Ella, my Jack Russell Terrier, turned 7 on the 2nd January. As she was a rescue I don’t know what her actual birthdate is, so I chose the 2nd Jan. A celebration at the start of the year.
For many, 7 years old is the threshold for seniority. Look at dog foods, age charts, health advice. Seven is very often when adult dogs are labelled senior dogs. But if you delve a little deeper you will soon discover that deciding on when a dog is a senior dog might not be that simple. Those who have calculated how old a dog is in comparison to people long ago realised that simply taking age as the marker was insufficient.
Small v big
Small dogs tend to live longer than giant dogs. Jack Russell Terriers and Chihuahuas can live as long as 20 years, Shih Tzus and Pomeranians up to 16 years. Whereas Great Danes and St. Bernards do well if they make it to 10 years old. Therefore, to compare a 7 year old Jack Russell to a 7 year old St. Bernard isn’t a useful comparison.
But when you look at breed specifics, you’ll see a big difference. The average lifespan of most dogs is around 10 years, with mongrels living to around 14 years. But you need to look at more than just size. Looking at those breeds in the middle of the size chart, you’ll also see some big swings in life expectancy: Labradors -12 years; Springer Spaniels – 14; and Border Collies – 16. So you can see how much more is involved than you might first think when ascertaining when your adult dog has become a senior dog.
So even though Ella has reached the 7 year mark, it’s safe to say that she is not a senior dog. But big sister Cherry is a senior. As a Labrador Retriever, she hit senior status when she was about 8 years old. She turns 10 next month and she has started to slow down a little. She gets a bit stiff after lots of exercise, her joints click when she stretches and her muzzle is just starting to show signs of greying. But as anyone who has met her will attest, she doesn’t appear old.
And this is where I think we could improve our expectations and attitude towards senior dogs. Senior doesn’t have to mean senile, sluggish or sickly. And is definitely shouldn’t mean shelved. In my time as a Customs Drug Detector Dog Handler, it was almost an automatic assumption that once our detector dogs hit 7 years, they’d be retired. Partly, and this is my own observation, this was due to injury or illness. We just didn’t know enough to take good care of their joints. Jumping up and out of containers, aircraft, lorries and cargo every day will take a toll on shoulders, elbows and more. We didn’t know to add joint supplements to their diet or to support their weight as they landed (see my downloadable guide on choosing and using a harness.)
Viewing dogs as retired or ‘past it’ when they are still healthy and lively is to risk wasting precious years. Years when they could be out exploring the world and enjoying new experiences. To cosset Ella now would be to deny her a full life. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that joint care, weight management and positive mental challenges are not just for senior dogs. They are are for all dogs to help maintain good health for as long as possible. While adopting these measures as seniority looms is better than nothing, looking after our dogs throughout their lives should be the goal. Simple measures such as not letting your dog become overweight, keeping her warm before and after exertion or exercise, and teaching her new skills from puppyhood to maturity will help maintain quality of life long after she passes into the senior section of her life.
I was as guilty as the next person in assuming that senior dogs preferred a quiet life. My dogs usually accompany me whenever I teach scent workshops. About 8 years ago, during a workshop lunch hour I suddenly realised that Megan was my only dog to whom who I’d not taught scentwork. I was appalled at this realisation. And so I immediately set up some searches for her so that she could get involved in this glorious activity. And oh my, how she loved it. Her whole being lifted as she worked out the game and enjoyed both the process and the rewards. You can see for yourself how much she enjoyed it if you sign up for my Senior Scentwork course in which she takes the starring role!
My 13 year old (she might even have been 14!) girl learned a new skill, one that helped so much in her final months. I lost her at 15 years old (good old mongrel) but I knew that right til the end she had a wonderful life. Providing mental exercise becomes ever more important as our dogs are able to do less physical exercise. I see this a lot with dogs of all ages who have suffered injury or illness, or who are no longer able to compete (e.g. agility) at high levels. Their body might not do all they want, but their minds can. To be full of energy but not have access to a positive outlet for it is surely a cruelty?
Talking Dogs Scentwork® has always been, and always will be, a fully inclusive activity. No dog is excluded. Every dog is welcomed and supported to reach their own individual goals. The ability to design searches that are appropriate to each dog is one of the cornerstones to this inclusivity. Small changes can make big differences. Ensuring that dogs don’t need to jump up or dig. Eliminating slippery or uneven surfaces. Providing appropriate finds and rewards all contribute to making scentwork fun for all dogs, pup to senior, fit to limited.
Sign ups for seniors
While Puppy Scentwork is one of my most popular courses, enrolments for Senior Scentwork fall far below. This makes me sad as I wonder just how many senior dogs are being inadvertently written off as ‘too old to learn something new’ or ‘too old to want to do scentwork’ or ‘too old to be able to search’. Of course, lots of dogs learn the scentwork skill when they are young and so can carry those skills over to their senior years. But I do worry for those who haven’t learned young.
This is the start of a New year and maybe it could be the start of a new activity? Maybe you will have that sudden realisation, just as I did all those years ago, that your senior dog is waiting to get involved, to have her turn in the search area and to start sniffing! Or maybe you are already on the case and have taught your dog scentwork now, in readiness for senior status. Let’s embrace our senior dogs. Don’t let them slip away, wasting those later years. Give them opportunities to thrive and explore and to live good lives right til the end.