How Can I Keep My Dog Young?
My dog Barley is five and a half years old. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like he’s a bit slower on runs than he was when he was three and a half. Of course, he’s not exactly an old dog – I’m hoping he’ll have another eight or more years of happy, healthy life. But I want to keep him young and healthy for as long as possible.
If you want to keep your dog young, it’s best to start thinking about that while your dog is still young. That’s right – don’t start panicking about your dog’s age when your dog is already arthritic. You can certainly help if your dog is older, but it’s much easier to keep your dog young-feeling than it is to make your dog fitter.
Here are the top things you can do to keep your dog young. I’ll be doing them to ensure Barley can enjoy hikes and trail runs with me for as long as possible!
- Watch your dog’s weight. Just like with people, being overweight isn’t good for your dog. While chunky pups can be cute, they’re not healthy. The “norm” for many dogs in the United States is actually overweight or even obese. Don’t let your dog be part of that! You should be able to see your dog’s narrow point of the waist if you look at him from above (unless he’s super fluffy like Barley is). You also should be able to see some abdominal tuck (where the belly goes up between the ribs and the rear legs). If your dog is really fluffy, you should be able to feel for hipbones and ribs without too much difficulty. That said, if your dog’s hips and ribs are poking out, he might need to put on a bit of weight.
- Feed the best possible food. I personally feed Barley a homemade raw diet while we’re in Latin America because we can’t buy good kibble here. When we’re back in the United States, I generally feed him NomNomNow or other similar, fresh-food diets. It’s intuitively obvious that feeding your dog high-quality fresh food is probably better than highly processed kibble that’s full of fillers. There’s a ton of conflicting information out there about nutrition, and vets aren’t always experts. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, talk to a veterinary nutritionist!
- Train his mind every day. Training is one of the best ways to keep your dog’s mind active as he ages. You absolutely can teach an old dog new tricks – and you should! I train Barley almost every single day as part of his SMART x 50 routine. Additionally, I use his breakfast and dinner time to practice some of the tricks that help keep him in shape.We practice bow, leg weaves, and sit-to-stand-to-down repetitions every day, especially if he can’t get other exercise. Training is a great way to build your bond together, keep your dog’s mind sharp, and build up balance or muscle group strength in a controlled way.
- Mix up the type of exercise. Just like people, dogs benefit from a variety of exercise every day. As your dog ages, pounding the pavement for fetch is also really hard on his joints! Try to mix it up – hiking one day, jogging the next, a hidden treat game another day, and a long walk other days. If you’re a weekend warrior type who will be fishing, rafting, or climbing mountains on the weekends, make sure that you’re keeping your dog in shape during the off-season (see this article for more info on that) so that you can hit the trails running!
- Give your dog rest days. While you can (and should) train your dog every day, your dog will need less strenuous days to balance out hard workouts. If you ran 15 miles together on Sunday, give yourselves Monday off! Your dog’s muscles need to repair just as much as yours do. It can be tempting to play fetch with your pup if your legs are sore, but odds are your dog should take a break, too. You might need to give your dog some puzzle toys to help convince him that it’s really chill-out time! Not all dogs like enforced rest days.
- Stretch and massage. That’s right. Your dog is probably sore and tense, just like you. If your muscles want a nice hot soak and a foam roller after a hard day of mountain biking, imagine how your dog’s legs feel! After a bit of a scare with Barley’s iliopsoas last year, I’ve started making sure that Barley gets a good warm-up, cool-down, stretching, and evening massage session whenever we have a hard workout. We start by having him do some leg weaves, then have him put his front paws up on a stump or my knee to stretch his back. I pull his legs out to stretch his shoulders and hips, then I spread his toes and roll his wrists and ankles around. He used to get treats for this, but now he likes it on its own. At night, I try to remember to massage his hips and back – I work this into my evening reading and dog-cuddling routing. It sounds like a bit much when I write it out now, but it’s seriously so helpful for keeping your dog young!
- Practice preventative care. Wellness checks are not just a way for your vet to make money. They’re absolutely necessary for helping you keep tabs on your dog’s vital signs. Having a close relationship with your vet will help you and your dog catch things earlier on. Your vet can also help guide you through food, workouts, supplements, and medications that help keep your dog young. Aside from going to your annual wellness visits, it’s also important to be extra-observant. When I noticed that my dog Barley was turning his right rear leg inwards a bit on trail runs, I went to three vets to figure out what was going on. I didn’t wait until he was limping or refusing to run – I went when his gait just seemed a bit weird. And I’m so glad I did! Carefully monitor your dog’s gait, energy level, eating habits, coat glossiness, and eye brightness to ensure you can catch things early.
- Talk to your vet about supplements – don’t just try whatever you read on the internet! It’s tempting to start feeding your pup coconut oil, turmeric, CBD, powdered kelp, and about 200 other supplements. A quick Google will suggest that any number of supplements – natural or otherwise – will cure your dog’s cancer and essentially act as the fountain of youth. The problem is, these supplements and natural additives aren’t necessarily vetted for efficacy. Worse, they might interact with each other, your dog’s diet, or your dog’s medications in a way that’s flat-out dangerous. Talk to your vet before adding anything like this into your diet and invest in high quality supplements! Products that aid your dog’s joint health and overall wellness will maximize your outdoor adventures.
Keeping your dog young is important to all of us dog-lovers. Starting to think about your dog’s aging plan when your dog is still young – like my five-year-old border collie – will help set you both up for success.
Love alone isn’t enough to keep your dog young. In fact, overfeeding your dog because you love him – or giving too many unresearched supplements because you love him – could actually shorten his life. Now get out there and have fun with your dog!