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Kathy Santo trains dogs for home life and competition at her Kathy Santo Dog Training school in New Jersey. She is the author of Kathy Santo’s Dog Sense and has handled multiple Obedience trial champions. She also teaches digital dog-training courses available online.

When I first heard the phrase “old dogs are the best dogs,” I didn’t understand how that was possible. How could the drive, enthusiasm, and boundless energy of a young dog ever compare to a low-key, laid back senior? Below are a few important things I learned from my first dog, Opal, as she entered her golden years.

“Senior” Doesn’t Mean “Slow”

When Opal crossed into the gray muzzle stage, she did slow down in her day-to-day life. But when I asked her to go for a walk, fetch, or do obedience work, she joyfully and energetically complied. She was as happy to cuddle on the couch next to me when I was working as she was to be active.

It also doesn’t mean the end of learning. As we transitioned from competition obedience to retirement, her drive to learn and engage with me remained. Up until the last few months of her life, she happily and quickly learned all the ‘pet’ tricks that I never taught her because I’d been more focused on the precision and drive of what we needed to do in the ring at trials.

Seniors Are Our Historians

Opal was with me when I was married, had my son, and when we moved. All were milestones in my life, and having her by my side for each of them created a bond that was at the core of our love for each other.

But with those benefits of older dogs comes a caveat. These are a few slip-ups and pitfalls, common among owners of older dogs, that should be avoided. That ways, your canine senior citizen won’t suddenly develop behavior issues late in life.

Don’t Relax the Rules. Relax the Criteria.

My Golden Retriever is 10 years old. He still must wait before he goes through doors, before he gets a cookie, and before he may retrieve something I’ve thrown. The lifestyle of “ask for permission” isn’t eliminated due to his age. If, however, he was battling arthritis or had some other physical issue, the rules would be modified. So, for example, if he couldn’t comfortably sit and wait, he could still stand and wait.

Naughty behavior doesn’t show up out of nowhere. Every week at my dog school, I hear tales of woe about a formerly perfect adult dog, who allegedly “out of the blue” started stealing food off tables, counters, and plates. But when I dig a little deeper, I hear details of the owners not being able to resist their dog’s sweet, old face. The result is owners giving the dog food from the table, the counter, and from their plate. A dog’s behavior is always a reflection of their owners. Every. Single. Time.

Age Isn’t An Excuse

“They won’t live forever” is not a reason for bending house rules and letting your dog steal socks, knock people down, and beg at the table. There are other ways you can give extra rewards, befitting their senior status, without having your dog become a canine criminal.

Now remember, I’m not being Machiavellian about this. Inviting your senior dog to come up on the couch, or jump up on you, or even to enjoy licking the last remnants of your dinner from your plate (it happens!) is different because you gave permission for him to proceed. But when a dog steals what he wants, the result is a pushy tyrant, and no one wants to live with that.

Now, please excuse me while I give a belly rub to my senior dog, Indy, who’s been lying on the couch next to me, eviscerating the new stuffed toy that I gave him to keep him occupied while I finished this column. Good boy, Indy!

This column first appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of AKC Family Dog magazine.
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This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
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