Creating an Enrichment Plan for a Senior Dog

A question that we get frequently asked is:

My dog doesn’t have any behavior issues! How can I implement your enrichment framework?

That’s a great question, and my answer is usually in the form of talking about what I do for Oso, my senior dog. Now, Oso was a behavior case when I adopted him but he’s at the point where those behaviors are either resolved or managed. Any lingering behavior issues are those that are increasing with age, like sensitivity to weather (common in aging dogs). 

So, let’s take a look at some tips to implement our enrichment framework for senior pets, and I’ll use Oso as my example of how I do this in my own life. 


List desirable and undesirable behaviors: Consider future problems

Step 1 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework is to list desirable and undesirable behaviors. This is often the first hurdle for folks when it comes to creating a plan for their aging pet because they’re only thinking about behavior issues like counter surfing, digging, chewing, aggression, anxiety, or fear. 

But the truth is, aging begets problems in other ways; it’s one of the cruel facts of life. When folks ask me what they should focus on in their enrichment plan for their senior pet, I ask them to consider what they imagine will become a problem in the future. If you know your pet has horrible teeth, talking to your vet about a soft-food diet now might be an easier transition. 

For a dog expected to have vision loss as they age, you may want to consider setting up the environment and situations so they can get through everything without their sight. Loss of hearing is another common aging concern and I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen regret that they didn’t teach their dog hand signals in addition to verbal cues. For others, it may be getting them comfortable with the vet knowing they’ll need to go more frequently, or starting to look into therapies like cold laser or canine rehabilitation.  

For Oso, my 90-lb dog with funky hips in a house that requires him to go down at least 2 stairs to get outside, mobility is the problem I know we’re going to be up against as he gets older. We’ve been preliminarily working on that for years in the form of supplements and have ramped up efforts as we notice more signs of aging. He now has monthly massages and routine exercises to help with his mobility. And we can’t forget his stairs that let him get down from the bed safely!


Making sure needs are met: Look at the pet in front of you right now

Steps 2 & 3 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework are to make sure your pet’s needs are being met and that they have agency. I go over the 14 enrichment categories in this blog post and the importance of agency- being able to make choices that result in desirable outcomes- in this blog post. 

Our needs change as we age, and that’s true for our pets, too! I discussed above some of the changes in the veterinary/medical category, but there will also be behavior changes. Typically your pet will need less physical exercise, and most prefer a quieter environment and often less spirited social interaction. When we think about the broad strokes of how human children and adults differ, there can be a lot of similarities with our pets throughout their life stages. 

This is another area that I often find people struggling with when it comes to developing an enrichment plan for their senior pet. They often are thinking about- and sometimes lamenting- what their pet used to need or do. I get it; there are things that I miss about Oso’s youth. But holding on to that doesn’t help him right now and no amount of lamentation is going to bring that back. So, onward we forge! 

For these steps of the Enrichment Framework, the best advice I can give you is to focus on the pet in front of you right now. Not the pet you had 10 years ago, last year, or even last month. Who are they right now and what do they need right now? I’ve adopted the mindset that I get to constantly learn new things about Oso and am delighted to see who he’s going to be. That helps to take some of the sting out of watching him lose his youth. 


Narrow down options & prioritize: Seek advice from your pet’s team

Steps 4 & 5 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework are to narrow down your options and prioritize activities. I’ve talked quite a bit about how you might need a whole team of people to help a pet who is displaying behavior problems. I find that this is also true for senior pets. 

We’ve added more and more people to Oso’s team as he’s gotten older and I ask their advice to help me narrow down options for meeting his needs and what to prioritize. I recognize that there are nuances about the aging process that I’m not an expert in, but I can find someone who is! 

Here’s an example. In recent months I’ve noticed Oso displaying increased fear during windy days. It’s not uncommon for senior pets to develop increased anxiety to weather-related patterns (joint swelling is a thing for them, too!) Even though it’s typical, that doesn’t mean I’m okay with him being uncomfortable. Plus, him having to be under my desk on windy days isn’t great for me, either. 

I talked to Oso’s team about his new behavior. Knowing that I have a hard time being my own behavior consultant, I spoke with the Pet Harmony team about what I was seeing and got their feedback on my plan to move forward. I spoke with his vet and massage therapist. Each person had a slightly different perspective: a different element that mattered most to them. And that helped me to narrow down our options and prioritize what we would try first, second, and third in a way that was healthiest for Oso. 


Develop plan of action: Make sure it’s sustainable for you

Step 6 of the Enrichment Framework is to develop your plan of action. This is the who, what, when, and where of your decisions. I work with a lot of people who choose to put their pet’s needs and comforts first. Heck, I am one of those people! So I say this as much for myself as I do for you. 

When you look at your plan of action- how frequently you’re doing these activities, how much money you’re spending, how much time it takes- I want you to give yourself some grace to implement your plan in a sustainable way that allows you to also live your best life. For me, sustainability looks like asking myself the hard question, “Could I do this for the rest of Oso’s life?” 

Here’s an example. We recently rearranged our bedroom and loved the new layout. Well, the humans loved the new design. Oso: not so much. He decided there wasn’t enough space to be able to use his stairs (fair; he’s a long dog and we have small rooms). Although I was bummed, I figured out how I was going to decorate our room in stages so that I could change it to the new layout after Oso is no longer with us. His being able to sleep with us is something I absolutely do not want to give up for him or us and it was an annoying but ultimately easy decision. 

Compare that to the amount of money we’re eventually going to have to spend on physical therapy for him. There will come a point where our budget is simply not going to allow us to follow through with a recommendation that a specialist gives us (I’m assuming.) And while that will be a hard pill to swallow and I’ll likely write about all of those feelings in a future blog post (hopefully several years down the road), I know it will be the right decision for us in terms of sustainability. 

There will be elements you’re okay with doing for a couple of years but not longer. There will be activities that are just not tenable to do at all and others that are no-brainers. No one can make those decisions but you. Your quality of life is as important as theirs. I give you permission to create a plan that takes your sustainability into consideration. 


Implement & document: Ask your pet’s team what to look for

We’re finally here at the fun part: Step 7 Implement & Document. This is really no different than implementing an enrichment plan for a younger pet. My tip here, though, is to once again lean on your pet’s team and ask them what you should be documenting.

Again, there will be a lot of elements and nuances of your aging pet and you simply can’t be an expert in everything. That’s where that team comes in. I’ve asked Oso’s massage therapist what subtle signs I should look for to determine how well he’s moving. That’s something that I’m able to track in my head at the moment because she can also tell how he’s doing when massaging him. There’s someone else monitoring his mobility aside from me, there are several ways for us to notice this, and it’s evaluated monthly like clockwork.

In contrast, while discussing trialing pain medication his vet recently mentioned that it would be okay to give him a certain medication every now and then. I asked her how frequently that could be and what would happen if it was given more frequently. The result will simply be more frequent monitoring of his bloodwork. Makes sense! But because I’m the only one tracking it and the result does change our plan quite a bit due to safety concerns, you better believe I’m tracking this one on a calendar. I’m not willing to leave this element up to memory. 


Reassess, readdress, and do it again: evaluate frequently

The final step of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework is to Reassess, Readdress, and Do It Again. AKA: go through steps 1-7 again based on the information you just documented. When I work with folks who have puppies or adolescents, they often remark that just when they figure something out, their pet changes! This can be true for seniors, too. I evaluate Oso’s enrichment plan much more frequently now than I did a few years ago. 

The question that I get here is, “How do I know when to reevaluate Oso’s enrichment plan?” Well, the short answer is that I monitor his behavior and when I see a new pattern emerge that’s when I evaluate his plan. I know that’s a hard answer because it’s not black and white. If you’re someone who needs a more concrete answer, then I recommend evaluating quarterly. It’s common to see changes with changing weather (for all ages, not just seniors) and so you’ll catch those changes if you’re evaluating quarterly. If you’re seeing noticeable changes more frequently then examine more frequently. 


Now what?

  • Start at the beginning! Even if you don’t have a senior pet these tips can be applied. 
  • Plan first, do later. I know planning isn’t necessarily the fun part, but Steps 1-6 of the Pet Harmony Enrichment Framework are how you work smarter, not harder. Strategic equals sustainable! Take some time to really develop your plan, but don’t get so attached to it that you’ll have a hard time changing it later. 
  • Do the thing! How long you implement will be determined by what you’re trialing. Diet changes can take a few months to see the full effect whereas a change in mental exercise can sometimes be seen in just a few days. 
  • Share your findings (or just cute pics of your senior pets) with us on social media @petharmonytraining on Facebook and Instagram
  • Professionals- if you’re interested in how to do all of this with your clients, join us for our FREE webinar: How to Use an Enrichment Framework to Solve Behavior Challenges: 3 Strategies to Uplevel Your Consulting Skills for Happier Pets, Happier Clients, & a Better Career. You don’t want to miss this!


Happy training,