Training and Working with Older Dogs

It’s hard to believe the puppy it seems like you just brought home a couple of years ago is now 7, 8, or even 9 years old. Just because your dog is showing signs of age doesn’t mean you can’t share and enjoy many more years of quality time in the field. The special attention required going forward is simply a renewed awareness and sensitivity of normal concerns relating to health care, feeding, exercise and training of any hardworking dog.
Taking good care of dogs throughout their lives will not only ensure top performance in the short term, it also will better position them for a healthier and longer life. A 14-year study at the NestlĂ© Purina PetCare Center concluded that of the 48 dogs in the study, those kept in proper body condition throughout their lives lived on average 1.8 years longer and were healthier compared to their paired littermates.  The 14-year study, which compared 48 Labrador Retrievers from seven litters, found the median life span was 11.2 years in the control group compared to 13 years in the lean-fed group.

Here are some suggestions for working with older dogs:

  • Consider more frequent visits to the veterinarian. Twice-a-year visits will help your veterinarian assess a senior dog’s condition. Be sure to let your veterinarian know about your plans for conditioning and training.
  • Feed a high-quality complete and balanced dog food formulated for hardworking dogs, such as Purina Pro Plan brand dog food.  Feed your dog to maintain optimal body condition. The amount necessary to achieve this goal will vary based on the individual, the activity and the temperature conditions, rather than age. Even if you’re feeding a quality dog food, as activity increases and colder weather comes along you may have to feed a little more food each day to maintain the available energy level and calories. Some older dogs that work less often or for shorter durations may need a food specially formulated for their unique needs such as Purina Pro Plan Focus Adult 7+ Chicken & Rice Formula.
  • Adapt your exercise program. At first, walk a little each evening and eventually progress to extended runs in field areas. Conditioning a senior dog may require a more gradual pace.
  • Make sure you are aware of signs of fatigue and stress, which is particularly important with older dogs. Desire or prey drive doesn’t fade with age so in a sense we have to protect senior dogs from themselves. The earlier you can spot problems, including overheating, the better. You should make a dog stop working and rest if you see signs of stress.
  • Alternate time on the ground with other dogs. Older dogs need a good deal of rest, so you can break up hunting with a friend by alternating with his or her dogs or your other dogs.  If you just have one dog, you should pace the dog’s activity to his or her ability.  Avoid extreme conditions, such as very hot or very cold weather.
  • While traveling, pay special attention to senior dogs and be sure they have dry, draft-free compartments with good padding so they travel comfortably and are well-rested. Stop often to allow some exercise and provide dogs an opportunity to relieve themselves at least every two hours.
  • Keep a good supply of fresh clean water available at all times. At home and in the kennel, you should allow free access to water; while in the field, you should always carry a container of fresh water to offer your dog water every 10 to 15 minutes or so.
  • After a day in the field, check your dog over, particularly for burrs, weed seeds and stickers, especially in long-coated breeds. Older dogs often don’t do a good job of cleaning themselves, and burs can irritate or even break the skin allowing for infection and further complications.
  • Older dogs retrieving from cold water should be dried off immediately and have a place to get in out of the wind between retrieves. Having an old blanket or a neoprene vest is a good idea.
  • Old dogs can be aggravated or even injured by young or overzealous and playful puppies, so this has to be a consideration when matching braces.
  • If your dog tends to get stiff or sore after a day in the field, you may also want to talk to your veterinarian about using supplements or prescriptions that may help him deal with this problem.  Something as simple as adding fish oil capsules or in more severe cases giving a mild anti-inflammatory may help turn back the hands of time and may help you and your dog better enjoy your days in the field.