E252: Erin Lynes - "Aged to Perfection: Living with Aging Dogs"

Erin and I chat about what it takes to keep our aging dogs living their best lives — and how even small adjustments can make a big difference in their lives. 


Melissa Breau: We all know the saying: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." Well, we'd like to invite you to do exactly that by joining us for the third annual Lemonade Conference on February 11, 12, and 13. Enjoy all of the awesomeness of a dog training conference from the comfort of your living room with leading experts from the worlds of dog sports and behavior. Early bird ends January 5, so don't wait. Head over to TheLemonadeConference.com to check out the schedule and buy your tickets today.

This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Erin Lynes back to talk about loving and living with aging dogs.

Hi Erin, welcome back to the podcast.

Erin Lynes: Thanks for inviting me, Melissa. I'm excited to be back.

Melissa Breau: To start us out, do you want to just remind everybody a little about you, a little about your dogs?

Erin Lynes: Sure. I live in snowy, cold, frigid Quinnell, BC, Canada. Up here it's the middle of winter. I've got a whole pile of Labrador Retrievers. In respect to what we're talking about today, I'll tell you a little bit about my oldest dogs, if you like. I've got five senior Labs now myself, ranging in age from 11 to 13-and-a-half. Shelby is 11, Verona is 12, Chester is 12-and-a-half, Kimber is just about 13, and Ruger is my oldest dog at 13-and-a-half. So I'm living the large senior dog life right now, and excited to be able to talk to people a little but about what I've learned along the way.

Melissa Breau: I like that you called it a pile of Labradors. I think that's fantastic. I wanted to have you on to talk about your upcoming webinar and class you've put together on aging dogs. To start us out on that topic, how are you defining the term "aging" for the purpose of the webinar and for the class?

Erin Lynes: In a lot of the resources you find out there, you're going to hear giant dogs being referred to as seniors when they're around 6, and medium to large-size dogs are often referred to as seniors when they're around 7 or 8, and smaller dogs falling into that senior category a little bit later in life.

But for the purposes of the webinar and the class, I think people can just think about their dog and when they start to see signs of aging, maybe subtle stuff that they wonder if it's because of their dog's advancing age. Or even if you're starting to worry about what might happen as your dog ages, you'll find some useful bits in these classes and webinars.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. What kind of things are we talking about? What factors go into helping our dogs age gracefully so that they can continue to live their best lives?

Erin Lynes: That's a great question. I think mobility is a big one. Anytime we can do things to help our dogs stay strong, maintain their balance and coordination so that they can keep doing as many of the activities and fun things that they've grown accustomed to, that's going to help them age well. A lot of the times those same things are things that the dog enjoys and finds mentally stimulating. So we can incorporate some games and some specific conditioning exercises into our dogs' routines as they age to help maintain that mobility and even improve it to a certain extent, as well as keeping them having fun and having things to look forward to in their day-to-day routines.

Melissa Breau: How does training tend to change, or how should we adjust it, as our dogs reach an older age?

Erin Lynes: Often we see our dogs tend to lose a little bit of stamina as they age. And of course there are always physical concerns as your dogs are getting older. Maybe you're planning to retire out of a certain dog sport. You might be looking at starting training for a new sport or maybe just training more generally and away from sports, as a hobby or a way to keep your dog stimulated. We want to look at ways that we can help their training continue, while making modifications so that mobility-wise, and even as their cognitive abilities decline a little bit, we can still keep having fun.

One of the things that I see in some of my older dogs is they tend to get frustrated a little bit more easily. They might have been really interested in shaping games when they were younger, and now they start to get a little bit more frustrated a little bit more easy, so I adjust the types of games that we play with them. I don't want them feeling stressed when we're training.

My oldest dog, Ruger, he's got some arthritis in his elbows, so any sort of activity where he has to lower his head forward is hard for him. So I adjust training so that he's not picking treats up off the floor. I'll feed them up higher to him, that sort of thing. There's definitely little adjustments you can make to your regular training, and even trying new games and changing the things you're training altogether, if it makes sense for your specific dog.

Melissa Breau: I like that. I never thought about that piece before, that something as simple as treat delivery can really have an impact, based on what your dog is comfortable with and what their current mobility looks like.

In the webinar description specifically, you mentioned that you are going to look at the day-to-day lives of senior dogs and discuss those small changes, those little things that can improve safety and comfort. Do you want to elaborate on that a little more and maybe share a couple more examples?

Erin Lynes: Sure. I've got a whole section in the webinar about household adaptation, things we can do in our home and in our daily lives to help make things a little easier and a little more comfortable for our adult dogs.

I think the biggest example of this, and probably the one that I spend the most time on in the webinar, is different ways to increase the traction. Older dogs, especially as they start to have mobility issues, you often start to see a little bit of anxiety creeping in there too. Maybe slippery floors weren't a problem before, and now they worry a little bit about them.

So increasing traction by putting down mats, or directly addressing things we can do with a dog's foot — keeping those nails trimmed really nicely, keeping the fur on the bottom of their pads trimmed nicely, and there's also things you can apply to their feet to help improve with traction, too, if maybe matting isn't an option or you can't possibly cover your whole house in yoga mats.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier that older dogs are more prone to those aches and those pains as they get older, just like we are. How can we be sure we're taking that into account as we're planning our training and actually doing training?

Erin Lynes: I think that one of the best tips that I can give on that is that even when you're no longer training for sports, if you're training your old dog for conditioning purposes or you're just playing games, it really doesn't hurt to videotape once in a while, because you're going to catch things from that alternate perspective that show you your dog is maybe fatiguing a little earlier than you thought, or maybe they're showing signs of discomfort that you did miss while you were in the heat of the moment in training.

You're sometimes going to see signs really early in a session. I was doing some conditioning with Chester last night, and while I was in it, we were dong some down-to-stand motions, which is a pretty basic exercise, and I was like, "He's struggling. He forgets how to do this. It's his poor little old man brain."

When I went back to look at the video, what I really saw was he was already getting a little tired. We'd already done a bunch of other things that day and he was fatiguing in three reps, when normally he might be able to do six or seven reps without showing those signs. So just catching those things on video so you can watch for them the next time you train.

A lot of time, when we have young dogs in their prime, those signs are pretty subtle and we train our eye to watch for small movements. Maybe your dog just steps out of place and you go, "Okay, that's the sign I'm looking for." With our older dogs, it's funny, but they can have exaggerated motions to the point where you don't even see them as clues to fatigue anymore. If your dog just stands, you're like, "I'm not motivating him properly, or maybe I didn't have the treat in the right position." He's just like, 'I can't even make those small motions. Those clues are out of it right now. I'm a lot more tired than you think I am." Their fine control over their body, their motor control, isn't really subtle anymore.

So watching for things that you might think lead you to believe the dog doesn't understand what you're asking for, or maybe you're thinking he's not motivated enough or that sort of thing, those can actually be signs that there's a little bit of ouch factor happening, a little bit of fatigue, and you want to be a little bit more mindful of those in your older dog.

The other thing that I really look for is anything that I'm doing with my old team, I watch for how they're feeling the next day. I don't want to see any extra soreness or stiffness in their movement. There's going to be a little bit in some of the dogs, based on how their body has worn over the years. But a lot of those things that we see and think, "Well, it's just because of age," those are things that are clues that we need to address them medically. Maybe he's feeling a little bit of extra soreness in his shoulder because he actually hurt his shoulder. It might not just be because he's old. Maybe that exercise causes him to overdo it because there's something going on in his spine, and he's feeling now when he wasn't feeing it a few weeks ago.

I hope that answered your question a little bit.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, because you don't necessarily think about that, how body language might actually change, and signs of fatigue and things like that might actually change, as your dog gets to a different stage in their life. It's almost like – and certainly correct me if I misinterpreted it — but it's almost like if things seem to be getting worse as you go along, instead of improving, that's a sign.

Erin Lynes: Absolutely, for sure. Sometimes it's easy to think, like, Kimber, my middle senior, she's a silly little thing and she's always been a bit of a clown in the family. When I'm doing some exercises with her, if she starts to get more frantic, it would be easy to interpret that as she's really excited, she's having a fun time. But for her right now, that's a sign of she's like, "I don't get it," or "I can't do it." So I have to really watch and make sure that I'm interpreting her language correctly, because it's a little bit different now than what it used to be.

Melissa Breau: I want to talk about the class for just a second. Can you give us a little bit of a preview, some of the specific exercises you'll be working on in the February class?

Erin Lynes: How I'm breaking it down for the class, each week we're going to be dividing the lectures into four broad categories. There's going to be a little bit of a lecture discussion on some aspect of aging that might be interesting or provide information about your dog. For students in the class, they're going to be able to start to use that information to watch their own dogs and look for signs that they maybe need more of something or less of something else.

There's going to be a section on brain games that we can play to help keep the dogs mentally stimulated and having fun. We want to definitely make sure that they've got something to look forward to. These are simply fun and easy games that are a little bit different each week with different variations. Like I mentioned earlier about my old fellow Ruger, who is not so awesome at taking streets off the floor anymore, the games will have different options to cater to different physical abilities and different levels of aging, I guess you could say.

Each week we'll also talk about some sort of conditioning exercise, and these are progressive as the weeks go on. As an example, we're going to be spending some time looking at posture and training a nice, good, square stand, which seems really basic and simple, but for dogs who are older, they don't necessarily choose to stand with good posture on their own anymore. Sometimes they might be avoiding sitting, so we'll be looking at is that something that needs addressing from a medical standpoint, or can we build strength by practicing a sit with good form, that sort of thing.

And then building up on those, so that the dogs who are able to progress through the exercises more easily will have something new to do each week, and dogs who need more time to work on the physical exercises in the early week can keep working on those and will have all the steps broken down for them.

The last thing we'll be looking at each week is an aspect of husbandry, care activities, cooperative care type of things that we can do that are fairly specific to senior dogs or maybe are more challenging because they're seniors. Like we talked earlier, improving traction, there's a week section on friendly foot care tactics and how we can help our dogs feel better about having their feet handled, how we can look at maintaining the fur and nails on their feet, and even some of the other options for adding traction for them as well, and all the steps that it takes to get them to be able to accept that sort of training.

That's what we'll be looking at each week and breaking those things down into those four sections. So there's a little bit of something for everybody along the way.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. In the webinar, you mentioned in the description this idea of "No Two Days the Same," and it caught my eye, so I wanted to have you explain what you meant by that.

Erin Lynes: I think it's pretty standard that older dogs like routine. They tend to thrive on routine. But it's also easy to get into a rut. What's that movie called, Office Space, where they go to work every day, you fill out the same forms, you put them in the boss's thing, you go home, you have dinner, you go to sleep, you repeat the whole thing every day.

I think it's easy to get into that sort of rut with our older dogs because they do really like routine. My older dogs want to be fed at 6:59 every morning and they want to be in bed by 8:30 p.m. They have these things that happen every day at the same time, and they like that.

But with our "No Two Days The Same" idea, we're looking at ways that we can take that routine that helps them feel stable and secure, but also inject these bits of variation so that there's something interesting to look forward to, and so that they're not just doing the same four or five things every day, repeat, rinse, repeat.

For example, if you normally take your dog for a walk at 9 a.m. — and they often can tell the time; senior dogs are especially good at that, so at 8:59 they're like, "Let's get the leash, let's go for a walk" — what about if some days you walk around your neighborhood to one direction, the next day you walk around another direction, some other time you can let the dog choose the path entirely, or instead of going just for a walk, look for obstacles in your neighborhood where you can do some sort of parkour-y conditioning-type exercises along the way, so they're still getting their walk, but it's a little bit different each time. There's that little bit of variation.

We can do that with almost every aspect of their daily routine — even with the feeding routine. So 6:59 is when breakfast happens, but you're maybe not getting your breakfast in a bowl today. Maybe you're getting it out of a slow feeder or a puzzle toy, or I've frozen it into a Kong for you, that sort of thing. Maybe it's a nice sunny day and you're going to have your breakfast on the lawn.

There's a little bit of change within the routine, and that's what I mean by "No Two Days The Same" — just finding those ways to put a little spice and variation without having to disrupt the dog's whole routine. I know even for us as dog owners, it's handy to have patterns, especially if you've got multiple dogs. You get into a flow of how the day goes, and just finding ways within those patterns to inject a little variety. That's what it's about, and the more you get excited about it, the more you can find creative ways to build into that.

Melissa Breau: I like that. I like that a lot, and I can see how that would be really helpful, especially for an older dog, get them that variety and that enrichment. That can be hard to do when maybe they're more limited in some of their other options.

Erin Lynes: Exactly. We've got older dogs that sleep a better part of the day than they're awake, so you've got to make use of the time you have. You can't necessarily keep adding in extra activities if they're sleeping twenty-one hours a day. So making those tweaks and adjustments during the times that they already expect to have activity is really helpful.

Melissa Breau: For those listening who are interested in either the webinar or the class, can you talk a bit more about what each one will include and where the overlap is or isn't?

Erin Lynes: There is a little bit of overlap. Basically for the webinar we're going to be looking at all the activities they can do through an enrichment lens. We define enrichment as being able to meet the dog's needs in a way that allows them to do it with species-typical behavior. So when we look at exercise, how can we make this the most dog-like exercise we can make it. These feeding games, what's a way to bring out their natural foraging activities, that sort of thing.

All of the webinar is funneled through the lens of that enrichment. There's a lot to get through, there's a lot of, I think, interesting topics that are captured in there, and a few of them have time to go into a bit more of a deep dive. Like, I talked about some aspects of husbandry care in the webinar, and I tried to pick out the ones that are the most important and easy for people to start doing right away.

If you watch the webinar, you're going to have ideas on adjusting traction for your dog, some foot care activities that you can get into right away, you're going to have a pretty deep dive on starting to teach your dog a nice stand and adding some challenges. If your dog already has had a bit of a conditioning background and you want to progress that, there's some ideas on how to progress that as well. And we're going to look at some fun games that have a lot of different variations that you can try as well, so that you're getting a little of that training and mental stimulation in there as well.

In the class, we obviously have a lot more time, so we can go into things in a lot more detail. We're going to be focusing on how you can progress these different activities over time, and really catering them to your individual dog's needs. So it gives us a little bit more opportunity to specifically look at maybe your dog doesn't like nail trimming, but what about using a scratch board, or what about using a dremel, or there's all these other different modifications we can make when we have a little bit more time to talk about that.

So I think that if you're on the fence, go ahead and take the webinar and see if that is the vision you had for your older dog. You'll get an idea of what sort of things that I am hoping that you'll be able to accomplish with your older dog and the direction that we're going. And if you like it, you will find way more detail in the class, a lot more weekly challenges, so that you can really start to dive into making that "No Two Days the Same" happen for your dog and concrete ways in which to do it.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. To round things out, one last question for you. If we were to drill down the stuff we've been talking about today into one key takeaway or one key piece of information you really want people to walk away from this understanding, what would that be?

Erin Lynes: Aging in dogs is not just this continual downhill decline. It can be a really fun time in their life. It can be a really great time to bond with your dog, and there's all these different things that we can do from different perspectives to help improve what they're already experiencing.

Your dog can actually get stronger as they get older. They can have better feelings and better habits in their husbandry training and cooperative care. Your dog can learn new games and develop new interests as they get older. So try not to think of aging as something to worry about. It's something to really celebrate and opens a whole new chapter with your dog. That's what I would like people to see.

Melissa Breau: See how much fun it can be.

Erin Lynes: Exactly, yeah. You never get a better dog than a really old dog. You really want to have fun with that.

Melissa Breau: At that point you've worked out a communication system and you understand each other.

Erin Lynes: They're just sassy enough when they get old that it's fun but manageable.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Erin!

Erin Lynes: Thanks for having me, Melissa. It was fun to get to talk to you.

Melissa Breau: Always. And thank you to all our listeners for tuning in!

We will be back next week with Leslie McDevitt to talk about her talk for this year's Lemonade Conference.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


 Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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