snow that he would hurt himself, so we took care to avoid those areas.
We do use paw wax, but Finn has made it clear that he is quite content in the house when it’s cold outside. What Finney wants, Finney gets. Doing fun tricks indoors on some days is a better choice than going for a walk.
Lucky for Finney, we live in an area of four seasons, and the other three don’t really affect him at all.
Your Dog Is Communicating With You
Finn is a great example of a dog who is telling us a lot, if we only pay attention. Many older dogs are not so clear and follow owners to the ends of the earth, never letting on that they are in any discomfort.
Dogs are stoic about pain, so please don’t assume that your dog is fine and can continue to walk with you the same as he did when he was a youngster. It is not uncommon that by the time we see signs of pain and discomfort, it is a lot worse than our dogs are letting on. You can bet that by the time we are aware that our dogs are in any pain or discomfort, it is pronounced and has been going on longer than we realized.
I love old dogs. I love their sweet old ways and their sweet graying faces and knowing eyes. By the time our dogs reach senior citizen status, they deserve to be loved and protected by us. It is time to give back. Leash walking senior dogs is a great time to work on their bucket list.
Age, as they say, is just a number, but our senior dogs should be seeing their vet twice a year. Always discuss any and all exercise concerns you may have with your vet.
“Signs of pain can include difficulty standing from a sitting or laying position, getting up onto furniture or beds, reluctance to go on walks or the desire to end the walk early,” says Elizabeth Phares, DVM, of Kansas City. “You should have a plan for what to do if your dog is unable to finish a walk and is too large for you to safely carry home.”
Outfitting For Your Senior Dog For Walking
I prefer a 6-foot leash for walks. Finney wears a martingale, also known as a limited slip collar, because regular collars can slip over his narrow Collie head. If you use a regular flat collar, please check that it cannot slip over your dog’s head, and keep in mind that collars stretch, so be sure to check your equipment routinely.
If you use a retractable leash, please only use it only when you are walking well away from other dogs and people.
Harnesses are a great choice for all dogs, and many harnesses have a built-in handle that can be very handy to help your senior dog maneuver stairs and vehicles.
It is never too late to microchip. Your senior dog can get disoriented, and if he gets away from you, he may not be able to find his way home as easily he could a few years back. Be sure to register the chip! Not all places can read all chips, and they do not take the place of IDs. I believe that all dogs should wear their ID tags all of the time. It is also a great idea to check tags periodically for wear and tear. I have had several that wore out and fell off where the tag attached to the ring.
Safe Dog Walking In All Seasons
Seasons bring with them their own challenges for senior dogs. The cooler weather in spring and fall may have your dog feeling like a pup on some days; just be careful not to overdo the exercise.
Summer brings heat issues for many dogs, especially the brachycephalic (short-nosed) dogs, like Bulldogs and Boxers. Be sure to take lots of breaks and provide plenty of water. On hot days, some Braci dogs need to stay inside in an air-conditioned house and can only tolerate short periods of extreme heat.
I have known far too many dogs who have burned their pads on hot pavement. Use your hand to check the temperature of the sidewalk, street or other surface you plan to walk on and pay attention to your dog’s feet. Watch how your dog walks on hot pavement and check his paws often. As a general rule, if it is too hot for us, it is too hot for them.
Just like people, some dogs will have tougher feet than others, so just keep a watchful eye and use common sense. Many people put dog boots on their pet for hot pavement. If you choose to use dog boots, be sure to take time to help your dog adjust to them well ahead of time. Finn now gets fewer neighborhood walks than he used to and his pads are not as tough as they once were.
Finally, watch out for lawns sprayed with chemicals and avoid them.
Time Of Day
The time of day you walk your senior dog may need to be adjusted. Avoid the heat of midday in summer, and the brutal early morning and late nights of winter if you can.
So many of us get dogs as exercise partners, and when the day dawns that our dogs cannot keep up, it is not the end of the world. However, it is time to reevaluate and scale back a bit.
Most dogs tend to love routine. If we can keep our aging dogs (and aging selves!) on a routine and modify it from time to time with a realistic, keen eye, there is no reason you cannot continue to walk your senior dog.
“Exercise that is appropriate for your dog’s age and health can improve their quality of life and extend their life expectancy,” Phares says. “Fit dogs live, on average, 20 percent longer than overweight dogs.”