Canines and humans experience many of the same aging patterns — graying hair, aches, pains and stiffness, sleeping more and slowing down. Thanks to modern technology and specifically Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), we now have scientific proof as to just how similar the canine brain is to our own. Both suffer cortical atrophy (brain shrinkage)6, but exposing your senior dog to new experiences, scents, sights and sounds can alter the brain’s physiology.
“Brains of animals that have lived in changing and complex environments actually become larger. New connections develop between existing neurons in the cortex as a result of experience,” explains Stanley Coren, professor of canine psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Recent evidence demonstrates that it is even possible to grow new neural cells in important areas of the brain that are associated with learning, memory and the organization of behavior.”7
Forget the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” It turns out that the key to slowing cognitive decline in your senior dog is to exactly that…teach them new tricks! You can actually make your dog’s brain larger and more efficient by providing experiences!
Fire those neurons and spend quality time with your senior by exercising your senior dog’s mind. Just as some humans do the morning crossword or sudoku puzzle, get your dog using her nose, paws, and mind.
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Teach a new trick, such as balancing a dog biscuit on her snout until you say, “okay!” Then she can eat it!
- Cognition Training
Roll out the Red Carpet! Well, it doesn’t have to be red, but place treats inside a carper runner and roll it up. Have your dog unroll it with her nose.
Push a button or ring the bell! You can find talking buttons at various websites or hang a bell near the door and train your pooch to ring it when she wants to go for a walk.
Surprisingly exhausting, but without physical exertion, nose games satisfy as most dogs love a good sniff! Think of it as hide ‘n seek with treats or even pieces of cloth that have interesting scents.
The challenge is just finding the right one as so many can be found in the marketplace these days. Since most dogs are motivated by food, the majority are designed to hide treats under sliding, flipping or other types of panels or “snuffle mats” and the dog must seek them out. You can make your own by placing a dog cookie in one hand and making your elder pooch nudge the right one to get the reward hidden inside!
- Taste Test
Let your pooch sample small bits of unusual flavors, always off the pet-safe list but challenge her taste buds to something new.
- ADOPT A FRIEND
Sometimes getting a canine pal can breathe life into an aging dog. The duo will keep each other company, and it just might give your older pal something to do by mentoring a younger pup. The newcomer does NOT, and maybe should NOT, be a puppy! Know your dog. Children of any species can be trying to an elder’s patience, so maybe just a few years difference. Regardless, supervise and make sure your senior has a place to get away for a little quiet from time to time.
- MOVE IT OR LOSE IT
Exercise helps well-oxygenated blood flow to tissues and removes toxins from the body. Activity keeps nutrients like glucose at optimum levels in the brain so that it can function properly. “Studies of senior citizens who walk regularly showed significant improvement in memory skills compared to sedentary elderly people. Walking improved their learning ability, concentration, and abstract reasoning in people who walked as little as 20 minutes a day,” explains Coren. And since our brains and dog’s brains are similar, the findings should translate.
As in any training or exercise program, pay attention to your dog and note if he is enjoying it. Break the activity into small achievable steps and always end on a positive note.
- Do not let your senior dog exercise for long periods of time or under hot or humid conditions. Most dogs wish to please their owner and will risk their own health to do so.
- Do not force your senior to exercise. If he looks tired or unwilling, call a time-out. Limping, stiffness, lameness, tenderness in limbs and spinal areas are all reason to seek veterinary advice.
- Don’t over-treat during training as older dogs add weight more quickly and lose pounds more slowly due to changes in their metabolism.
Walk your normal walk in reverse. Choose a totally different path. As you stroll, stop and take your senior through his “sit,” “stay” and “come,” but also toss in something he never learned before. Be patient and keep it fun. If your best pal is having a little trouble keeping up, get him a wagon or stroller, so that he can still sniff the sniffs and see the sights by your side.
Talk to your senior dog’s second best friend, his veterinarian, about supplements that may improve cognitive function as well as protect the brain. Vitamins E and C play a big role in protecting both the brain and nervous system from free-radicals. In combination with sufficient exercise, they have been shown to slow the impacts of aging.10
Whatever you and your older fella or lady do together, do it together, and remember that variety is the spice of life. By offering new and different challenges, you just may ward off cognitive decline, for the both of you!