Great Games to Play with Older Dogs
Learn some low-key games to play with a dog who’s too creaky for long hikes or fetch games.
My dog Izzy is about 15. Her general health is good, but a walk around the block is about as much as she’s got stamina for. Her sight and hearing aren’t the greatest, either. I’ve found some low-key games that we can play at home to keep her mind active and add fun and interest to that quiet old-lady lifestyle. You might also enjoy these games if you’re hiding out from bad weather, or if your dog is recovering from surgery but is well enough to move freely around the house.
How to Play with Older Dogs
Food is Number 1 on most dogs’ Top 10 list. As we all know, meals usually involve snarfing up the food as fast as possible and then licking the bowl into a condition of complete sliminess. Do not waste this valuable opportunity! Some of the easiest, most reliable dog games do nothing more than set your dog up to forage. As always, be cautious about such games with dogs who guard their food, their bowls, or places food has been.
Great Games to Play with Older Dogs
The most ridiculously easy game of all to play with older dogs is just to scatter dry dog food on the floor or in the backyard. That is so simple and obvious that it almost never occurs to humans to do, mainly, I suspect, because we’d be bored by it. Dogs, not so much. Most dogs will happily pick food up off the floor for what feels like hours.
Believe it or not, though, your dog may need a bit of training. A dog who’s not used to hunting up her food may give up if she can’t find it all right away, especially if you’re starting outdoors. Make it easy for her at first by tossing a few pieces of food at a time, right in front of her. As she develops skill and confidence, you can scatter the pieces more widely. I know trainers who deliver all of their dog’s dry food by tossing handfuls into the backyard.
Play “Three-Card Monte” with Yogurt Cups and Food
Collect three empty, clean yogurt cups and you’re ready for the canine version of three-card monte, in which the player never loses. Punch a few small holes in the base of each yogurt cup, then get comfy on the floor with the cups and a handful of small, smelly treats. Have your dog watch as you cover one of the treats with a cup, and then give him the okay to go after it. Probably he’ll need about 1.5 seconds to push the cup over and get the treat.
Next step: put three yogurt cups upside down on the floor and have your dog watch as you put a treat under just one of the cups. Move the cups around as in a game of monte, then give your dog the okay to find the treat. He may make a beeline for the correct cup, he may sniff at each in turn and then go for the correct one, or he may just knock them all over--the Visigoth approach. Whichever method he chooses, he will be happy to do it again and again and again.
Make a Food-Finding Game with Random Containers
The next game calls for some improvisation. Hide an array of food and treats in and under any items you have handy--yogurt cups, clean take-out containers, and empty cereal boxes work; so do pieces of paper, folded to make a little arch so they’re easier for your dog to push aside. Have your dog stay while you set up the treat-finding course, or close a door between you. When the course is ready, scatter a few treats on the floor as freebies, then turn your dog loose to poke and hunt. Get as elaborate as you want--use a dozen treats or your dog’s whole dinner. If your dog eats homemade or canned food, you could feed him a meal this way just before you intend to wash the floor anyhow.
Hide Food in a Cardboard Box
A favorite new foraging game in my house comes from a book called Playtime for Your Dog, by Christina Sondermann. Take a cardboard box and fill it with crumpled newspaper, then toss in some dry food and treats. Choose a box whose size works well for your dog--a shoebox might suit an old dog of any size who can’t clamber. For a large, healthy dog a liquor-store box could be just right.
You can make this game more challenging. Take squares of newspaper or wax paper and tightly wrap 4 or 5 pieces of dry food in each, like hard candy. Save clean plastic takeout containers and put a few pieces of food in each of those, then close the lid. Empty cracker and cereal boxes, ditto. Then everything goes in the big box, and your dog goes to town.
When he’s done, the floor will be littered with shredded paper and pieces of take-out container. However, the snorting and snuffling and general joy are well worth the cleanup afterward. Same goes for the deep sleep many dogs fall into after all that hard work.
I chose these nose-based games because my Izzy, like many older dogs, has diminished sight and hearing. These losses make it a challenge to communicate with her. But if your dog’s senses are intact, it’s easy to keep up her reward-based training. Not only is it a cliché to say that old dogs can’t learn new tricks, it’s even a cliché to point out that the cliché is nonsense. Your old dog may not learn as quickly as she did in puppyhood, but unless she’s suffering from canine cognitive disorder, she can learn, and she’ll have fun doing it.
Remember to scritch those old gray cheeks, and also to visit me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, and write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh yes, and you can call, too: 206-600-5661. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I answer as many questions as I can. That’s all for now. Thank you for reading!