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How to Exercise Safely with your Senior Dog

We all know exercise is important. But for senior dogs suffering from stiff joints, arthritic hips, limited mobility, or diminished stamina, getting enough exercise can prove quite the challenge.

Even though his puppy years are far behind him, your senior dog still needs regular exercise. This, of course, will look different from the all-day frisbee marathons you used to have—but there are still ways you can keep Fido trim and feeling his best. 

Here are some tips for keeping your senior dog in tip-top shape.

Keep things short and sweet

While your senior dog may have loved long, strenuous hikes in his youth, those epic treks become less and less plausible as he enters his golden years. And that’s ok! He may not be able to run three miles with you first thing in the morning anymore, but that doesn’t mean you should rule out exercise entirely. 

The key to keeping your senior dog fit and healthy is adjusting his exercise regimen to suit his limited mobility and endurance. Just dial things back a bit—perhaps a short stroll down the street and back is all he can handle. 

No matter what type of exercise you choose to do with your dog, remember: slow and steady wins the race. In fact, forget the race altogether—this isn’t a competition. If you’re introducing your senior dog to a new routine, start slowly, keep things short, and take breaks whenever you feel he needs one. Pushing your dog beyond the point of exhaustion will only result in pain and discomfort, so watch for signs of overexertion.

Tips for walking your senior dog

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Walking is an effective, low-impact exercise for dogs (and humans) of all ages. It’s also a great way to get your pooch outdoors, experiencing new sights and smells.

But walking your senior dog is a little different than walking a high-octane puppy. As your dog ages, things like the weather and the surface you’re walking on can have a greater impact on his comfort level and walking ability. 

When it comes to surfaces, opt for grass and sand whenever possible, and try to avoid impossibly uneven, rocky terrain, scorching pavement, and icy sidewalks.

This doesn’t mean you should completely rule out uneven terrain or paths that are on an incline. As long as the surface is manageable for your dog, he can actually benefit from the challenge, as Dr. Mike Paul, DVM reports to the Pet Health Network. As long as you watch for signs of fatigue and pain, encouraging your older dog to work all four legs on reasonably rocky surfaces can benefit his health.

Take your senior dog for a dip

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If your dog fancies a dip in the lake, you’re in luck: swimming is a fun, low-impact activity that’s easy on your senior dog’s body. It’s gentle enough for older dogs with joint pain and still offers an effective, full-body workout. In the summer, swimming offers relief from the relentless heat—especially important for older dogs who are more sensitive to extreme temperatures. 

Some senior dog swimming pointers to bear in mind: 

  • Not all dogs are able swimmers. The American Kennel Club points out that brachycephalic breeds like pugs or bulldogs, for instance, are prone to aspiration pneumonia. Because of their flat faces, these dogs have a hard time keeping their muzzles above water. 
  • A dog-specific life jacket is never a bad idea. Especially if he’s a newbie. 
  • Check out local rehabilitation centers. If your senior dog doesn’t know how to swim, your veterinarian can point you towards rehab centers that offer safe water therapy.

Pay attention to weather conditions

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There’s more than one way to exercise with your senior dog, so don’t limit yourself to walking. When you engage in a variety of physical activities, your dog has the opportunity to strengthen certain muscles, while resting others. Changing up your dog’s exercise routine has the added benefit of stimulating his mind as well as his body. 

So, what kinds of activities can your older dog participate in? To keep things from becoming stale, look into one or more of the following:

  • Canine pilates: Yes, pilates for dogs is a thing. And it’s a great way to strengthen your dog’s muscles, improve posture, and prevent fatigue. 
  • Yoga for dogs: Your canine companion is already an expert on “downward-facing dog,” so why not add some new moves to his repertoire? Canine yoga classes (AKA “doga”) reduce stress, improve circulation, and increase your dog’s range of motion. 
  • Visit a dog park: Dog parks are an excellent way to burn off some steam while making new friends.
  • Try a new trick: Forget what they say: you CAN train an old dog new tricks. No matter how old he gets, training sessions are a great way to bond with your dog while keeping him sharp and alert.
  • Treat your dog with a new toy: Give his brain and body a workout with a new toy. The AKC makes several recommendations, from softer chew toys to plush puzzle toys.

Pay attention to signs of pain

According to PetMD, dogs instinctively hide their pain, so it’s not always easy to tell when your poor pooch is suffering. You need to pay attention to more subtle indicators that his body needs a break. If you observe any of the following, reevaluate your dog’s fitness routine and adjust accordingly:

  • Panting 
  • Shaking
  • Limping
  • Inability to walk upstairs
  • Difficulty lying down (or getting up)
  • Refusal to walk
  • Excessive licking
  • Excessive barking
  • Restlessness
  • Aggression 

If your senior dog is exhibiting any of these telltale signs, consult with your veterinarian about possible pain management strategies.

Extra tips for keeping your senior dog healthy

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To maximize the benefits of your dog’s routine and make exercise easier, there are several strategic moves you should make. 

  1. Maintain your dog’s ideal weight: excessive weight gain makes it more difficult for your dog to get around, so keep those extra pounds from piling up.
  2. Keep up with grooming: keep your dog’s nails trimmed—long nails make maneuvering trickier.
  3. Provide comfortable bedding: If your senior dog has arthritis or chronic pain, a comfy bed goes a long way in alleviating symptoms.
  4. Keep up with his vet visits: A new fitness routine can introduce aches and pains into your senior dog’s life. Talk to your vet to make sure you are exercising your senior dog correctly, and find out if pain management is appropriate.
  5. Reassess your dog’s ability regularly: As your dog’s physical abilities fluctuate, take note and make changes whenever necessary. You may need to adjust your pace or the frequency of your walks, depending on how your pup handles the increased activity.

At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility as pet owners to keep our furry friends happy and healthy. If given the choice, your senior dog would probably spend his days snoozing on the couch, so you need to be proactive about getting him up and moving. You’ll both benefit from the effort!