Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

By Marla Briley – March 13, 2013
Michelle Eddy Photography

Introducing exercise to your dog
One of the hardest aspects of being a dog owner is the realization that you will most likely have to say “goodbye” to your canine partner before you are ready. As a result, we often go to great medical lengths to extend our dogs’ lives and, yet, the easiest way to help our friends live longer, fuller lives is the same way we can help ourselves live longer, fuller lives…through exercise.

Age and Exercising

A dog's age is no longer calculated by the well-known “calendar year x 7” formula. Consider this: When your dog is 1 year old, she is already almost as big as she will ever be and, if not spayed, able to reproduce and care for a litter of puppies. How many 7-year-olds do you know who are raising babies? Hopefully none!

At 1 year of age, your dog is the equivalent of a 16-year-old human and at 2 years, your dog is more like a 20-year-old. After that point, the year multiplier begins to decrease. At 5 years old, your dog is more like a human who is in his mid 30s. At eight, he is the equivalent of a 50 year old. There are so many people who think their dogs have reached “old age” at 8 years and are ready to hang up their leashes and send them into retirement. I have friends who are just taking up Ironman-distance triathlons in their 50s and are racing ultras well into their 60s; I could not imagine suggesting they are too old for exercise and should hang up their shoes.

Many of my human friends, however, have been leading active lives for a long time. On the flip side of this, if your dog has led a sedentary lifestyle and is out of shape, he may actually be older than the normally calculated doggie years. To put it into perspective, I have a friend who got a Wii, along with the Wii Fit board and game, for Christmas. The first step when setting it up is determining your “Wii Age.” My friend is pretty fit by most American's standards; he exercises a few times a week and eats a fairly healthy diet. However, according to the Wii, his weight and BMI are a little high so, though my friend is only 48, his Wii age is 53.

The same concept can be applied to your dog. If you don't exercise with him, don't feed him the right food, and don't give him the stimulation he needs, your 5- or 6-year-old dog could have the body health of a 9- or 10-year-old dog.

How to Get Started with Exercise

I spoke to my friend, Kristen Kjellberg, who is a fourth year veterinary student at Texas A&M, and she shared this bit of advice: “The first step is to have your dog checked out by a veterinarian. If your dog is overweight or has any underlying medical conditions, those issues may need to be addressed first. For any dog that doesn't already exercise, you should start out with walks and move up to runs; it's very similar to what a previously sedentary human should do.” Kjellberg went on to explain the benefits of adding in exercise: “Exercise helps in a multitude of ways. It can reduce weight, which decreases mechanical strain, and helps in another important way [by reducing fat]. Fat actually promotes inflammatory mediators that worsen arthritic conditions; [therefore], the less fat that is present, the less inflammation. Exercise also promotes muscle mass, which makes the joints more stable. The more stable the joint, the less secondary inflammation that occurs.”

Gradually Building Endurance

I once had a foster dog that came from a shelter out in West Texas. Because the owner had surrendered the dog, we knew his age—12 years. When Trapper came to my house, his arthritis was so bad that he could hardly make it up the stairs. He also had heartworms, so we began his heartworm treatment, put him on a high quality food, and added arnica for inflammation. Once his heartworm treatment was complete, Trapper went to a new foster home, where he was introduced to swimming at Barton Springs and then to walking (and later followed by running) on the Lady Bird Lake trail. Trapper would eventually run five to ten miles a day, and he loved every minute of it. This was a successful way to build up endurance for exercise in a dog that started off with many problems. Kjellberg reinforced this gradual approach to exercise: “If you tried to make an arthritic dog run three miles when it only walks five minutes a day, the new activity is going to cause inflammation and damage. Slowly work up to the distance and time you would like, and listen to your dog when he/she tries to tell you it's painful.”

Eating Right For Exercise

Proper diet is also very important as you get your older dog out and moving. Just as different types of food affect you differently as you exercise, the quality as well as quantity of food you provide your pet can make a dramatic change. Grocery store kibble, with its low nutritional value, can be the equivalent to eating a bag of candy for dinner. It may provide quick energy, create hyperactivity, and leave your pet feeling “hung over.” Just as when you eat that bag of candy, it will also leave your dog feeling hungry because of the lack of nutritional value. A quality dog food gives your furry friend the vitamins and nutrients he needs, and this healthy nutrition is even more important in seniors.
My own dog is 12 years old. I adopted her from a local rescue group when she was 6, and we started out with short, 1-mile runs. From there, we graduated to 3-mile runs and, before you knew it, she was joining me on runs as long as 13 – 18 miles. This January 1, she ran the annual RunTex New Year's Day 13-mile route with me. People tell me all the time that they can't believe she is 12 because she moves and acts like a dog half her age. Recently, we met up with a younger, 6-year-old dog at the park that was probably ten pounds over weight. Even though she was twice his age, my Bella ran circles around him.

Kjellberg has personal experience in caring for and exercising an older dog. She realized her own 7-year-old dog had hip dysplasia and arthritis. On her vet’s advice, Kjellberg began to feed her a special prescription dog food and her dog was soon back to running like she did when she was younger. Now, Kjellberg recommends prescription joint diets for arthritic dogs and explained, “There are “good” fatty acids and “bad” fatty acids in terms of inflammation, and the prescription joint diets have a very high ratio of good to bad fatty acids. I think they are worth the added expense.”


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