Behaviourist's Corner

Games to enrich your dog’s life


It’s logical to think that as older dogs slow down, we should minimise their exercise or games. However, pet experts recommend you do exactly the opposite: playing can help your pooch’s brain stay young and keep age-related problems at bay. Read on for our top advice on the enrichment activities that can help your dog enjoy life to the fullest.

The importance of games

Petplan vet Brian Faulkner stresses that regular playtime is important for dogs of all ages, not only pups. ‘Games and exercise can help keep old-age problems, such as cognitive dysfunction syndrome or dementia at bay,’ he says. ‘Anything that makes an animal think and react is more likely to work the brain and keep it healthy.’

This is especially important for dogs as they’re social creatures and, without stimulation, can become stressed, anxious or bored – leading to attention-seeking or destructive behaviours. However, by engaging an elderly dog in playtime, you’ll ensure he has something to look forward to and entice him to interact positively with the world around him.

Energy levels and exercise

Your dog’s lower energy levels can easily be mistaken for a lack of interest in exercise. However, while your pooch may not be quite as bouncy as he was as a puppy, he still needs a physical outlet – it might just need to be tailored to his changing needs.

‘Every dog is different,’ Brian says. ‘Some will enjoy long walks, even runs; others will, at some point, want to start taking life a bit slower, with shorter, easier outings. You should definitely carry on with exercise and play, though, as sitting around all day isn’t good for any dog – or human! Gently test the waters and see how your dog responds.’

Training for play

Your dog’s desire to socialise with you doesn’t dwindle with age, but his decreased agility and energy might mean he’s less able to let you know he’d like to play games. This puts the ball in your court and, as he ages, you’ll need to take the lead on playtime to keep your pooch healthy and mentally fit.

If you’re unsure where to start, remember that a sure way to pique even the most laidback dog’s interest is to engage him in one-on-one interaction. For the best combination of the full-on attention your pooch craves, and the mental stimulation he needs, consider training games. These are challenging, filled with positive reinforcement to keep them engaging, and won’t overexert or tire your dog too quickly. Two of our favourites include:

  1. 1. Treat reaches

    This can help to increase your dog’s range of movement, flexibility and balance, and will keep him both physically and mentally alert.

    From a standing position, get your pooch to reach for a treat without taking any steps. Offer the reward from various angles (such as side to side), to encourage stretching in different directions and reward him with a treat when he achieves the desired position. Once he can do this easily, challenge him further by getting him to hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds. If you find your dog’s balance isn’t great to start with, allow him to lean against your sofa or a chair – while ensuring he can still stretch to reach the treat.

    Keep in mind, though, that extra titbits in your dog’s diet will add extra calories – and could lead to weight gain. While there are some great low-calorie options on the market, it may still be worth monitoring your dog’s overall calorie consumption.

  2. 2. The name game

    Challenge your pooch mentally by teaching him to retrieve his favourite toys by name. As with any training, this game will require patience and repetition to see results – time that your dog will thoroughly enjoy spending with you.

    To start, place two toys on the floor of a room where there are no other distractions. Point at a toy, name it, and then ask your dog to bring it to you. When he does, praise him and reward him with a game of tug or a low-calorie treat. Repeat the process until he knows the name of that toy, and then do the same with the second one. Once he’s mastered that, mix it up by asking him to fetch both toys, one at a time.

    When he gets it right, reward him and give him plenty of praise. Respond to incorrect choices by repeating the request, and eventually guiding him to the right toy if he really needs help. If he manages to get two toys right, progress to trying three or more.

    However, as with all playtime, take your cues from your dog. Keep sessions short (no longer than five minutes) and, if it becomes clear he’s had enough, allow him to wander off to a comfy spot and take a break from the serious business of play.


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