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Best Ways to Care for a Senior Dog

How to keep an aging dog feeling well and hunting late into life.

Best Ways to Care for a Senior Dog

Senior dogs may not need the same amount of exercise as a young dog, but they still need it consistently. (Photo By: Ben La Londe)

Last summer, my training partner pointed at my dog and said matter-of-factly, “She’s lame in her front right elbow.” As soon as she said it, the limp became forehead-slapping obvious. I couldn’t believe I had missed it, although I don’t work with retired racehorses on a daily basis, and Steph does. She has a keen, well-trained eye for those sorts of things.

Luna was eight at the time, so no matter how I looked at it, she had more hunting seasons in her rearview mirror than in front of her. I also wasn’t ready to accept total defeat against the one thing that catches up to all of our dogs: Age.

It’s inevitable, but not a prison sentence where they have to be trapped in a body that can’t do the things they live for. Of course, the opportunity to boost their quality of life and squeeze an extra hunting season or two out of them hinges largely on the decisions we make.

This starts with us acknowledging our dogs’ current condition, and what we can do to ensure a healthy lifestyle. Due to our biases over our dogs, this isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds, and we often cart around a bit too much emotion when making decisions for our dogs. This often clouds our view of what age really means to a dog, as well as what shape our four-legged hunting partners are really in.

Re-Think Old  

You could scour the world for a lifetime to find someone who understands more about how dogs function than Dr. Arleigh Reynolds, and you’d likely strike out. Reynolds is a Professor of Clinical Nutrition at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and is an expert on exercise physiology, energy metabolism, and metabolic diseases in domestic animals, among many other things. He’s also a veteran sled dog musher who is fascinated by the athletic abilities of working dogs.

His experience training and competing with sled dogs has helped Reynolds to rethink what aging really means for working dogs—especially after winning the 2014 Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship Sled Dog Race with an eight-year-old lead dog.

“The average age of sled dogs is 2.5 years old,” Reynolds said. “Five is ancient, and eight is extremely rare.” To win with a dog that is such an outlier age-wise, Reynolds had to truly read her. “That dog told me she wanted to go—she would scream if I’d hook up the dogs. So, I created a training program around her because I knew she only had so many really fast miles left in her.”


In this way, Reynolds is unique. He understands that dogs are incredible athletes and individuals, so he monitors their body conditioning, stamina, and their desire every day. He keeps them moving and active in a responsible manner, and he’s meticulous about their dietary needs. “Inflammation is inevitable in working dogs, so I supplement quality nutrition with fish oil or krill oil,” Reynolds said. “Both contain omega 3 fatty acids, which act as an anti-inflammatory.”

All of this is fairly intuitive to most of us who own sporting dogs, but it’s still easy to let emotion slip into our day-to-day lives and color how we treat our dogs. This often pushes us to sideline them or cut way back on physical activity as they age, thinking we are doing them a favor. Barring some injury or medical need to be benched, we aren’t though. That’s the opposite of what they need.

musher with sled dogs in snow
Reynolds knows this, which is why he can responsibly race with sled dogs that should have aged out years earlier. His strategy of ‘listening’ to his dogs is something we can all learn from and should pay attention to. It’s the key to keeping a dog healthy, happy, and doing what it loves well into the sunset years. (Photo By: Casey Thompson)

Round Is a Shape  

Estimates of the number of domestic dogs that are overweight, or obese, can run anywhere from 30 percent of the population, up to 80. If you take the middle ground there, you’re looking at about half of the dogs out there. Hunting dogs of all ages aren’t immune to this epidemic, and older dogs are especially prone to putting on extra pounds. This might look harmless, but it’s not.

It’s often devastating. Research studies, some with data from 50,000-plus dogs, have shown startling results. Obesity in dogs can be directly correlated to a shorter life (by up to about 2.5 years), to a litany of injuries and chronic conditions associated with carting around an unnatural amount of weight. It also tends to lead to a negative feedback loop where the heavier they get, the less we exercise them. The less we exercise them, the heavier they get.

Someone who understands this issue and deals with it on a professional level every week, is Megan Day. Day is the founder and owner of WagHab, a canine physical therapy clinic that is located in Asheville, North Carolina.

“Dog obesity is tied to two things—lack of exercise and a bad diet,” Day said. “Owners often don’t think about the amount of calories they are giving their dog, and they become somewhat blind to the dog’s body conditioning. This is super common with older dogs, and it can have serious side effects.”

Day recommends paying close attention to every calorie that you offer up to your dogs, and then monitoring their body conditioning to fine tune the process. This is only the first part, however, because keeping a dog active is beneficial for myriad reasons.

old german shorthaired pointer lying on bed with food bowl
Owners often don’t think about the amount of calories they are giving their dog, and they become somewhat blind to the dog’s body conditioning. (GUN DOG photo)

“With older working dogs, flexibility is a big issue,” Day said. “General mobility, spine stretches, weaving around poles, and anything that requires agility, can really help older dogs stay active as long as they don’t have orthopedic problems.”

Day is also a huge proponent of consistent exercise, with a keen eye toward tolerance and recovery. “Fluctuations in activity are what can lead to injury, or soreness, so doing similar activity five or six days a week is really important.”

This might mean some low-key swimming, maybe some off-leash free time, or training drills built around your dog’s abilities. The goal is to keep old dogs moving on a daily basis in a way that allows them to stay flexible and agile, without overdoing it.

This is the strategy that professional trainer, Tom Dokken, takes with all of his retrievers as they grow older. “Weight is a big issue,” Dokken says. “But the other part is year-round activity. I see a lot of hunting dog owners try to ramp up exercise right before the hunting season, which can be a really bad idea when it comes to all dogs, but especially older dogs.”

As you can probably imagine, Dokken builds much of this physical activity into training sessions even though seniors often don’t need the same amount of lessons as younger dogs. “With older dogs, you’re not working on skills as much, but are really instead working to keep them healthy so they are happy and can keep hunting as long as possible. If you want a dog that hunts until 10 or 11,” Dokken says, “you’d better think about physical activity all year long.”

old black labrador retriever sitting in a green grass field
Stretch your aging gun dog's hunting years by paying attention and managing their health and exercise year-round. (Photo By: Mark Atwater)

Performance Boosters  

While proper weight and consistent activity are necessary to keep older dogs going, they might not be enough. You might still notice that the recovery time of your dog takes longer than it should, or like in the case of my older Lab, something like degenerative arthritis shows up.

The first step is to consult with a professional. When I took Luna in for her limp, I requested Adeqaun injections for her. My race-horse rehabilitating friend had recommended Adequan, as had a couple of industry friends who also hold advanced degrees in animal medicine.

Luna’s veterinarian entertained the thought, but suggested we try a different route first. This consisted of two weeks of rest, accompanied by a painkiller prescription. It was a good try, but it didn’t work. We went to step two, which involved cycling Luna into the Adequan injections and the results were almost instant.

She was less stiff when getting up after a nap, more spry in the field when we went out to train and acted younger. Sometimes, just like with our own bodies, you can do everything right on the diet and exercise side, and still need a little boost from medical science.

This is important to acknowledge, because like with most complex issues, the best course of treatment will be nuanced and usually involve several strategies working in concert. It also involves the guidance of a professional who understands the issue at hand and can work through the options with you.

Remember earlier in this article when I mentioned that it’s best to put your emotions aside when addressing an aging dog? When you work with a veterinarian in this capacity, listen to them. They have dedicated a good portion of their lives to becoming experts on animal care, and they will tell you in a tactful way what the options are. If that starts with diet or exercise, pay attention. They have your dog’s health as their primary concern but aren’t bogged down by 10 years of a relationship with the animal the way you are. They also just flat-out understand what is good for animals, and it’s their duty to advocate for that.

They see things for what they are and will understand what a good course of action really is. That might start with over-the-counter supplements and some agility drills to address joint issues and flexibility, or it might involve something a little more expensive but likely to produce greater results. Communicate your desires for your dog and listen up. They will likely tell you the best route to take to keep your dog active, happy, and hunting. That will undoubtedly involve a multi-faceted approach, which will depend on your accountability.


In other words, it takes some extra effort to keep an aging hunting dog in the game as long as possible. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single bird dog owner who has had to retire a dog, or put one down, who wouldn’t give quite a bit to be able to go back in time to have just one more season, or a few more hunts, together.

We can’t do that, but we can take care of our aging hunting partners now to ensure that during this go-round, we do all we can to keep that fire burning as long as possible.  

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