Not so long ago, your dog was barely beyond puppyhood, and you could throw his ball so far you could barely see it and wait for him to race to it, fetch it, and return it. You could toss a flying disc, and he’d leap to catch it. You could throw a stick in the pond for him to retrieve, encourage him to run alongside your bike for miles, hike for hours, even climb a mountain with your dog leading the way.
Dogs grow wiser as they grow older, but happily they don’t lose their zest for fun–or at least they don’t have to. Playing games with your senior dog is an idea he will appreciate, as long as you play it smart.
Now that he’s old, and you love him more than ever, how do you play with him without causing aches and pains and sprains? How do you give him the fun he deserves without causing harm? Here are some ways to put life in his playtime.
Does your dog love to play catch? Great! He still can, even if he’s not quite as agile as he was in his younger years.
For catch with older dogs, I am a big fan of rubber ducks. You can get them inexpensively on the internet by the bagful. Choose a size large enough that the duck won’t become a choking hazard. Rubber ducks are easy on the teeth, small and squishy enough to fit in your pocket, and best of all, they squeak. I also like to use stuffed animals for a game of catch. Again, they are soft enough not to damage old teeth, they also squeak, and most dogs never get too dignified to play with a cute stuffed animal. (Nor do some people.)
When you toss a toy to your older dog, throw it in a gentle arc, never straight at his mouth. For extra credit, try to teach your dog to squeak the toy as many times as you do. So far, I have been unable to get my dog to reliably squeak the duck the same number of times I do, but we are still working on that and it makes for a lot of laughs.
Low and Slow
If your dog is a flying disc fiend, you probably still want to give him a chance to play the game he loves. Simply adjust it for his physical condition: no jumping off your back or shoulders and no breaking the record for the high jump. Aim for a medium run where you throw the disc low enough so your dog can snatch it out of the air without leaping.
If you bounce a ball, angle it toward your dog so that when it reaches him, he won’t have to jump to get it. He will know by the angle of your hand what kind of throw is coming: a bouncing throw or an arcing throw for him to catch. In every case, he will love the game without having to leap in the air, which might cause pain.
Play in Bed
If you share your bed with your dog, you can play endless games with almost zero chance of your dog getting hurt. The bed is soft, and even the biggest bed doesn’t allow for a 50-yard dash. Stuffed animals are great for this. You can toss one. You can hide one under a pillow or under the fold of a blanket or even on the far side of your body and ask your dog to find it. If your dog is still able to jump on and off the bed, you can play with a ball, dropping your hand over the side of the bed and rolling the ball so it comes out on the other side.
Education can and should be lifelong, both for dogs and their human buddies. Hunting for a toy, figuring out the arc of a toss, using scent to find a hidden object, all these things will engage your dog’s mind. You can also name the objects you use in each game as well as the activities, using familiar vocabulary and adding new words. Some dogs will be able to differentiate the names of their toys so they can Find the Duck or Find the Monkey or Find the Ball. Others enjoy fine points of grammar and get the difference between Find, Get, Bring, Catch, and Squeak. Well, as I said, we are still working on Squeak. To heighten excitement, you might play a familiar game in an unfamiliar setting. You could, for example, play most of these games while out for a walk, while visiting family or friends, or any place where your dog might not expect it.
Playing games with your dog means it’s time for an intense connection, for bonding, and for enjoying each other. Game time, after all, is “we” time. And while your dog will enjoy some applause or a cheerful “Yay!” for a good catch or a difficult find, the game itself is so powerfully positive, you can actually use games as reinforcement when training a younger dog.
Old dogs still love to learn new things and have the sense of accomplishment of figuring something out. They love the chance to be active, to be silly, to make you laugh. It doesn’t take a lot of time to satisfy the yen for play when the player is a sweet old guy with a little gray in his muzzle and a long history of mutual affection. If his eyes have gotten dim, you can play a scent game, asking him to find some stinky cheese instead of a ball or a stuffed animal. If his legs are a little arthritic, roll the ball to him and see if you can get him to roll it back. Whatever you end up doing, you’ll add gold to your old friend’s golden years. So keep it small and low and soft and easy, but most of all do it daily and keep it fun.