It’s Play Time!
It can be hard to watch an older pet slow down and become more limited in their activities.
At 11 years old, my Border Collie, Mack, still loved to go hiking with us. Although his days of backpacking were behind him, he really enjoyed a good day hike.
On the trail, you would have thought he was a 3-year-old again. He raced from the front to the back of the group over and over to ensure we all stayed together. He dutifully led us down the trail, sniffing the way home. He wore a goofy grin for most of the hike — delighted to be with us in the woods.
It wasn’t until that evening that reality hit, and everyone recalled his age again.
With a bit of arthritis and a pin in his leg from an old injury, he was often sore the evening after a hike and needed to be encouraged to rest the next day.
Games for Senior Dogs: Benefits and Considerations
Since you are reading this article, you probably have an older dog of your own, and you understand that even though our pups age, they still need a bit of fun and exercise in their lives.
They may not be able to do flips in the air catching Frisbees anymore or soar over an agility jump. But when you watch an older dog do something they enjoy, you get to see a bit of spark come back into their eyes, and you realize they can enjoy life just as much as they used to — it just may need to look different now.
When you’re playing with an older dog, you need to consider some things you may not have thought about when they were 3 years old:
- Your dog’s bones might be more fragile, making them prone to injury.
- Their energy level will probably be lower, requiring forms of exercise that fit that need.
- Their muscles will probably be weaker, which also means your dog could be less coordinated.
- Their eyesight might be diminishing, making visual games like fetch harder.
- They may have nerve issues or arthritis that cause pain with too much movement.
- Your dog’s hearing could be diminishing.
- Their mental capacity could be decreasing.
- Their joints might be painful or prone to injury due to hip dysplasia or a loss of cartilage.
- Their digestive system may be more sensitive, or they may require a certain diet or calorie amount.
That’s why it’s important to know your dog and their health status. With this information in mind, you can decide which games for senior dogs best fit their needs and interests.
7 Games for Senior Dogs
Although your dog may need extra accommodations when you’re choosing or modifying a game, there are lots of options. Here are 7 games for senior dogs that are already great but can easily be modified.
1. Round Robin
Round Robin is a wonderful game for senior dogs who are food- or people-motivated. It involves 2 or more people with treats calling the dog back and forth between them and giving a treat when the dog arrives.
You can easily modify this game:
- You can make it easier by hiding in more visible locations or simply standing in the open.
- You can make it less strenuous by keeping the area smaller, so there is less ground for your dog to cover.
- And you can stay health-conscious by using your dog’s meal kibble or one-ingredient treats like freeze-dried liver or fresh chicken as a reward.
When playing Round Robin, keep the following in mind:
- How is your dog’s energy level? Set the distance and pace of the game according to what your dog needs.
- How is their digestive system? Choose rewards that their digestive system can handle.
- How is their vision? Help your dog compensate for lost vision by using continuous sound to help them locate you and by staying out in the open.
- How is their hearing? Help them compensate for lost hearing by using hand signals, leading them to each person at first and staying out in the open.
- How is their mental capacity? Help them succeed by giving hints and leading them from person to person as needed.
How to Play
- Recruit at least one other person to play this game with you. The more people who play, the more fun this game can be. Too many people can make this game very difficult for your dog, though.
- Give each person some food rewards.
- Choose a location that fits your dog’s needs, such as a small open room, a large open field or a spot with lots of hiding places.
- Have the first person say your dog’s name, then use a recall word such as “Come,” “Here” or “Find me.” If your dog has trouble hearing, the person should also encourage your dog with movement by waving their arms, dancing around, or jumping up and down. If your dog has vision issues, the person should continue to make noise until your dog gets to them, such as by clapping, whistling or tapping on something nearby.
- Lead your dog over to the person if they don’t go on their own.
- When your dog arrives, have the person reward them with a piece of food.
- Once they have received their reward, have the next person call and encourage your dog over, then reward the dog when they arrive.
- Continue taking turns calling your dog back and forth between all the game participants.
- To make the game a little harder, have each person change positions after the dog leaves them, or hide in nearby spots when it’s their turn to call the dog over.
- Pay attention to your dog’s well-being and energy level. Stop the game if the dog starts to get tired or bored while they are still feeling good.
2. Finder’s Keepers
Finder’s Keepers is a great game for senior dogs who are food-motivated and like to use their nose. It involves hiding large treats throughout your home or fenced-in yard and encouraging the dog to find them. This is especially handy for keeping an older dog entertained while you are at work.
When playing Finder’s Keepers, keep the following in mind:
- How is your dog’s mental capacity? You can modify this game by playing it only while you are there to help the dog find the rewards. You can also keep the hiding spots very obvious for those dogs likely to forget the objective of the game.
- How is their digestive system? Choose rewards that their digestive system can handle.
- How is their eyesight? Dogs with poor eyesight will need additional help finding the rewards, and this game should be set up in an open space where there are fewer objects and walls to bump into. Use especially smelly treats for dogs with poor eyesight.
How to Play
- Choose the size of your treat based on your dog’s needs. To make this game easier, choose large or smellier treats or place the treats in large, hollow chew toys, like KONGs.
- Scatter the treats out in an open area or hide them behind objects like furniture or trees. Choose where to place treats based on your dog’s needs.
- The first few times your dog plays this game, say, “Go find!” or a similar phrase, then lead your dog to each treat, praising them whenever they start sniffing and looking on their own.
- Once your dog has learned “Go find!” and will search for rewards whenever they hear that phrase, you can begin setting the game up before you leave your home as well. Tell your dog, “Go find!” right before you leave.
3. Swimming is an excellent way to have fun with an older dog. Because of the buoyancy provided by the water and the low impact on muscles and joints, swimming exercises muscles without the risk of straining too much or aggravating painful areas.
Swimming doesn’t involve a lot of obstacles, so it can also be good for dogs with limited hearing, vision or mental capacities. If the water temperature is set to fit your dog’s medical needs, swimming can even be soothing for sore aches and pains or inflammation.
Finally, a lot of dogs simply love the water and find it to be tons of fun!
When swimming with your dog, keep the following in mind:
- Some dogs are afraid of the water and need to be introduced slowly and given a lot of physical support while in the water.
- Some dogs get tired easily and will need to wear a floatation device, such as a canine lifejacket, with a handle for you to hold onto when they need extra guidance.
- Visually impaired dogs or those with limited mental capacities will need a lot of hands-on participation from you, and extra guidance finding their way out of the water.
- Some dogs like to climb on top of people while in the water. Be sure that you are safe and not at risk of sinking with a panicked or excited dog. Staying in a place where you can touch the bottom or using lifejackets for both you and your dog can help keep you both safe.
- Some dogs have trouble regulating their body temperature or have very sensitive muscles and joints. Make sure your pup isn’t getting too hot or cold while in the water and while drying.
- The chlorine from the pool can be drying to sensitive skin. Saltwater, lake water with certain types of algae or water with a lot of chemicals in it can all make a dog sick if they drink it, so make sure your dog doesn’t drink the water and provide plenty of access to clean water while playing.
How to Play
- Spend time getting your dog used to the water, playing low-impact games near the water, and letting them watch you or a canine buddy get in. Work up to being in the water.
- Once your dog is ready, help support their weight while they are learning, or permanently if needed. You can use a canine lifejacket with a handle or gently place your hands under their abdomen and chest while encouraging them to swim around you in a circle.
- Once they have learned how to swim and can keep their body straight and their back at the top of the water, begin teaching them where the exit is by regularly leading them over to the steps, stairs, ramp or beach and onto dry land. Encourage them in and out of the water by physically leading them there at first. Once they begin to understand, encourage them to follow you out or come onto dry land without physically leading them there. Even if you are with them in the water normally, for safety reasons, you want them to know where the exit is in case they ever end up in the water without you.
- Once they are swimming well and know where to exit, simply have fun. Decide how long to practice each time based on their energy and enthusiasm for the sport.
- You can make swimming more interesting by having them fetch floating balls, swimming to you from a few feet away or swimming alongside you. Be sure they always have the support they need to stay afloat, though.
4. Puzzle Toys
Puzzle toys are great for most dogs, but they are especially good games for senior dogs who can’t do much walking or must be confined to smaller areas due to issues like incontinence or blindness. A puzzle toy gives a dog something fun they can do while lying down.
A wide variety of puzzle toys and similar devices can be stuffed with food and enjoyed.
When giving your dog a puzzle toy, keep the following in mind:
- How is your dog’s digestive system? Choose rewards that their digestive system can handle.
- How are your dog’s teeth? It’s common for older dogs to have dental issues as they age. If your dog needs soft food, be sure to use rewards like liver paste or canned dog food instead of hard treats.
- How is your dog’s mental capacity? Some older dogs are still really good at problem-solving and would enjoy a more challenging toy. Others need something simple that involves only licking and chewing.
How to Play
- Add treats to the toy that are appropriate for your dog’s digestive system and dental needs.
- Show your dog the food in the toy and encourage them to get it out. Help them do so if they need assistance at first.
- Practice with the toy while you are home to help them until they work on the toy on their own without your help.
- Give the toy while you are home or before you leave whenever your pup needs something to do.
- You can also use meal kibble or canned food as the toy stuffing. If weight gain is a concern, subtract the amount of food in the toy from their daily calorie amount and feed that much less at meals.
Fetch is a favorite among many dogs. It’s also a game that many people think they must stop because their dog’s coordination, safety and energy level becomes a concern. Thankfully, there are ways to modify this game and make it an option again for many older dogs.
When playing fetch with your older dog, keep the following in mind:
- How is your dog’s energy level? Set the distance and pace of the game according to what your dog needs. Rolling the ball along the ground and selecting balls with rubber nubs or octagonal shapes instead of a smooth, round surface can slow down the speed of the ball.
- How is your dog’s vision? Help them compensate for lost vision by using balls that make noise, include lights or have a bright color such as yellow or blue. Keep your tosses short and lead your pup to the ball whenever they get confused. Adding scent to the ball and rolling the ball toward your dog instead of away from them can also help.
- How is your dog’s mental capacity? Help them succeed by giving hints and leading them to the ball as needed. You can also use a long leash for short-distance retrievals to help guide the dog back to you once they pick up the ball. Keep the game low-pressure and fun for dogs who struggle to remember how to play.
- How are your dog’s joints, muscles, nerves and bones? Keep the game low-impact by rolling the ball to your dog or slowing down the ball by using nubby balls, to avoid your dog jumping, making fast turns or running too fast and falling. Some dogs will play fetch for hours if you let them. Stay attuned to your dog’s physical state and end the game when you know they may be getting tired or are at the point where more exercise could lead to overdoing it and being sore later.
How to Play
- Choose the correct ball for your dog’s needs.
- Go to an open, flat area that has good traction and isn’t too hard on the joints. A flat, grassy backyard is often good for this. A concrete pavement or linoleum floor might not be a good idea.
- Instead of throwing the ball to your dog, which encourages them to jump and suddenly turn while running, let’s modify this part of the game. Have your dog go away from you first, then roll the ball toward them once they are away from you. Another option is to roll the ball ahead of your dog while they face outward from your side — instead of them standing in front of you and turning to run.
- When you roll the ball, keep the ball straight and the speed lower so that it won’t bounce off things or turn while your dog is chasing it.
- If they need help remembering to bring the ball back, play this game at short distances, with your dog wearing a padded back clip harness and a long training leash. When they forget to bring the ball back, gently encourage them over to you and reel them in with the long leash.
- If they need help remembering to drop the ball, show them another ball to get them to drop the one they are holding, then throw the second ball when they are in place again.
Agility is probably a sport you have not considered with your older dog. After all, jumping and turning quickly can often lead to injury for an older dog.
Thankfully, you can easily modify agility to suit an older pup. It’s not only a great way to exercise your senior physically, but it’s also a fun way to stimulate them mentally and maintain your close bond with them. Nervous older dogs can experience a confidence boost from this game as well.
- How is your dog’s vision? Dogs who have lost clarity but can still see well overall can still participate with some extra guidance. Using smelly rewards to lead your dog through the course is a great option for those who can participate but are fearful due to vision changes. A dog who is completely blind may find this game too overwhelming or scary, though.
- How is their energy level? Choose obstacles that don’t involve too much exertion for dogs with challenges in this area. A tunnel, a widely spread weave pole or a flat bridge to go across can be great for dogs who aren’t ready for steeper obstacles.
- How are your dog’s joints, muscles, nerves and bones? Keep the game low-impact and less risky by avoiding obstacles that involve jumping or risk your dog falling off due to balance problems. Spread weave poles far apart, go more slowly through the obstacles and keep inclines to a minimum.
- How is their mental capacity? Use treat rewards to lure your dog through the course. Be patient, knowing that they will probably need to be led each time instead of learning to go through on their own.
- How is their digestive system? Choose rewards that meet your pup’s specific dental, dietary or sensitivity needs. Keep their weight in check by accounting for those calories in their daily food amount.
How to Play
- Set up age-appropriate agility obstacles or create your own obstacles.
- Find a treat that your dog can eat or a toy that they enjoy.
- Using your reward, lead them through the agility course. Pay attention to their energy level and how well they are handling the course. If needed, make the course easier if your dog is struggling, or offer them more leadership through the course.
- Keep the pace where they can keep up without getting too tired.
- As they improve, add new obstacles or change the layout of the course to keep it interesting. Good options might include low ramps, wide-spaced weave poles, tunnels and ground-level balance boards.
7. Ante Up
Ante Up is an especially great game for senior dogs who are still mentally very capable but are physically more limited. The game involves hiding a treat under a cup and letting the dog sniff out the correct cup.
Keep the following in mind when playing this game:
- How is your dog’s mental capacity? For dogs who are still able to play but need a little extra help, use especially smelly treats and make the air holes larger. You can also decrease the number of cups so they only have to choose between 2 or 3 cups.
- How is their digestive system? Choose rewards that their specific dental, dietary or sensitivity needs. Keep their weight in check by accounting for those calories in their daily food amount.
How to Play
- Choose 2–4 disposable cups and poke holes into the top of each one. Base the number of cups on your dog’s mental capacity. You can always add more cups later once they get better at the game.
- Line the cups up on a flat surface and lift up the cup with the treat under it to show your dog the food.
- Place the cup back over the treat and encourage the dog to find the food by giving a command such as “Where’s the food?”
- When they nudge the correct cup, lift it and let them eat the treat. Practice doing this until they will nudge the correct cup without you lifting it to show them first.
- When they will nudge the correct cup, move the cup into another cup’s spot while the dog is still watching you. Encourage them to find the cup with the treat by saying, “Where’s the food?” Lift the cup up only when your dog nudges the correct one.
- When they can locate the cup with the treat under it after watching you move the cup around, very gradually make the game harder by moving the cup more times or adding another cup to the game. Lift the cup and reward your dog only when they find the cup with the treat in it.
Final Thoughts on Games for Senior Dogs
Your senior dog may be slowing down, but older dogs need physical and mental exercise, too.
Pay attention to what your dog enjoys and is capable of, and then find ways to keep them moving and using their brain in ways that fit their needs.