by Heidi Atwood
As much as I love puppies, there is a lot I love about having senior dogs.They can be trusted with all the freedom you have helped them earn throughout their years with you. They are happy to sleep the day away, or jump up and happily go along when invited. They are well house trained and not interested in destruction. They will sit nicely while we clean eyes and ears or clip nails. These things have become normal to them over the years. They want to be with us any time they possibly can, but are also fine snoozing away while we are busy with other things, or away from home.
During the years that my husband and I were raising litters of lab puppies, we collected a few dogs in the process, who were also members of our family. Ok, I will admit that at one point a “few” meant that there were 8 dogs living in our home, and we also had three young children. It was busy! We occasionally kept a puppy from a litter, to keep our breeding program going. It seemed that the older dogs did as much training as we did as far as manners and housetraining go. I don’t remember specifically showing my pups to go to the door to the outdoor fenced in yard; they just followed the older dogs around and mimicked their behaviors to some degree. Of course, this also meant that we worked hard on separation when we had a young and ambitious puppy in a house with elderly retirees. With supervision and by preventing the puppies from lunging, nipping, and tackling them, the pups were able to establish good relationships with their “mentors”. If the young pup was respectful, there was great comfort for both of them when curling up together for a nap. We had to make sure the young puppies didn’t have free access to the older dogs while they were learning, so that they could form friendships that worked for both of them.
When we bring a puppy into a home with an older dog, we need to protect the older dog from the energy of a young puppy. Young puppies learn to play by tackling and playing roughly with their littermates, and they assume that this is the way to play with every dog they see. Trust me, if you haven’t seen a litter of 13 eight week old lab puppies playing, it is a sight to see! They are loud and energetic but luckily, they are also happy to just collapse into a warm puppy pile for those much-needed naps. I use a variety of options for separation such as baby gates, play pens and having a young puppy on a leash as they learn how to relax around older dogs. Giving them some time to get acclimated to each other in a gradual way will help them form a relationship that works for both of them. As long as you are preventing the puppy from lunging, nipping, and tackling the older dog, they can spend some time together, and you may find that they love the companionship of a calm relationship, as we encourage and reward them for relaxing nicely near each other.
You can also try to keep the senior dog's life as normal as possible, by following their normal routines and schedules, and spending some time separately with them as you ease them through the transition of having a busy puppy in the house.
My dogs are currently 10, 12, and 14, and are healthy, active and fit. My vet is always happy with their weight because they are just right, and this will extend their lives. My dogs are offered several opportunities throughout the day to get out and stretch their legs and run around a bit if they want to and we try to do daily walks in the hilly woods behind our house to keep them strong and muscular.
I like to keep them learning as well. Just last year I taught my 12 year old girl Libby the cue “shake”. This was something we had never taught our pups, and I felt like she would like to learn something new. You CAN teach an old dog new tricks, but I will admit that Libby was reluctant at first, and wanted to stick to the easy stuff. When I first started teaching her the cue “shake”, Libby would sit, then turn, then go down…anything except that strange new cue! She would look at me for the reward for the things she was doing, and I would just keep saying “nope” or “uh uh”. Finally, to get that piece of kibble, she would slowly lift her paw and earn the reward. Now she complies every time I ask…so I think it’s time to teach her another new cue!
When I am working with a puppy, I usually train them in a room with a baby gate in place. All of the older dogs will stand at the gate, waiting for their turn to be “trained”. They do enjoy this part of having a puppy around, because it means more training and rewards for them.
Entertaining older dogs can be challenging, especially if they aren’t interested in toys and playing. Since my dogs are ball-motivated, I am conscious of the physical risks and have toned down to playing fetch to just a few soft tosses. I have taught them “take a break” and they know that it means we are done playing. However, I do play a great game with them that we call “hide the ball”. I will ask them to sit and stay in one room, go hide their ball in another room, and then send them to get it. They are using their brains, eyes, and noses - and also a little bit of competitiveness - to search for and bring the “prize” to me. This is its own reward. After 4 or 5 repetitions, they choose to lie down with the ball, mentally tired and ready to relax.
I realize that we are in the middle of those last few years with this “herd”, and I know that someday, we will probably bring home another puppy. My husband and I haven’t been without a dog for many, many years. In the meantime, we will enjoy every minute we have with our current crew, and reward them with all the love we can give them, because they send it back to us, times 10.