You can teach an old dog a new trick, and you might be surprised how much she enjoys it!
Research studies suggest that one thing that can slow the course of dementia is for senior dogs to have a lot of enrichment in their lives. In the laboratory studies, the enrichment consisted of getting exercise, social time with another dog, toys to play with (they were rotated every week or two), and training. The training was done with positive reinforcement (food rewards for correct actions), and was actually quite a challenging task.
Dogs with early stage dementia who got these forms of enrichment had less cognitive decline than those who didn’t.
Do Try This At Home
Most of us would want to stave off dementia in our dogs if at all possible. One thing you can do that combines two of the above interventions, toys and food, is to teach your old dog to play with food toys.
Food toys are specially made objects, usually made from wood, rubber, or food-safe plastic, that hold food for dogs. They are designed so that the dog has to move the toy in certain ways to get the food to come out. They range from extremely easy to very complex.
I have a selection of easy toys on the Enrichment Toys for Senior Dogs page with links where you can purchase the toys.
You might think it’s unkind to ask a dog to work for some of his or her food. But you would be surprised at the enjoyment dogs usually get out of these types of toys. It certainly appears that they get a sense of accomplishment out of solving the puzzle and getting the goodies that are inside.
The key, though, is to start slow. Otherwise the dog can get frustrated or lose interest very quickly.
How to Start
Choose a toy that they dog will need to barely nudge to get the food out. Put good treats in there: something your dog really likes and that also will readily fall out of the toy. I.e., not anything too wet or sticky.
(If you leave food out for your dog all the time, it will be harder to get him interested in a food toy. If you want to try it, start feeding your dog meals instead of free feeding, and/or put more exciting food in the toy. That’s a good idea anyway; some pieces of cheese or beef jerky for example will generally serve to get your dog very interested in the toy.)
Put the toy where your dog can see or find it (the dog in my movie is almost blind, but has been taught to seek out goodies with her nose). When the dog starts to interact with the toy, refrain from “helping” or even talking to her very much. The goal is for her to discover for herself that she can get food out of the toy.
You can see in the movie that the first toy I chose for Kaci was just a little too hard. Rather than sitting down and doing it “for” her, we quit with that one and I found an easier toy so she could do every step by herself.
Once your dog gets the hang of one toy, the next one will be a little easier even if it’s a little harder, if you get my meaning. Your dog will understand the concept better and be ready to try things. She learned some persistence and different behaviors to get the food out of the first toy; she can do more this time.
The star of the movie, Kaci, is 15 years old, diabetic, and almost completely blind. She has a very small amount of early stage canine cognitive dysfunction. Yet she is currently learning how to get food out of different toys and also how to find hidden food by smell (nosework).
The movie shows how I introduced a couple different food toys.
Keep in mind: the idea at this stage is not to “challenge” your dog. Make it fun: use tasty food and make sure it’s easy to get out. That way your dog will be thrilled next time you get a toy out. You have plenty of time to add difficulty later.
No Down Side
As I say on the treatment page, there is no cure for canine cognitive dysfunction. There are no silver bullets. The beneficial effects shown by some interventions have not been dramatic, including the effects of enrichment. However, there is no down side to enriching your dog’s life with food toys and other stimulation, as long as the activities are safe and supervised. Even if they don’t slow down dementia one bit, your dog is getting to do something interesting and fun in the moment.
- Another movie I made about introducing food toys: Kongs for Beginners
- Research article about enrichment: Long-term treatment with antioxidants and a program of behavioral enrichment reduces age-dependent impairment in discrimination and reversal learning in beagle dogs
Other movies starring Kaci when she was younger (just because she’s so cute):