HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR DOG’S COGNITIVE FUNCTION
Even though your dog’s puppy years are far behind him, his need to play is still strong. Playtime provides senior dogs with mental stimulation, keeps their cognitive skills in tip-top shape, and helps them maintain a youthful personality. Check out the following ways to engage your senior dog in mentally challenging, age-appropriate play.
Games to Play With Your Senior Dog
Games that require exertion, like fetch or chase, may no longer be appropriate for your older dog. But there are still lots of ways to play together that are suited to his physical condition. One of the best is hide-and-seek. This game can take many forms, depending on your dog’s interests and health, but the basic rule is the same – your dog needs to find something he can’t see.
If you want to be the one hiding, put your dog in a “stay” and then find a place in the house or yard out of your dog’s sight. Next, call out to your dog to “Find it.” In the beginning, you may need to call his name or make other encouraging noises to help him figure out the point of the game. When he finds you, reward him with a treat, toy, or cuddles, whatever he finds most rewarding. Start by hiding close by, in easy-to-find locations, then gradually make your hiding spots trickier. Even if your senior dog is hard of hearing, he can still participate by using his nose to track you down.
The hidden object can also be a toy or treat. Start by placing the object in an obvious location and giving the “Find it” cue while you point at the object. Once your dog begins to catch on, you can start using farther locations and placing the object out of sight, like behind a piece of furniture or on top of a chair.
Another twist on hide-and-seek involves placing the treat or toy within the folds of a blanket or towel, so your dog has to sniff it out and use his paws and nose to uncover it. Or wrap it in a tea towel. To add an extra level of difficulty, tie the ends of the tea towel together in a loose knot.
Interactive Toys for Your Senior Dog
Toys that can be filled with food offer the simplest way to provide your dog with a little extra incentive while he plays. The classic is the Kong, which comes in a softer rubber version for senior dogs. These toys can be filled with soft food, such as peanut butter or cream cheese, and your dog needs to work to get at the treat. Freezing the Kong after filling it adds an extra challenge and is cooling on a hot day. Or you can fill the toy with small treats and then partially block the opening with a large biscuit or piece of freeze-dried liver. Your dog will have to bounce and toss the toy to dislodge the small treats inside.
There are more complicated treat-dispensing toys, as well. The Mike and Leo toys by Canine Genius can be used separately or joined together to increase the difficulty. The Buster Cube has two difficulty settings, so you can start your dog with the easier setting and then raise the bar when he has mastered extracting the treats. There are also interactive toys, such as those made by Nina Ottosson and by Trixie, that require your dog to move obstacles, lift flaps, and pull drawers. These are all suitable for most older dogs because they require mental rather than physical strength.
For toy-motivated dogs, there are also stuffed puzzle toys. Smaller squeaky stuffed toys are placed inside another toy, and your dog needs to pull them out, such as the Egg Babies line of toys or Hide A Squirrel. Others involve pulling rings off another toy, for example the Puzzle Pup Intellibone.
And the fun doesn’t stop there. Don’t forget that old dogs can learn new tricks, so turn your training sessions into playtime by teaching age-appropriate tricks, such as “wave” or “back up.” Consider taking up a dog sport that is suited to your dog’s physical abilities, for example scent work or rally. Even mealtime can be turned into playtime if you hide your dog’s dinner by tossing his kibble in the grass or placing it in a puzzle feeder. Your senior dog will love the challenge and fun these games and toys provide, and you will be helping to keep him young at heart.