Winter may be harder on senior dogs than the balmy warmer months of summer. Sure, it is cooler and we do not have to worry about heatstroke, but arthritis is worsened by the cold, the level of exercise decreases, boredom sets in, and there are routine winter hazards. The importance of mental and physical exercise in the winter cannot be overstated for both senior and younger dogs.
Like humans, and as discussed a few months ago, dogs develop arthritis as they age. We give them medications and supplements to aid in comfort, but don’t forget that exercise is equally if not more important. Walking keeps joints nimbler. When it is warm, go for routine walks. On cooler days adjust your schedule so as to walk longer when it is warmest outside. Dogs need to be walked a minimum of three times daily to eliminate. If the walks are short due to the weather, you will need to increase exercise inside. Consider interactive tugging toys, mild games of fetch, training involving sitting and lying down, and other physically tiring activities.
Walks outside are mentally stimulating. When indoors find other ways to tire your dog’s brain. Consider a treasure hunt game where you task the dog with finding hidden treats or toys. Start simply by having your dog sit and stay and watch you hide a treat. When you are ready, release him to find the treat. Reward with a high-value treat. Once mastered you can raise the difficulty by hiding things in different rooms, under different objects, around corners, or in open boxes. Be creative! This activity can last for hours.
You can even play hide and seek, but that requires two people. Begin with both of you standing next to the dog. Make him sit, and then one of you goes off and hides. Once hidden, have the other person release the pup to find you. What a wonderful prize – you!
A variation of the hunt game involves cups with a treat placed under one of them. The challenge is for the dog to knock over the cup with the treat. This task is challenging for dogs, requires little space, and can act as a great bonding activity for both of you. Begin with two upside-down plastic cups. While the dog is watching, place a treat under one cup, wait a few seconds, and then give a cue to get the treat. Perform this task 10-20 times until the dog becomes proficient. Then start alternating which cup hides the treat. If the dog chooses the incorrect cup, elevate the cup, show him the treat but do not let him have it. Replace the treat under the cup while he is watching and repeat. If mastered, place under a cup and then slide the cups to switch places. See if your dog can use all of his senses to find the treat. This is a difficult task and not all dogs can master it.
Tired of picking up your dog’s toys? Teach him to replace them in the bin. This game requires much patience and many sessions but is worth the effort. Begin by teaching your dog to drop a toy: “Drop it!” Use traditional treats, praise, or clicker training techniques. This alone is a valuable task and is worth the investment of time. Once mastered, bring out a bin and give the dog a toy. When he walks near the bin with the toy, give the command to drop it. The closer to the bin, the better the reward. Reinforce the behavior with one toy, once mastered. Eventually you can change “Drop it” to “Put it away” and slowly add the number of toys to be placed in the bin. In time you can train the dog to run around the house to gather toys, awaiting a treat once they are all in the bin.
Well, it’s time to walk the dog again. You’ve been playing in the house for a few hours, but she needs to pee. Be mindful of icy conditions for both you and the dog. Avoid walking on heavily salted areas if possible. Salt wedged between paw pads can cause discomfort. Clean between the paws with a paper towel if needed. Any discomfort should resolve once the salt is removed. Don’t let your dog drink from puddles, especially when surfaces have been salted. The salt can irritate their stomachs. If your dog is happy to be outside in the cold, consider a snug-fitting dog jacket. Many varieties exist and they can help keep pup comfortable on cold days.
May your winter be full of warm times with your dog. And as always, we are here for you.
Dan Teich, DVM, is at District Veterinary Hospital, 3748 10th St. NE, Washington, DC 20017; 202-827-1230 and firstname.lastname@example.org.