Play is an important factor in your dog’s wellbeing, just because they’re getting older doesn’t mean that they don’t want to play just as much as they did when they were younger. Aging just means their energy levels and what their body can handle may be lower. But that’s something your senior dog probably won’t realize until they get tired of play. They might not even know they only played for a short period of time or that they aren’t running as fast as they used to.
The most important factor for you as a senior dog parent is to ensure they are getting the play that they need while making sure it’s safe for their body.
As dogs get older, often their vision may become weaker. As this happens dogs start to rely more on their noses, the sense that they can confidently trust every time.1
Nose games can be fun and safe for your dog while also providing an exercise that in the long run may help your dog get around better by strengthening their sense of smell.
There’s not really a wrong way to create a nose game, as long as it’s something that your dog needs to use their nose to figure out. It can be outdoors or indoors, big scale or small scale.
Some of the well-known nose games for dogs are:
Like the classic prank card game 52 pick-up, rather than tossing playing cards around and making your opponent pick them up, throwing treats up into an open yard can make for a fun game for your pet. Rewards are built in, and it gives them a reason to get up and move.2
Flip three cups over and put a treat in one, shuffle them around while your dog watches. Stop and let them choose the cup with the treat. It’s a fun game for both person and pet and keeps your pup’s mind and nose active while not requiring them to move around as much as other games would.2
Hide and seek, the classic playground game, can be played with your senior dog as well. They’ll always have to seek but that’s the fun part anyway. This game can be played in a few different ways with your pet. You can play with just yourself and your dog, with you ducking out of their line of sight until they find you or calling out to them until they find your hiding spot. Or you can play with treats: by hiding some high-value toys or strongly scented treats around the house or fenced-in yard you can encourage your dog to use their nose to sniff out the rewards.
It is important to think about how well your dog can see when you set up your hidden objects. If you know that your dog has been losing some of their depth perception or overall vision, hiding objects in more open spaces will be better for them than anywhere that they’d need to navigate visually to avoid hitting their heads.
Exercise is just as important for a senior dog as it is for a young dog, but for different reasons. Younger dogs need exercise to burn their energy and keep them happy and in shape. Senior dogs need exercise to keep their body moving properly, strengthening an older dog’s muscles helps them to stay mobile in their—often hurting—joints.
Swimming is one of the most commonly recommended exercises for seniors, not just dogs but people too. Swimming allows for a sense of weightlessness which means that exercises don't have the same heavy impact that they would have on land. Taking your dog swimming is a great way for them to get in some active time without putting strain on their joints.3
Short walks in new places can be great for your senior dog. Short, leisurely walks can create a fun experience for your dog as well as give them some low-intensity exercise. If your dog is a car lover, it can be beneficial to pop them in the car and take them somewhere they’ve never been before, or haven’t been recently, for their short walk. This gives both their body and their brain something to do. They get their body moving and get to exercise their brain on all the new smells of the location.
Fetch can be hard on your dog’s body, but just because your pup has gone up in age doesn’t mean that they no longer love their favorite game. You don’t want to force your dog to run after the ball longer than their body can handle, and you don’t want to encourage overplaying from your pet. Be mindful of signs of fatigue—when their body tires out then it’s time to stop playing. Even if their minds want to keep going.
Playing fetch with your senior dog may require a bit of acting on your part. You don’t want them to run too far so when you throw it today, throw it at a shorter distance than you would have in their youth, some dogs may need you to play it up. Get really excited about how they got the toy, celebrate with them as if they ran the distance of a football field rather than a few yards in front of you. Your pet will appreciate the enthusiasm and have a blast with you.
It’s no secret that dogs love their toys, even if some of them show that love by tearing them to pieces. If your dog has always been a toy lover, chances are that getting older isn’t going to take that away from them. But there are some things that may affect your dog’s play with toys due to their age.
As dogs get older a lot of their body gets weaker, this includes their jaw and teeth. So be sure that toy play is not going to hurt them in the long run.
Tug of war is an instinctual game for dogs. It triggers something ingrained into their DNA and it’s never going to stop being fun. But it can end up hurting your senior dog. If you’ve got a tugger in their senior years, it may be time to switch out the sturdy rope toys for something softer. This switch is a great time to recycle some old t-shirts by braiding them together into a softer tug rope. Or purchasing tugs that are elastic; it’s recommended to test a tug toy for a senior dog by pressing your fingernail into it to see if it makes an indent, if so, it should be safe for your senior dog’s teeth.
While playing tug with your senior dog, they don’t need you to pull quite as hard as you used to. Keep it gentle but with the same energy, they’ll never know the difference.
Choosing new toys for your senior dog may not be a requirement if they have a lifetime of toys available to them, but if a new toy is needed you may want to look out for certain things.
Just like with the tug toys, you want to choose toys that will be softer on your dog’s teeth and jaws. Ones with more give than they needed in their youth.
And to help a pooch with waning eyesight, bright contrasting colors, like yellow or blue, may help them to be able to find the toy easily. Or toys that have a strong scent to them may also be beneficial for a visually impaired pup.3
Whatever you can do to keep your senior dog’s happiness level up will help their quality of life remain high, even as they go up in age. Keep tabs on what your dog can and cannot do when it comes to physical activities. And as your dog gets older and less physically able to play in the same way, make changes to the game to maintain the fun for your dog.