honoring our seniors
By Marilee Geyer
Photo by Monica Rua
I have a “thing” for old dogs. The grey muzzle, the clouded eyes filled with wisdom, the slow-moving peacefulness . . . everything about them makes my heart swell.
As the proud guardian of three dogs over the age of eleven, I'm always on the lookout for tips and information that will help me keep my aging canines healthy and happy. I recently had the pleasure of attending a seminar on senior dog issues sponsored by the San Francisco SPCA. Advances in veterinary medicine—such as nutrition for older dogs, effective treatments for arthritis and cancer, and access to ever-increasingly sophisticated diagnostic tests—mean that today's dogs are living longer than ever before. But like any other aging family member, as our dogs grow older, changes in their bodies mean that we often must make changes and accommodations in their activities and environment to ensure they stay comfortable, content, and safe.
As dogs age and their bodies slow down and they find it harder to move around, their world becomes smaller, literally and figuratively. In order to keep their minds active and to prevent boredom and depression, it's important to help your canine companion stay engaged with the world. Seminar speaker Lisa Dossey, a Certified Trainer and Counselor, gave an excellent presentation on fun and safe ways to exercise a senior dog’s body and mind. Even if your dog is slower or does not have as much stamina anymore, gentle short walks and easy strolls are a good exercise choice. Walk slowly, taking time to "smell the roses" (and the trees, and the shrubs, and the dirt, and the lamppost . . .). Try to find new places to explore—new places mean a whole new set of smells to investigate! Remember that older dogs are more sensitive to temperature extremes, so be sure to take plenty of water, and avoid the heat of the day or particularly chilly temperatures. Don't rush; allow your dog to set the pace. For dogs who are having trouble walking even short distances, a dog stroller may be in order. When my dog Huckleberry, a 70-pound Lab mix, lost his mobility, I bought a stroller so that we could keep visiting his favorite places. Strollers come in a variety of sizes and designs, and Huckleberry's had rubber tires (good for rough surfaces) a padded base (good for his achy old bones) and even a cup holder (good for me!). He loved that stroller. When he saw me loading it in the truck, his eyes would light up in anticipation of the adventure that was to come. We logged many miles together with that stroller, and we enjoyed every one.
Warm water swimming was another activity Huckleberry enjoyed. When he was in the water and gravity was not pulling his body down, it was as if he were young again. At the seminar, Cathy Chen-Renne of the Rex Center talked about the benefits of water therapy. Among other things, it can help maintain muscle strength, preserve cognitive function, and protect joints. And most dogs really love it. At the Rex Center, swim coaches join the dogs in the water. Sometimes they help the dogs just float and relax, or they may incorporate massage with the swim.
In or out of the water, massage is another excellent therapy that many senior dogs enjoy. It too has myriad benefits. Among them is increased circulation, as massage loosens and stretches tendons. And let's be honest: it just feels good! Several years ago I took a class on canine massage, and the techniques I learned have been enjoyed by not only my canine family members, but my husband as well! Touch is important to everyone, humans and dogs alike. Togetherness is too. Sometimes the most important thing we can do for our dogs (senior or not) is to simply be with them to enjoy their "dogginess" and allow them to be who they are. Belly rubs on the couch, a gentle massage on old tired legs, sitting side by side and simply enjoying each other's company—these may be the greatest gifts we can give to our aging friends.
As your beloved dog becomes older, your time together slows down, becomes sweeter, more precious. Huckleberry has been gone for nearly two years now, and though I miss him dearly, I am comforted by the fact that we made every day special and cherished each moment, especially in his senior years.
My wish for everyone who shares their life with an aging canine companion is that they investigate and pursue new ways to interact based on their particular dog’s needs. Getting older, for any of us, doesn’t have to be the end of physical activity, exploration and fun. Sometimes a slight change of course can propel us into a whole new sphere of awareness and adventure. The rewards—and they are many—can be profound for everyone involved.
Marilee Geyer is the co-author, along with Diane Leigh, of the award-winning book, "One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter." Marilee is also the co-founder of the nonprofit publisher "No Voice Unheard," which is dedicated to promoting an ethic of compassion and respect for all living beings and the planet we share.