safe sports for senior dogs

Like people, dogs get more fragile as they age. But this doesn’t mean they can’t participate in canine sports. Check out these safe options for your senior dog.

A great way to keep your dog fit is to engage him in some form of canine sport. Although many people assume activities such as agility or freestyle are only for younger dogs, seniors can also enjoy some of these sports — as long as you keep their age and safety in mind. This article presents four ideal canine sports for your older dog, along with tips for keeping him safe and comfortable.

4 safe canine sports for seniors

1. Modified agility – Dog agility organizations as such as the United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) offer modified agility courses for senior dogs. “The Veterans program allows older dogs to jump at a lower height than they would in the Championship or Performance Programs,” says Heather Smith, USDAA Event Planner. “For instance, a dog that measures 20” at the withers would jump 22” in Championship, 16” in Performance, but just 12” in Veterans.” In some cases, agility courses for senior dogs cover shorter distances, and obstacles are modified to prevent strain.

2. Obedience – This activity encompasses a wide range of mental and physical intensities. Obedience uses vocal commands and hand signals to guide dogs through a series of tests, including basic tricks such as sitting and heeling, or more complicated actions such as identifying and retrieving specific objects. Most obedience competitions place more emphasis on sportsmanship and mannerly conduct than on skill, making it the perfect choice for older dogs with physical limitations.

 3. Freestyle – Ideal for seniors who love learning, freestyle requires dogs to dance to music alongside their handlers, or “to act out” certain scenarios, and is generally low impact. “WCFO Canine Freestyle works a dog on all sides and uses all his muscles, which helps develop the dog fully and evenly,” says Patie Ventre, Founder and CEO of the World Canine Freestyle Organization. “Many veterinarians are members and dance with their dogs for purely health reasons. The sport also keeps a dog’s mind working and adds joy to his senior years, as dogs are social animals and love working with their owners.”

4. Nose work – Whether you enter your senior to compete or use it as a way to bond, nose work is an excellent way to challenge his mental faculties. “Dogs learn certain scents and are taught to exhibit a behavior once they’ve found a scent,” says Heather. “No jumps, just searching items to see if the scent has been hidden there. My ten-year old miniature Schnauzer loves it – and I love seeing him learning and enjoying a new positively-reinforced activity.”

“My ten-year old miniature Schnauzer loves it – and I love seeing him learning and enjoying a new positively-reinforced activity.”

While these are some of the most popular options for senior dogs, few sports are off the table as long as you play it safe.

Tips for safe sport participation

  • Before starting any canine sport with an older dog, check with his veterinarian to confirm he’s physically able to participate. “The term ‘senior’ is relative,” says Heather. “A 12-year old-Papillion may still be able to handle full-scale activities, whereas an eight-year-old Irish setter may not. You have to look at the size and the individual dog and think about what he’s being asked to do within his abilities and conditioning.”
  • Good nutrition is crucial, and this becomes even more important as your dog ages. For optimal health and energy levels, always opt for a high quality diet made from whole food ingredients, and free of artificial additives, fillers and by-products. Supplements such as Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants may also be considered, but requirements and dosages vary depending on the dog, so be sure to consult with a holistic or integrative veterinarian.
  • Obesity is common in dogs, especially as they get older. Enrolling your dog in a canine sport is a good way to help him shed some pounds, but keep in mind that overweight dogs are more prone to injury. Rather than throwing him into something that’s too rigorous for his weight, ease into the sport and prevent fatigue and injury by gradually increasing the level of activity.
  • Mind the weather! Senior dogs are more sensitive to extreme temperatures, so for outdoor activities, use common sense to determine if it’s too hot or cold for him.
  • Joints can become stiff and inflamed with age. The regular exercise offered by canine sports can help stave off arthritis, but avoid high jumping, and ensure the activity takes place on resilient surfaces such as grass, and not concrete or hard tile flooring. Joint health supplements can also help keep him flexible and comfortable – again, discuss your dog’s individual needs with your vet.

Engaging your senior dog in the right canine sport, while keeping his health and safety in mind, will help keep him fit and happy during his golden years.

Warm up and cool down

With any canine sport, a proper warm-up beforehand is extremely important. It will prepare his body and mind for improved safety, and reduce the risk of injury. Take your dog for a short walk, then spend a few minutes in a light jog to ensure his soft tissues – muscles, tendons and ligaments – are pliable and ready for increased intensity. When you’re finished with the sport for the day, cool your dog down by reversing the warm-up routine.

Suspect sports aren’t for him?

If your senior isn’t suited to canine sports, for whatever reason, there are many other ways to provide him with physical and mental stimulation. Teach him simple tricks, invest in an interactive puzzle toy, or hide food around the house rather than putting it in a bowl. The latter two activities will engage his natural “hunting” instincts and keep his brain and body stimulated as he searches for his meals. Just be sure to place the food on one level of your home so he doesn’t strain himself climbing too many stairs.