Senior dog enrichment

Enrich your senior dog’s life: Most older dogs still want to go places and do stuff — especially with you!

Some senior dogs with a laid-back temperament or health problems simply want to lay in a sunny spot and watch the world go by. They are happy with two or three meals a day and some quiet time with you, just sitting together. And that’s okay.

Others aren’t ready to settle down. Their personality is more like the residents of senior centers who sign up for every class, take daily walks and run the whole gamut of available activities. Fortunately, just as for active human seniors, there are plenty of options that fit your senior canine’s desires and physical abilities.

At your dog’s annual wellness checkup, be sure to include a discussion with your veterinarian about safe activities for your older dog. And plan to reassess your dog’s physical capabilities often. A dog who wants to please you may push their body beyond ideal limits, so you have to be paying attention. They may need a dose of pain medication on a day with extra activity to take part, much like you taking a precautionary dose of your favorite anti-inflammatory on the day of a big softball game.

Walking and hikes

Most dogs love to go on a walk or hike with you. The smells on a beach or in a new park bring great enjoyment to your dog. Keep to cool times of day for your outings. Carry water and nutritious snacks. Choose easy paths. This is not the time to start climbing mountains! Adjust the distance and difficulty to your dog’s current capabilities.

Think of your walks as “sniffathons.” Let your dog stroll, snuffle and check everything out. Don’t consider your walks together to be serious exercise walks for you.

Throw in some wading if you have a safe place. Avoid any water with a strong current and leave short swims for warm weather. Ideally, you should attach a long line to your dog in case they need help getting back to shore, or if they get turned around and start paddling out to sea. Some senior dogs are happy to become paddleboard dogs or ride in a canoe or on a kayak while you do the work — they’ll still enjoy the outing and have fun just being with you.

Indoor activities

Senior centers for people offer crosswords and jigsaw puzzles. You can offer food puzzles for your senior to exercise their mind and nose.

Forget the saying that “an old dog can’t learn new tricks.” Yes, they can! Stick to simple tricks (always consider your dog’s current physical status). You can modify some of your dog’s favorite activities, such as rolling a ball instead of throwing it. Choose one of the balls that glow and make noise to help compensate for vision and hearing loss. Basic scent games can be done indoors, ensuring good weather and safe footing.

You can also join classes or a club that involves dog sports. Most offer divisions for older dogs, and most seniors are happy to learn something new. Choose an activity that appeals to your dog, then adjust it as needed to fit their physical condition. You will both enjoy your time together!

Modified sports for seniors


Dogs who love agility, truly love agility. These dogs don’t want to stop even when their bodies can’t handle jumping anymore, and there are places for seniors to keep playing. Some clubs hold a “run for glory” at the end of the day or on a weekend. For that kind of course, jumps are lowered way down or bars are removed altogether. The course can even be set for dogs running in carts.

Some agility venues offer classes that are great for the senior canine who still wants to compete. The grounders class in the North American Dog Agility Council doesn’t have any jumps. They just have hoops to pass through, barrels to circle and occasionally a tunnel to run through. Their tunnelers course is pure tunnels, with no jumping required.

Obedience and rally

In obedience, you can choose preferred options for the upper classes with very low jumps. Rally has low jump heights to start. If your dog chooses to go around even low jumps, take that as an important hint that they are no longer comfortable jumping.

In rally, take the point deficit and continue. You can also simply train in these sports and do matches (fun runs) with modified rules. Some clubs even organize Golden Oldie Days for the senior dogs and let them participate as they wish with a cheering crowd on hand.

Scent sports

Even 16- and 17-year-old dogs compete in scent competitions. No running or jumping. They just use their marvelous nose. Nose and scent work trials (similar to drug detection) generally have both indoor and outdoor components, so you choose for your dog based on the weather.

Scent work is easy to train and practice at home, and there are excellent online courses. Scent sports can be mentally and physically exhausting and your dog — even younger dogs — will often nap after these workouts.


Somewhat like scent sports, but a little more active. In this sport, the dog follows a human scent and finds “lost” articles. Many older dogs compete successfully in tracking competitions. If these competition tracks are too rigorous for your dog, modify it! Lay a shorter track for your dog so they will still be successful.

Barn hunt

This sport’s popularity is exploding. Rats are safely hidden in tubes among straw bales, and your dog just needs to find them and let you know. You can also do “Happy Ratters,” which hides the rodents in simulated trash piles.

You will need to be your dog’s advocate here if the course has them climbing too high or navigating tricky tunnels beyond their current ability.

This article has been reprinted with permission from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DogWatch newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. When you become a member of the Riney Canine Health Center, you will receive a free subscription to DogWatch.