Keeping Your Senior Beardie Active

Barbara Stone

There are quite a few resources available to read about health issues and medical care for your senior dog. The December 2007 issue of The Whole Dog Journal (www.whole-dog-journal.com) had a very good article about keeping your senior dog mentally active. What I have chosen to focus on for this article is providing some specific physical exercises that I’ve modified for use with my senior Beardies in an effort to keep them active for as long as possible.

As my first agility Beardie retired from active competition, I didn’t really give his exercise routine much thought. But then his muscle tone started to decline and I felt he needed some sort of structured exercise program that was based on his abilities rather than limited by his disabilities. What stopped him from doing agility was decreasing depth perception rather then arthritis or infirmity, so the exercises were designed to retain muscle strength and flexibility without requiring him to jump or decide where to get on a narrow board. I also wanted to avoid sudden starts and stops (such as are involved with games of Frisbee, even though he adores that!) as I wanted to delay the onset of limitations due to arthritic symptoms.

The exercises below are a sample of what I’ve used with this dog, who is now approaching 14, but they can be used with a dog of almost any age. My younger dog has been taught all these things as games or warm-up exercises so that we have them in his ‘toolbox’ for later. Some of the exercises have been adapted from articles published in Clean Run magazine (available at www.cleanrun.com) as rehabilitation exercises for dogs recovered from injury. Others are exercises I use with young dogs learning the basics of agility through body awareness “tricks”.

A note of caution…

With an aging dog, the owner must be aware of the dog’s limits. Your aging dog will continue to play Frisbee or run in the woods with the younger dogs well past the time when he should stop. As the responsible party in this relationship, it is up to you to set limits to keep the dog from overexertion that will lead to injury or even just excessive soreness whenever possible. The exercises I’ve given you here are low to no-impact and should not overtax most dogs, but please do be careful.

Exercises:

Buja Board

Setup: A 4’x4’ square of plywood finished with a non-slip surface, place a hard or soft ball underneath the board (it can be fixed with a retaining square or free moving). Building plans can be found in the May 2004 issue of Clean Run (“Construction Zone” article, instructions for a “Wobble Board”) or available to purchase through several agility equipment vendors.

Exercise/training: The dog stands with all four feet on the board and makes it tip. At first, reward for any interaction with the board where all four feet are on the board. Once the dog is confident just moving onto and standing on the board, then ask for some movement on and around the board. This piece of exercise equipment should be viewed by the dog as a cookie dispenser – any motion of the board gets the dog a treat. The goal is to have the dog use each leg independently to tip the board while maintaining its balance. A dog who is very confident on the tipping board will be able to run through tricks like waving or bowing while balancing on the tipping board as well.

Benefit: Not only are the muscles of each leg used to tip (push) the board down, but the core muscles of the abdomen and back are engaged in balancing.

Exercise Ball

Setup: A large, inflatable exercise ball (either round or oblong style) on a non-slip surface

Exercise/training: The basic exercise is to have the dog put his front feet up on the ball and keep them there as the ball shifts around. Treat for any interaction with the ball initially and then for keeping the feet up on the ball and maintaining balance. If the dog is very confident or has learned this exercise as a youngster, he may be comfortable lying on the oblong exercise ball and balancing with his entire body atop the ball. Different sizes of balls can be incorporated into this routine for variety and the different angles will use different muscle sets and apply different forces.

Benefit: No-impact strength training for the rear as well as the core (abdominals and back) muscles.

Cavaletti

Setup: Jump standards and bars, PVC gutters (3’ long segments”, PVC irrigation pipe, 2x4s, or other materials you have on hand), set “jumps” at 8” high about 12”-14” apart

Exercise: Using a treat to control the dog’s speed, have the dog WALK through the cavaletti slowly. The dog should not be trotting or jumping the bars of the cavaletti.

Benefit: The dog will lift and place each leg in a normal walking gait with exaggerated height, making sure he is putting each joint through a full range of motion independently.

NOTE: For a dog who is not using a leg due to injury, this exercise will make that leg come into play and become weight-bearing. If your dog has had surgery or has been injured, get your vet’s OK before asking your dog to do this exercise.

Get Out Around

Setup: A chair, a highway cone, a tree, a rock, or some other stationary marker that is large and visible to the dog. You can do this while you’re out on a walk!

Exercise/training: With the dog on your right, hold a treat in your left hand on the other side of the marker (chair, tree, etc. above) and ask him to move around the marker object. When his nose clears the object, mark this as correct and treat. Repeat with the dog moving from your left (heel) side to the treat in your right hand. Gradually increase the distance between the starting point and the marker object until the dog is moving away from you to go out around the marker in both directions.

Benefit: The dog is turning in both directions. Most dogs will turn naturally in a dominant direction. By teaching the dog to get out around the marker in both directions, you strengthen the leg the dog uses to push off for both sides. If you are unsure of which leg is dominant, use a tape measure to measure the girth of both of the dog’s thighs. You will find one is smaller than the other – the larger, more muscled side is the one the dog usually uses to push off. Work on evening out the size of the dog’s thighs using this exercise!

Weave Through Legs

Setup: This one is easy – you just need your legs, the dog and some cookies! Again, do this while you’re out on a walk or just walking down the hallway of your house.

Exercise/training: With the dog on your left, step forward with your right foot. Hold a treat in your right hand where the dog can see it between your legs. Lure him through your legs to your right side. Now with the dog on your right, step forward with your left foot. Holding the treat in your left hand where the dog can see it between your legs, lure the dog through to your left side. Keep walking forward with the dog “weaving” through your legs from left to right and back again.

Benefit: Again, the dogs is turning in both directions and pushing off both rear legs in turn as he is moving forward with you. This is working on both flexibility and propulsion.

Moving Spin

Setup: Again, just you, your dog, and treats. This is another exercise to make your daily walk more interesting.

Exercise/training: This exercise has several components that need to be taught to the dog before he can do the whole thing:

First teach your dog to turn in a circle in both directions using a treat as a lure, fade the lure and ask him to spin on a hand signal

Next, teach him to “heel” on both sides – this isn’t formal heeling, just walking next to you

Now combine the two! As you are walking with the dog on your right, cue the spin away from you (dog circles to the right) as you keep walking in a straight line

Do the same with the dog on the left (circles to his left)

Now cue the circles to come in toward you instead of going away from you

Mix it up and make it into a little dance you and your senior dog can do for an audience – it could even become a heelwork to music routine!

Benefit: Turning in both directions (are you starting to see a theme here?) as the dog is moving; propulsion off both rear legs; flexibility; acceleration – as the dog returns to his position next to you; and a lot of fun as you make a big game of which way are you going to turn next as you are walking along.

Fun and Games for Rainy Days

Some of the exercises I’ve talked about above can be done on walks or using “found” items at parks, schools and playgrounds. For days when a walk is not in the cards, remember that some of those puppy puzzles can be equally fun for your senior Beardie. Play nosework games like “Find the Cookie” (or the owner!) Freeshape a new trick or an old one – most aging dogs can hear the marker of a clicker long after they’ve lost the ability to hear most of the rest of life’s sounds and find that a game of clicker training is just what the vet ordered to perk them up. Light massage and T-Touch are a nice way for an older Beardie to have a few minutes of mom- or dad-time that they’ll appreciate as much as any other working member of the household.

Post Script

Shortly after I wrote this article, my older Beardie was hospitalized with a serious intestinal infection followed almost immediately by a bout of vestibular disorder that we were able to treat at home. As soon as he recovered enough to walk in (mostly) straight lines, we started back into these exercises. In less than a week his muscle tone was returning and he was back to trotting and running almost normally. His recovery has been very smooth and much quicker than the vet expected. Senior dogs who are in good condition recover from illness better than those who have been couch potatoes. Do your senior Beardies a favor and keep them active!

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