Canine Oldies But Goodies

© Chris Walkowicz

One of my favorite campfire songs when I was a kid was “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other gold.” If dogs are our best friends, old dogs have to be 24K gold.
All during their entire lives, our dogs give us adoration. We say, “Wanna go for a walk, Panda?” Panda’s at the door, tail wagging in anticipation. Max springs to attention when he hears “Get the paper.” And April guards the kids, ready to lay down her life if that tough looking squirrel threatens them. Kids fall down, and Tootsie licks away their tears. Your daughter’s friends are outside playing, but she’s stuck inside with the chicken pox. Bingo keeps her company. You lose your job, but Barnum still thinks you’re the greatest thing on earth. Your pets are always there whenever you need them.

When it needs to be “No, you can’t go along, Jedi,” he may look as though his heart is broken. But he stays quietly at home, and greets you forgivingly when you walk through the door.

As our dogs slow down and become canine senior citizens, sometimes it’s easier to leave them behind, rather than slow our steps or bundle them up against the cold. Although it is sometimes necessary to leave them at home, we can repay their years of devotion by arranging time in our busy schedules to include our old, dear friends. Many times, if we think through plans, our dog can be included in our activities, whether it’s a ride in the car on a nice day or visiting Grandma for the weekend. It might be too hot for Corky to sit in the car during a two-hour grocery run, but he’ll be just as happy tagging along while you do your drive-up banking. Boating with a life jacket, hiking in a park, or contentedly mouthing his own ball while watching your tennis game from the shade of a tree are all possible for a calm, well-behaved furry friend. Domino might not be able to leap sky high for a Frisbee, but she can still toddle after one on the ground. Bobby might not be able to run a marathon any more, but he’d love to take a walk around the block with you. An old show dog sparks at the opportunity to once again strut his stuff. And people love to see these living pedigrees. The next time a show offers veteran’s classes, spruce up your oldie and enter him.

Our Brandy loved to show. Some of our most precious memories are of her in veteran’s classes, in both the breed ring and obedience. Her national specialty trophies may be tarnished, but the memories aren’t. And we still chuckle at the time we put her in Veteran Obedience. She did everything until the first turn on the off-lead heeling. Then she stopped and stood waiting patiently for my husband to return. Heck, she knew the routine, and she knew Ed. No question. He’d come back. He did the rest of the exercise solo and, sure enough, when he came back to the spot where she stood, she rejoined him for the last few feet. Pretty smart old gal. Why waste the energy? But they don’t have to show. Just going along for the ride and the camaraderie is a treat. They can join the group gabfest at the motel and the picnic following the show. Everyone would love to see Champ again. And think how special he’d feel. Because he’s so well-trained, he can be out among the crowd instead of in an ex-pen like the pesty pups.

Dog owners tend to be like parents in that we take more pictures of babies than we do later. Dig out the camera, brush up your oldster and snap a few photos or, better yet, videotape. Too soon, we wish we would have. Then our opportunity is past. My favorite picture of Brandy is next to my computer where I can look at it and can almost feel her velvety coat and warm breath.

Old Dogs, New Tricks

Although activities might have to change as our pets age, we can alter them a bit or find new ones they can enjoy with us. The dogs don’t care what they do, as long as they’re with their people.

The AKC Canine Good Citizen test is good for dogs of any age. Dogs as old as fifteen have passed. Just think how good Maggie will do compared to those flighty young pups. And she’ll love the outing.

Many a retired show dog lights up the life of a junior showman. Experienced dogs know the routine well and are much easier to handle than an airheaded youngster. Here she is, running around with her best bud. What a great retirement!

If there are no children in the family, but you’d still like to take Magnum to shows, it’s not too late to try for an obedience title. Many dogs achieve the Companion Dog title at age ten-plus. Just think how great it’ll be to have a dual-titled dog. And if there’s a hitch in his giddeup or something that prevents him from competing, simply working him will satisfy his greatest need, doing something with the person he loves.

A dog’s greatest talent is his sense of smell. Take advantage of that by playing sniff-and-find games. Start with a treat hidden under a towel on the floor, progress to a box, then two or three fake boxes with the treasure under one. Make the track more difficult by secreting the prize under a sofa pillow or in another room. And if your senior has a weight problem, it doesn’t have to be a treat. It can be his favorite toy.

If you’re really ambitious, start a second career for your dog by aiming for a tracking title. While writing the book, Old Friends, Old Dogs, my co-author, Bonnie Wilcox, DVM, and I heard from owners of ten to fourteen-year-old dogs who earned their TD, or even TDX. Agility, performance and field tests are all possibilities for owners and dogs who just want to increase their time together.

Call local schools and theaters, telling them you have a trained dog and would like to have him audition if a part would come up for him. Toto from “The Wizard of Oz” Toto, Nana of “Peter Pan” fame and “Annie’s” Sandy are classics that have used the talents of Cairns, Border Terriers, Beardies, Sheepdogs and All-Americans. Why not a Komondor?

If your dog is used to running with you and the veterinarian gives a thumbs up signal, then there’s no need to stop because of chronological age. Be sure to start each session with a warm up walk and end with one also. Be aware of her at all times. If she starts to lag or limp, stop immediately. In the summer, plan outings for early morning or evening when temperatures are not extreme.

Swimming is excellent therapy for people and dogs. Just keep an eye on him so that he doesn’t become over-tired. Rinse him if he’s been in salt or chlorinated water, so he won’t suffer from dry skin. Towel him dry thoroughly to prevent chilling or slipping on tile.

Many people have discovered the joys of therapy work with their pets. Older dogs are likely to have better manners than young ones and less likely to jump up injuring someone with their exuberance. Kids always love dogs and what better diversion when they’re hospitalized? People who live in retirement villages or nursing homes can relate to grizzled muzzles and stiff joints. Costume your canine clown or brush up the hand signals. Such visits can be the highlight of a patient’s long day. Even mistakes are greeted with laughter and cheers. Actually, it’s not necessary for your dog to do anything but sit and allow gnarled hands to stroke gray heads. One owner always ends the visit by telling the people what age her oldest dog is in “human years.”

Idle minds grow dull, and bodies that do nothing but warm a couch become flabby. Keep Bubbles occupied by teaching her a new trick or put old talents to use in a new way. Whoops! You dropped your keys. Try her old “take it” and “give” commands. Ask Frosty, “Do you like heavy metal?” and teach her to shake her head — or nod if you’d rather. When Dude begs, substitute a carrot, broccoli floweret, piece of apple or popcorn for a dog treat or piece of meat. Keep his senses alert by tossing them in the air for him to catch.

Precautions

In this day of modern medicine, preventative inoculations and high tech, we’re fortunate to enjoy our dogs even longer than before. Proper nutrition, exercise, shelter and veterinary care add years to their lives. Good care means your dog isn’t likely to be crushed by a car years before his time. Life expectancy is increased. Before undertaking a new activity, have your dog checked by your veterinarian. Seniors should have an annual checkup, and at that time, you can discuss options or alternative activities with the vet.

Be sure to curtail the activity before it becomes stressful for the old guy or gal. They want to please us and might keep going longer than is good for them. Even a dog with health problems can enjoy lying beside the garden while you plant flowers on a sunny day. A blind or deaf dog should be kept on leash or in a familiar fenced yard. But they can take a safe, leisurely stroll with their favorite person.

A short-coated dog might be more comfortable with a sweater or jacket. Boots are even available for outings. Heavy-coated dogs can be trimmed or even shaved in a perky Schnauzer cut for summer or simply for ease in grooming. If your senior is in good health, you might want to consider adding a pup to the family. Oftentimes, it puts a spring in the oldster’s step. Besides, the pup’s so rotten, it makes you really appreciate all the elder dog’s sense. Baillie already knows not to beg, nor to jump on company. He barks when he has to go out and even takes the young twerp with him to show the pup how and where it’s done. Old dogs are great. No more chewing everything in sight. He doesn’t even touch your great-smelling shoes. He knows your routine and accepts it. Pills are swallowed with resignation, or if you’ve hidden them in his favorite taste treat, with joy. He doesn’t bother you when you’re reading. One of the nicest things about dogs, is that no matter how old they are, however often they’re petted, they never wear out.

No wonder we call them Golden Oldies.

This article first appeared in the May/June ‘96 issue of Good Dog! Magazine