by Claire Anderson
As I write this, I can hear the whistle of my dog breathing, with the occasional snort and wiggle to relieve the itching. Miles Davis is thirteen years old, with Cushing’s Disease, sore joints, and a weak heart (only physically, of course).
A brief history of my dog, Miles
I was only twenty years old when I met him and I can remember the day so vividly it could have happened yesterday. He stumbled (short legs and too much skin) towards me across a bright green lawn in Duluth, Minnesota. He was much larger than his sisters and completely adorable. Irresponsibly, I advanced money on my first ever credit card to purchase him so that I could sneak him into my no-pet-policy apartment (which, by the way, I don’t recommend. But in my case, it became the best decision I ever made). I brought him home to meet my parents and my dad was listening to the record, A Kind of Blue, so naturally Miles Davis was a fitting name. Since then, he has been my co-pilot in life—through heartbreaks, cross-country moves, and career changes.
About five months ago, Miles Davis was diagnosed with Cushing’s Disease, which has been extremely difficult on both of us. It feels as if I am watching helplessly as everything gets more difficult for him. His huge heart is weak, his joints are stiffer by the day, and his allergies cause so much itching his skin is raw and occasionally infected. He is still my everything—my sweet, darling boy.
This is love. Unfortunately, this is part of sharing your life with a dog. This is, without a doubt, one of the hardest things I have gone through (and am currently going through).
Clearly I am still trying to figure this out. Nevertheless, as someone who works in animal behavior, I’ve worked out a few ways that you can minimize stress for your aging or sickly dog and I thought it would be helpful to share what I’ve learned so far!
1. Create a Safe Space
In the human world, we create spaces of all kinds for our convalescence. It is important to provide a comfortable, healing space for your dog as well! Block off a section of your home where your dog is most comfortable — a bed, their crate, a corner of the living room, for example. It should be a space that is only theirs, where they can not be bothered by other animals or people. It should be filled with their favorite things like toys, safe chews, and blankets. Perhaps even a t-shirt of your own because your smell is comforting to your dog. Water should be easily accessible to them. Ex-pens for dogs work great for this!
2. A Simple, Predictable Routine
By providing your dog with predictability, you are reducing their stress significantly. Find a schedule that works for you and your pooch and stick with it—consistency is key. Many elderly dogs suffer from dementia much like people do. A schedule they can count on will help both you and your pup thrive.
3. It's the Small Things
Dogs are fantastic at enjoying the simple pleasures in life like crashing head first into a wave, digging a hole, chasing a ball, or following a scent. If your dog is physically able, it is essential to still provide these experiences even for an aging dog! For example, if your dog’s greatest joy is a walk but they are physically unable to walk, consider dog strollers, dog carrier backpacks, or even doggie wagons for senior dogs.
(As always, consult with your veterinarian about these activities to ensure safety.)
4. Chewing is Soothing
Chewing can be very soothing for your dog, so providing them with safe chewing opportunities is essential. I recommend giving one frozen Kong dog toy or Westpaw dog toy per day. You can fill it with an assortment of ingredients like: yogurt, Answers raw cow’s milk kefir, peanut butter, pumpkin, veggies, blueberries, their food, etc. Or use other chew options like antlers, raw marrow bones, bully sticks, Nylabones, and Benebones.
It's important to provide your dog with safe chewing options and those options might look different depending on your dog. Always supervise when they are chewing on a bone to prevent injury. If your elderly dog has weak or sensitive teeth, please ensure the chews your provide are appropriate and won’t cause further pain and always avoid rawhide as they are dangerous and toxic.
5. Keep your dog busy!
Many dogs, especially working breeds, thrive when they have a job. But because of your senior dog's illness or age, they probably can’t physically perform the tasks they once did. To adjust for your aging dog, try giving them smaller tasks, like these enrichment games we wrote about, scent work, low-key retrieval games, or puzzle toys.
Here’s an example of what I do with my dog, Miles:
Miles is a dachshund with a very strong nose and hunting instinct, and one of his favorite activities is following the scent of an animal, like a squirrel or rabbit, when we take a walk through the woods. On good days, Miles can still do this for short periods of time. However, there are also days where his joints are too stiff or his allergies are flaring up, so instead, we play indoor games! When we’re inside, I can hide treats around my apartment, in blankets, or even inside a snuffle mat for him to find.
6. Nutriceutical Supplements for dogs
Here are some great homeopathic supplements* I recommend to my clients to help reduce stress and some of them even reduce pain:
Along with these supplements, it's best to have your dog on a healthy diet as well.
7. Self-Care (for humans!)
Yes, this is a dog training blog. But because I’m personally going through this experience of my dog becoming a senior, I think it’s important to talk about the human involved as well! Remember, you are no good as a caretaker if you are not also taking care of yourself. It’s important to maintain your career, emotional stability, and relationships outside of your ailing dog.
SET ASIDE Time for Yourself
As difficult as it may seem, there is only so much you can do for your pup and the truth is that they need time alone. Remember before they got sick, when you used to go out dancing? For your own sanity and well-being, you need to carve this time out for yourself. Try it! This week, go see a movie with friends, take yourself out on a dinner date, or go to a movie.
Quality Time with your dog
At least a few times a week, I light candles, put on soothing music, and Miles and I lay down for some quality time together. Sometimes we cuddle, other times he’s too sore and doesn’t want to be touched. But the important thing is that we are spending relaxing and healing time together, away from the rest of the world, just the two of us.
There are people in your life who will support you, even if it doesn’t feel like anyone understands. Maybe it’s a phone call to your parent or a night in with friends, but share with them what you are going through, because their support will help. If you find you need to enlist the help of a therapist so that you have a safe space to talk about your feelings, do it. Did you know there are also canine support groups and blogs? You are not alone. Not now, not ever!
Please remember that you are doing the best you can for your aging senior dog. If your experience is anything like mine, you have received many well-intentioned opinions about what you should do regarding your dog’s medical care (and otherwise). It’s hard to feel confident in your dog’s treatment when there are so many options out there! For example, I was just with a veterinarian yesterday who made me feel terrible for choosing a holistic route of care. The point is this: you do the best you can. On some level, your dog knows this and trusts you completely.
My friend and one of our alumni clients, Lauren Fern Watt, wrote an achingly beautiful novel called Gizelle’s Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog about her experience with her ailing English Mastiff. It did a great job of reminding me that I wasn’t alone, so I highly recommend it!
Full disclosure: I’m not doing well. We do still have good days, where Miles wakes up with a bounce in his step and I am reminded of the 10 week old puppy running towards me on that bright green lawn in Minnesota. We also have bad days (they seem more frequent presently) where he doesn’t get out of bed until noon and barely lifts his head for his food. On these days, that vivid memory of the bouncy puppy feels very hazy and far away. I find myself panicking because I truly don’t know what life looks like without him.
My last bit of advice for anyone dealing with an aging dog is to hire a dog behaviorist who will be able to help your dog through this time and give you support. We have worked with many clients with sick or elderly dogs and have had the privilege to ease their stress. You can schedule an in-home visit from one of our trainers, completely for free.
Regardless of the steps you take to make this process easier for yourself and your dog, it is still one of the most difficult things life will ever throw at you. I sincerely hope my tips are helpful!