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Caring for a senior dog

I am privileged to live with an elderly dog, which is something we will all hopefully experience. In the past I never really thought about dogs getting older. With increased awareness and knowledge I am now thinking about how to meet my older dog’s ever changing needs and challenges. Dennis is a Parsons type terrier who is approximately 16 years old. I got him from a rescue and he had no history or date of birth.

There are a huge variety of symptoms associated with getting older including:

  • increases in aches, pains and general health issues

  • decreases in mental ability and senses

  • decreases in energy and sleeping more

  • difficulty getting comfortable

  • less able to tolerate temperature changes

  • decreases in coordination

  • decreases in hearing and eyesight

  • increases in digestive issues

  • recovery may take longer from physical and mental exertion

  • increased feeling of vulnerability and fear in a variety of situations

My hope is to enable my lovely Dennis to continue to feel safe, understood and loved and to age with dignity, confidence, good health, no pain and many choices.

Access and freedom of movement

One of the first things I noticed was that Dennis could no longer jump on my bed. The solution was a bespoke stool, which made a huge difference to both of us as he was still able to sleep with me when he wanted to.

Dennis’s coordination became severely impaired following a stroke and vestibular disorder diagnosis three years ago. He would lose his balance easily and found our kitchen floor too slippery. Initially I covered the floor with rugs to make it easier for him and finally I’ve put down a completely non-slip permanent floor covering. It means that no dog will ever feel unsteady or slip on any of my floors again.

Dennis has occasional incontinence so we have a dog flap which means he has free access to the garden. If there is the odd accident inside it is, of course, not a problem. He can still negotiate the dog flap easily but I monitor the situation as it may change in the future.

The steps to our garden started to be a challenge so we now have shallow wider steps to ensure he has easy access. This has made a huge difference to the other dogs as well as steps can be quite taxing.

Health and nutrition

Every six months Dennis has a veterinary visit to check on his hypothyroidism and general health. It’s reassuring for me and our vet is a very good one – he doesn’t insist that Dennis be lifted onto the table and always gets down to his level. These check ups allow the vet to see what Dennis looks like in good health and I can discuss any concerns as we monitor his health and medication. Sometimes I video Dennis doing something I’m concerned about for the vet, which is helpful in diagnosing and clearer than my explanations. Dennis also has regular canine Bowen sessions with me as well as Galen Myotherapy sessions which make a big difference to his mobility.

Food has become much more valuable to Dennis. He is more fixated on routine and lives for meal times and treats. He doesn’t enjoy raw food as much now so I cook for him and ensure he has a variety of healthy and easily digestible foods. Every day would ideally be an ‘all you can eat buffet’ for Dennis, so managing his expectations and preventing him from becoming overweight is tricky but doable. As his eyesight and ability to locate smell have deteriorated he snatches more so delivering food from the hand is done with care!

Routine and mobility

Walks have changed for Dennis. Some days he doesn’t want to go very far and other days he appears to have boundless energy. I am careful not to tire him and although he may start out with a lot of energy he needs to have enough remaining to walk back. Dennis is confident choosing what he does and whether he wants to come out with the others. Crowded places make him confused so we walk in quieter areas at quieter times of day. Some days he seems less comfortable walking on pavements so I drive to grassy areas where he can explore at his own pace.

As his hearing has deteriorated we have become reliant on a whistle and hand signals. I try to ensure he has as much freedom as possible but I use a long line occasionally for his safety and my peace of mind. As he can’t hear well a strange dog, runner, cyclist or child will sometimes startle and frighten him. I can alert him to things coming with hand signals so we can curve away together.

Dennis’s eyesight is slowly deteriorating. I don’t move furniture around at home and keep things the same as far as possible. We tend to walk in areas that he’s familiar with and can still see hand signals.

Sometimes Dennis sleeps deeply for a long time and can wake up a bit disorientated. He is never disturbed in his sleep and I ensure that all the beds are comfortable. When friends come over he is more tired the next day which is another thing to take into account.

Staying social

Dennis’s impaired sight and hearing mean I have to manage him with my other dogs. He doesn’t notice proximity or hear a low growl which can be stressful for everyone. He is more oblivious to calming signals. My other dogs have learned to get my attention if he is ignoring their signals so I can split him away from them.

Friends are hugely important and Dennis’s special friend is Audrey, a Border Terrier. He enjoys walks with her more than when it’s just his usual companions. Dennis has known Audrey since she was a puppy and as he’s got older he chooses to spend more time with her, often at each other’s houses. They are a funny pair and luckily she lives nearby.

As a rescue dog Dennis’s age is a little uncertain, but the oldest terrier ever was apparently 29! With a balanced approach, low stress, lots of choices, good care and me continuing to learn and observe I know we will have many more wonderful adventures together and he will continue to be a great mentor and teacher.

Winkie is the current PDTE Chair and a dog trainer and behaviour consultant working in London.

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