A click for all ages
As your dog moves into her senior years you’ll probably notice some subtle changes—she groans a bit when changing positions, hesitates briefly when asked to sit, delays a bit on recall. Less subtly, she doesn’t follow you upstairs as often, quits jumping in agility, and pauses before making the jump into the car. Her body is aging, and her mind is likely not as agile as it was in her prime. Many of these effects of aging can be counteracted or lessened through training exercises that strengthen your dog’s body and mind. Get out the clicker for a couple of short training sessions at least every other day, and focus the training on new behaviors. It’s amazing what you and your dog can accomplish in less than 5 minutes a day.
Considering what might underlie changes in your dog can help to focus on the exercises that will be most effective. Your dog’s center of gravity is near her shoulders, so 65% or more of her weight is on her front end, which, therefore, receives more “strength training” than her rear. As she ages, her hind end will probably lose some of its power because the various muscles supporting it are atrophying and weakening. With muscle atrophy comes a loss of strength in tendons.
Your dog will also lose some of her capacity for proprioception and coordination. Proprioception is the sense of one’s own body position during movement, the knowledge of where a limb or other body part is in space and relative to the rest of the body. Exercises for the older dog often improve proprioception, as well as coordination, balance, strength, and mobility. Other benefits of exercises include being more functional in the home and various environments and increased interactions with family members.
Watching an older dog gain strength and physical and mental agility is very gratifying. Any training of new behaviors results in your dog working her brain to figure out what you are looking for; it's not too late to start teaching new behaviors that benefit both her aging mind and body. These exercises can empower you to keep your senior dog active, and to engage her in activities that make life better for both of you.
Start with the vet’s okay
Before beginning new training exercises for your aging dog, be sure to check with your veterinarian to make sure the exercises are safe for your dog. Have your veterinarian look for joint mobility, pain, and muscle atrophy.
Training exercises will help keep your dog
feeling youthful and active
Goals for aging dogs can include reducing body weight, increasing joint mobility, and strengthening supporting muscles (which also reduces joint pain). Working toward those goals can result in the ability to climb stairs, an easier time getting in the car, and increased comfort with other activities, such as going for walks, that require better physical function.
Pay attention during training
Watch for subtle signs that your dog may not be comfortable with what you are asking her to do during training. Look for any possible soreness after the exercises as well, and stop if you notice any signs of pain or discomfort.
Make it fun by reinforcing with treats
Training sessions should be fun for both of you. Be ready to reinforce often. It’s often the case that picky eaters enjoy food more when they get to work for it—so don’t hold back! By all means, use some of your dog’s dinner if that works best for you. You can always have your dog lick a food tube containing something delicious, like a mashed stew or almond butter.
Seniors love platform work
I include platforms in my core set of training props for senior dogs. The platform is a wonderful tool for engaging and strengthening stabilization muscles, enhancing proprioception, improving balance, strengthening muscles, exercising your dog’s mind through training, and building confidence.
Platforms come in several sizes; you can even make one yourself in a size to suit you. Start with a platform about two to three inches high. You can start with a two- to three-inch coffee table book that you've wrapped with duct tape and to which you’ve added non-skid material. When it's time to move up in height, you can use something like the Blue-9 Klimb platform, 4.5" high with the legs stored. As for width, you’ll want a platform at least a few inches wider than your dog’s stance. If you are going to use your platform for other training that includes all four paws up, you’ll want the platform to be four to six inches longer than your dog while she is in a stand.
If your dog has balance issues, put her in a well-fitting harness, like the Balance Harness, that doesn’t restrict movement so that you can support her gently if needed. Be sure that the top of the platform is not slippery. You can add non-skid material to the top of the platform to ensure that it feels secure and safe for your dog.
The foundation exercise for platform work is a form of “perch work.” Put the platform on the floor only after you've made a plan, filled your treat pouch, and have your clicker ready (or are ready with your verbal marker--I often use “Yip!”).
Two Paws Up: Platform foundation exercise
Cassie with two paws
on the platform
The first behavior you work toward is stepping up to put two front paws on the platform (you will then build duration in this position). I usually shape this behavior. For detailed information on shaping, see this KPCT training article.
Begin by clicking any interaction with the platform and then delivering a treat, to increase the likelihood of repeating the behavior. Click interactions such as sniffing or starting to paw the platform, then treat. I usually position the delivery of the treat so that the dog moves forward onto or closer to the platform to get the treat. Note that it can also work to deliver the treat further away from the platform so your dog can move toward it again; trainer’s choice! I usually get a paw on the platform rather quickly, or at least a paw touch. If you are fast enough, you can click again as the front paw touches down on the platform and reinforce further forward for one or two paws on. Once you have two paws up, click and treat a few times, ending the behavior with a click and treat off of the platform. It should be much easier for your dog to step up now.
Remember to watch for fatigue and to give your dog plenty of breaks. You are looking for joy on your dog’s face and excitement when you bring out the platform. When you are ready for a break or to stop training, always pick up the platform to make it clear to your dog that this particular training session is over.
Once the behavior of stepping up with two paws on the platform is solid, you can build duration. I suggest that you initially build duration to about ten seconds per repetition up on the platform, and that you do three repetitions per set. After seven to ten days at ten seconds per repetition (sometimes 14 days, depending on the amount of atrophy in the hind end), you can then build to 30 seconds per repetition. Keep your dog at 30 seconds per repetition for at least seven to ten days before you increase the height (and at that same time lower duration again).
Note: This exercise will look easy, but you are intentionally starting off slowly so you can carefully observe if the dog is able to do even the first exercise without showing any indications of pain.
During each training session I suggest a set of three repetitions, spending at least a few seconds off of the platform between each repetition. Once the behavior is well established, you can add a cue. For more information about adding a cue, refer to this KPCT article.
Building on the platform foundation exercise
Lori and Cassie demonstrating platform training exercises
To ensure that your dog’s hind leg muscles are engaged on the platform, lean very slightly forward to shift the dog onto her back legs a bit. This is tricky, and most people lean too far forward initially. If you lean forward too much, your dog will step back and off of the platform. You don’t want to pull your dog forward so that all the weight is on her front paws. You also want to check that your dog’s weight is distributed close to evenly on both hind legs, and that her hind legs are next to and in line with one another rather than one always more forward or further out than the other. Observing uneven weight distribution repeatedly is a clue that your dog could probably use another exam by a veterinarian, and possibly some rehabilitation work.
Once your dog is completely comfortable holding her front paws up for 30 seconds for seven to ten days in a row, you can increase the height of the platform up to four to six inches, but at this point it is important that you lower duration. Return to ten seconds, and then build to 30 seconds after another seven to ten days. You can continue to increase the height of the platforms. Each time you increase the height, lower the duration on the platform back to ten seconds, and then build up to 30 seconds after another seven to ten days. Stop adding height once your dog can work comfortably at your goal height. The typical height of a stair is eight inches; this is the goal height for many medium and large dogs, assuming your veterinarian has approved eight inches for your dog. For shorter and smaller dogs, or dogs with physical issues, the goal height might be two or four inches.
Once your dog masters the platform training exercise, it is likely that she will be doing things she was hesitating to do six weeks prior. You may start seeing her on the stairs more often, with less hesitation getting into the car, more responsive to recalls, with more willingness to go on walks, and more.
New behaviors on the three-inch platform
Once you have trained the foundation behavior of working with two paws on the platform, you can introduce new behaviors that benefit the mind and body. These new behaviors benefit a senior dog’s hind-end awareness and muscle strength and keep the dog mentally engaged and in the training game. New behaviors should only be trained after your dog can accomplish 30 seconds at her maximum height easily—this is usually at least six weeks after you’ve begun platform work.
Paw to hand
Another beneficial exercise is lifting one front paw at a time from the position of two front paws on the platform. Lifting the front right paw shifts the weight to the left rear leg and vice versa. The benefits of this exercise are that it adds a bit more focused strengthening to each hind leg, improves balance, engages core and stabilization muscles, and requires mental focus. To begin training this behavior, start without the platform. You will add the behavior to the foundation platform exercises once this new behavior is trained on the floor. If you haven’t already, train the behavior of your dog touching her paw to your hand while your dog is standing, then switch paws. Once you have a touch, start building duration of each paw in your hand. What you are looking for is a light resting of the paw in your hand and no shifting of weight into your hand. Note that even with three paws on the floor, you are shifting weight to a hind leg and engaging core muscles.
Once you have the behavior trained on the floor, ask your dog to step up on the platform and then ask for a paw to hand, gradually increasing duration to ten seconds while on the platform. Do a set of three of this behavior for each paw.
Keep building platform-based behaviors
Cassie with back paws
on the platform
Other behaviors that you can work on, one at a time, after you have the foundation platform exercise at goal height and duration, include:
- Back paws up and front paws on the floor
- Backing up onto the platform
- Side-stepping with either front or back paws on the platform
- Moving forward from front paws on the platform to back paws on the platform, then moving back from back paws on the platform to front paws up
- Sit-to-stand with two front paws up so that your dog sits and stands without moving her front paws (this is an advanced behavior for many older dogs).
Every time you increase the physical and mental challenge by adding a new behavior, such as asking for a paw in your hand or side stepping, lower duration and height and slowly build back up.
Maintaining hind-end strength and active minds for life
Exercises like these ones can benefit your dog for the rest of her life. They build confidence that will be especially beneficial as she experiences sensory losses such as hearing and vision. It is remarkable how much you can enhance and maintain your dog’s mental and physical fitness by spending just a few minutes a day doing exercises for mobility, strength, coordination, proprioception, confidence, and mental stimulation.
These exercises make a great pre-dinner ritual, and they are a wonderful way to strengthen your relationship with your dog. Training these behaviors with your senior dog will help her age more gracefully. By keep your senior dog’s mind and body active for many more years, the hope is that the senior years will be an enjoyable time for both of you.