Tips For Making a Senior Dog's Life Safe and Fun

As a puppy, Bentley was trained as a hunting dog. Unfortunately, the trainer mistreated him and Bentley reacts fearfully if we yell at him, approach him quickly like we're going to grab him, or pull on his collar. As he's aged, we've had to adapt to his changing physical needs, and take into account that we can't yell or handle him with any suddenness or force. This can be a bit tricky when your dog is losing his hearing or needs physical help or guidance (sometimes urgently). But we've adapted and Bentley lived an Indulged life as a happy senior doggy. Our goal is to make his life as easy and safe as possible and still have a lot of fun together.

Whatever age your dog starts showing signs of being a "senior", maybe these tips will help you.

As Bentley aged from 14-17 years old, these are the issues we've dealt with:

Loss of Hearing

We noticed Bentley was losing his hearing when he was 14 years old. At that time he could hear normal-volume sounds like a door closing or our voices, but but he couldn't tell where the sounds were coming from. 

We've adapted to his hearing loss by talking louder and using some hand signals. We clap to get his attention or to get him to stand up, and point to where we want him to go. If he's too close and we want him to back up we move our hand from our body back over his head. He learned this when he could hear, and it is a useful signal. We get him to lie down by patting the floor in front of him.

At 15 years old, Bentley is nearly deaf and only responds to very loud or sharp noises (like a loud clap).  He can hear a command if I loudly say "SIT", "BACK", or "POTTY".  All these commands have very simple and distinct sounds, so I think he hears and understands them. 

At this point we rely a lot on:

  • Hand signals
  • Gentle guidance - clapping and making it fun for him to go where we're trying to lead him (we can't pull his collar or he becomes fearful)
  • Making sure he sees or feels us so we don't startle him
  • Lots of petting. I suspect he feels a bit isolated not being able to hear anything, so we try to give him a pat as we walk by and give him extra petting just to be sure he still feels "included" in the family.

At 17 years old, his hearing is a little worse, but he still hears loud, sharp sounds. The hand signals don't work quite as well as they used to because of his "senior moments"

Doggy "Senior Moments"

You could call it forgetfulness, doggy-dementia, or just plain dumb, but we prefer to think of it as goofy! The signs were fairly mild at 15 years, and have slowly gotten worse at 16 years old. 

The most obvious signs of his brain aging are:

  • Forgetting what to do when we send him out to go potty
  • Not responding very quickly (or at all) to commands.
  • Not remembering his training or minding his usual doggy manners (begging for food)

There's not much we can do about his senior moments other than change our expectations and how we respond. We are much more patient and observant when sending him potty. Sometimes we send him out to go and he forgets what he's supposed to be doing and just stands and sniffs the air or lays down.  We clap to get his attention, or walk out to the lawn and pat him to get his attention, then point to the yard and say "potty" pretty loudly so he might hear us. I'm sure the neighbors have heard me very late at night shouting "go potty" 3 or 4 times to get him to remember why I sent him out there! 

Bentley can't hear commands unless we yell them and even if he hears us, he may choose not to obey. So we are very observant of him if he's in the front yard with us and we make sure he doesn't take himself for a little walk or visit the neighbor's.  If he starts to wander off, we stop what we're doing and bring him back home.

He forgets he's not supposed to join us at the dinner table, and begs for food more often. I suspect this is because his nose still works very well but his brain doesn't remember his training. We just ignore him or I take him away and tell him to lay down on his bed.

Of course there are times we get frustrated with his "senior moments", but we try to remember to be patient and adapt our expectations to his abilities.

At 17 years old the senior moments are more frequent, but with patience and encouragement we get Bentley to do what's needed.

Being My Shadow

At ~ 15 years old his hearing was pretty limited and the "senior moments" were getting more frequent. I think this also caused him to feel isolated or apprehensive about being away from us. Bentley is in the house with us after we come home from work, and he started following me everywhere. At first it wasn't all the time, but as time progressed, it has gotten to the point where I can't walk to the other side of the room without him trying to follow me. If I know I'm going to be in another room for a while, I let him follow.  But if I'm just leaving for a minute I sometimes make him go lay down where he was.  He's just not agile enough to turn quickly and it's gets dangerous trying to walk around & over him every time I try to walk somewhere.  If I'm gone for more than about 30 seconds, he comes and finds me....and gets a big "you found me" pat.  Oddly, he sleeps in his bed all night and stays in the yard all day.  It's just when he's in the house and knows were home he has to be with one of us (mostly me, not his dad).

At 17 years old Bentley isn't my shadow quite as much, probably because he's sleeping more and it's more difficult for him to get up all the time to follow me.  But if he's awake, he's usually following us around.

Potty Accidents

16 years old. We call it "slippage". Bentley's evening walk was "productive" in terms of him going poop. But now that his walks are very short, he often doesn't do his normal evening poop. Sometimes this results in a little poop slipping out while we're watching tv, or overnight. It's not a complete accident, just a single piece of poop that sneaks out!  The vet confirmed our suspicions that Bentley doesn't feel everything that's going on back there.  It's not a big deal, we just pick up the poop and clean the floor.

At 17 years old "slippage" happens more often - probably 4-5 times a week. We try to anticipate when he needs to go out, but our clocks aren't always in sync. It's also very hard for him to walk around the yard until he "feels" the urge to go, so even if we take him out to go potty, sometimes he doesn't feel the need, then comes back inside and a few minutes later something slips out. We just pick it up, flush it, wipe the floor with a Lysol disinfecting wipe, and move on. There's no point in getting upset about something no one has any control over.

Because he can't squat as easily as when he was younger, he squats lower to the ground or leans his body forward while pooping. This sometimes results in his fur getting dirty as he poops, so I trim the hair on the backs of his legs and the feathering on the underside of his tail so it doesn't get dirty. This also helps prevent poop from getting stuck in his fur when he's lying down and "slippage" happens.

"Tinkle Toes"

At 15 years old, the newest change in our senior doggy's life is what I call "tinkle toes". Due to a combination of him not being able to keep his leg lifted while peeing, and his not feeling everything that's happening in his back end, he often pees on his back feet. In the back yard he usually he pees "girl style" with both hind legs on the ground and it's not a problem.  But on his walks, he usually lifts his leg to leave "pee mail", then puts his leg down a little too early. Other times he isn't aware he's still peeing and he starts walking....while peeing....on his feet!  When we get home I rinse his feet with the hose or wipe them with a baby wipe. At 17 years old he always pees "girl style" and if he starts walking before he's finished, he dribbles on his feet. I just wipe them with a baby wipe.

An untidy prepuce

There's no way to be "cute" about this, so I'll just use plain language and you may learn a new word.  The prepuce is the the sheath of skin that covers a dog's penis. There's also hair covering this area, and at 16 years old Bentley is unable to reach his prepuce to lick it clean. This means urine and other fluids accumulate on the hair in that area and it gets very dirty and sticky. I Very Carefully trim the hair from his prepuce and trim the fur from his tummy that is long enough to get in the way of his urine stream. I also use a baby wipe to clean the area as needed.

Slightly Impaired Vision

At 16 years old, Bentley's vision is still pretty good, but it is impaired because his eyes have become cloudy. He has difficulty discriminating between similar-colored objects like the concrete step from the house to the concrete patio.  Both are gray and it's difficult for him to see the step (see the 'Before' photos below).  We put an outdoor doormat on the step to help him see the difference. We also covered the patio area with a large piece of inexpensive outdoor 'carpet', which prevents him from slipping on the concrete.


Before - looking in from the patio.


After - looking in from the patio.

Arthritis & Loss of Mobility

Bentley's arthritis became a problem when he was about 13 years old. Over the years his hips have become progressively weaker and less stable. At 15 years old he has difficulty walking more than a block, sometimes places his back feet incorrectly (knuckles under), stumbles, and his shoulders are also beginning to give him problems. Our vet said a dog's feet are pretty tough and the knuckling under shouldn't cause any damage to his feet. We just have to be careful he doesn't slip or get his toes caught in any cracks. He can not stand up if he's on a slippery surface. At 16 years old his shoulders are affected by arthritis too.  At this point he can't "back up" any more, so we have to lead him forward and around to get him to 'back away".  If he tries to back up, he usually ends up falling back on his butt, then turning his shoulders and trying to stand up....all a very exhausting and potentially dangerous situation for him. 

Medications

He's been taking Rimadyl and cosequin since he was 13 years old. At 16-1/2 years the vet prescribed tramadol which is specifically to control pain. The tramadol helps Bentley a lot and he seems much more comfortable.

Preventing slips and falls

In Bentley's outdoor patio area, the area he's walking & turning around on most often is covered by outdoor 'carpet' so he doesn't slip on the smooth concrete. I purchased it at a warehouse store for about $30. His winter bed is made of 5-inch thick firm couch cushions with an old comforter on top. The entire area is protected by the deep eave of our house, so it never gets rained on. He likes his couch-cushion bed so much that he hasn't used the inside of his dog house for the last 2 winters.  I suspect it's too hard for him to get in and out with his arthritic hips. We've kept the dog house there to help protect his bed from cold winter winds and blowing rain.


Bentley's outdoor patio area


Bentley's outdoor bed

Summer 2008 - Bentley is 16 years old, and we've had to make additional modifications to his outdoor patio area to accommodate his weakening hips. He had difficulty using the single step out of the house, so we constructed longer and shorter steps that are easier for him to use. The new steps are long enough for him to stand on (42 inches long), and they are only 4-5 inches tall so he can "walk" up them instead of having to "bunny hop" his back legs onto the step. The stairs are plywood & 2x4 construction and I covered the plywood with more indoor/outdoor carpet.  I spray painted the edges of the steps black so it would be easier for him to see. We placed plants at the edge of the upper step so he won't be tempted to try to jump off (or fall off).  It took just a few days of "coaching" him in and out using his new steps until he got use to the feel of his new steps and remembered things have changed (that's a tough one for him and his senior brain).

New long shallow steps out of the back yard

Inside, we've covered all the wood floors with carpet runners or area rugs. It's far from stylish, but it allows him to walk safely. We've blocked off access to two room where the wood floors aren't covered.

Carpets covering the wood floors

Bentley's carpeted dining area and runner covering the wood floor.

  • Tip - most vet offices have slippery floors that are not "friendly" to senior dogs with hip problems.  Take a large piece of pad you put under area rugs (or something similar) with you so your dog doesn't slip all over the exam room floor.  Bentley's 2007 vet visit exhausted him because he couldn't get any solid footing on the slippery floor. This was a new vet and I was extremely annoyed with how much they wanted to move him from one area to another on their slippery floors. We did not return to that vet.

    In 2008, we returned to our long-time vet (30 miles away) and told the receptionist we'd wait outside on the sidewalk to minimize any problems with Bentley slipping on the vet's floor. To our delight, his vet came outside and did most of the exam on the sidewalk where Bentley had good footing. We ended up going inside for weight & blood/urine samples, but it was much easier on Bentley to do most of the exam outside. I LOVE MY VET!!!

Making life easier (for all of us)

  • Firm foam beds are all we've used since he was 9 years old.  Bentley can't get himself out of a squishy bed. Outside, we use a thick bed in winter and a thin bed in summer.
  • Ramp - When he was 14-15 years old we used a ramp for Bentley to get into the car. We back the car up so the back tires dipped into the gutter so the ramp is as flat as possible.  We'd also back the car up to the driveway for him to jump out (he won't walk down the ramp), and we'd try to support his weight a bit when he landed.
  • "Daddy Lift" -  At about 15-1/2 years old his hips and shoulders were too weak for him to use the ramp or jump from the car so his dad lifts him in and out of the car. This continues now that he's 17 years old.
  • Wagon image We purchased a wagon to take him to the park or other social events. Bentley loves to get out but can't walk very far, so we put him in the wagon and "drive" him to his destination then let him walk once he's there. I have to give tons of appreciation to my husband on this because he does all the lifting. We've taken Bentley to the neighborhood 4th of July parade for several years. It's a bit of a chore to load the wagon and dog in and out of the truck, but we do it so our Indulged Doggy can get out and enjoy the world.
Bentley rides in the July 4 parade Bentley greets dogs at the July 4 parade

Walks and Playtime

  • At 15 years old, his walks are very short, maybe just 3-4 houses down and back. At 16 years old his walks are about the same distance, but we take them only a few times a week. Of course we try to make our walks count....meet and greets with his favorite neighbors or to greet a neighbor dog who is walking by.  
    Now that Bentley is 16 years 9 months, we walk only one house down and back. There's a streetpost there that all the dogs pee on .  He loves going there to sniff and pee. He wants to go farther, but I know his hips & back legs will give out if we go the extra distance.  We just take the walks very slowly and let him sniff to his heart's content. 
    At 17 years old one house down and back is a very long walk and we do it maybe once every two weeks.  Our outdoor walks are now limited to going down the front walk, about 20 feet down the sidewalk, and back up the driveway.  He desperately wants to walk to the streetpost one house away, but it's just getting to be too hard for him. He still does quite a bit of walking around the house (being my shadow), and walking around in the back yard.
  • Now we play "senior fetch" where I toss the ball right to him as he's lying down. His favorite game is tossing his head from side to side to prevent you from touching a toy he's holding in his mouth.  Being a goofy dog means he's also easily amused by a toy "disappearing" behind your back or having one toy "swapped" for another.  None of these are very physical, but it keeps him mentally stimulated and gives us quality play time together. I've never allowed him to play tug before, but I decided this would be a way for him to get a little more physical activity and play with us, so we play tug while he's laying on his bed. I prefer we play tug while he's lying down so he doesn't accidentally hurt his hips.
playing tug
Playing tug

Dad playing tug with Bentley.
There's a lot of "acting" on dad's part (he's not tugging that hard).