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Posted on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 : 6 a.m.

Senior dogs face challenges, but an understanding owner can help them age gracefully

By Julia Levitt


Photo courtesy of

When people ask me which are the most successful dogs I have taught in my classes, they don’t expect this answer… a 12-year-old dog! Everyone registers surprise as we all have that false adage in our heads: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I am convinced that whoever said that had never owned a dog.

“Happy” was brought to class as her owners, Jane and Tom, had just gotten a new puppy, and they didn’t want the new pup to pick up Happy’s bad habits. I am still trying to figure out what Happy’s bad habits were.

Yes, Happy demanded that everyone she met on a walk pet her. Also, Happy could not be successfully walked on a leash. She is a big dog, and the owners were always put on “drag” whenever they took her out to be walked.

The most delightful thing about Happy is her desire to please. Happy has no issues with fear or aggression, and when she found out that all I wanted from her was to calmly walk at my side, she more than eager to do what I asked.

When Tom and Jane were surprised to see Happy walk so well, I suggested that all Happy needed was to be “asked” by her leaders to walk respectfully at their pace — whatever that pace might be. We also incorporated the “sit” command into the walk. Whenever a passerby asked to pet Happy, Tom or Jane would say… “Sure, as long as she sits.”

Everyone was pleased, and Happy got to “work” for her reward. It is important for Happy be led — and not be the one doing the leading.

Dogs do experience changes as they grow older, and it is important to recognize these changes. Dr. Jess Franklin, of Ann Arbor Animal Hospital, believes that we can get better results from our older dogs if we change our expectations for them accordingly. Dr. Franklin notes that “Dogs older than 10 may have hearing, vision or mobility changes that add challenges to their day-to-day life. Complete deafness often occurs between 13-15 years. Communication with a deaf dog means using signals, or having the dog follow the lead of a younger dog with normal hearing.”

Dr. Franklin goes on to say: “Many roadblocks to training at an advanced age are due to physical limits. Stairs may be too difficult, or the dog may slip or fall. 'Sit' may become uncomfortable. Squatting to pee or poop maybe hard to do. Older dogs may drink more for many reasons, and this means they need to pee more. Communication failure, arthritis and greater frequency of urination can all combine to make house soiling problems increase in elderly pets. Old creaky dogs need frequent trips outside. Pick a route with minimal stairs. Walk on a leash or stay outside with the dog, note if the pee or poop happens, and praise the dog for going potty.”

“Short walks can help keep stiff legs moving and stronger,” comments Dr. Franklin. “Many of the oldest dogs will need help to get up, but once standing can walk on good footing. If the pet is deaf, blind or confused, making the routine of the walk exactly the same every time can be very helpful.”

Groomer Marilyn Stowell says: “Even something that we take for granted, like our usual routine of taking the dog to the groomer, can present new concerns for the aging dog. Often an older dog begins to howl at getting their fur blown out by the blow dryers — even though they have been going to the groomer for years.”

Marilyn goes on to say, “The solution is simple — immediately take the dog out of the grooming shop. The dog is removed from the noise and heat of the dryer instantly. This is a common problem with elderly dogs who can become overheated and anxious.”

“Beisha” — my Portuguese Water Dog — loved her walks until she was 14 years old. At that age, Beisha could barely walk to the corner of our street. She also lost the ability to jump out of the wash tub.

John Grogan, the author of “Marley and Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog,” talked about the beauty of an aging dog: “And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly he taught me about friendship, and selflessness in the face of adversity and above all else, unwavering loyalty.”

Julia Levitt is the founder of In Harmony Dog Training ( in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at or at 734-645-4707. Julia provides individual training for dogs and their owners, and also conducts dog training classes at Ann Arbor Animal Hospital.


Julia Levitt

Wed, Sep 19, 2012 : 2 p.m.

Thank you for writing Kathy. it sounds like you have a true friend. Julia


Wed, Sep 19, 2012 : 1:54 a.m.

This is a very helpful article, We have a 14 year old Black Lab Mix. she has been with us since she was aprox. 7 weeks old. When we found her abandoned in the center of our town, Scared and hungry we took her in and got her to a vet for a check up. and she has been with us ever since. The best and most well behaved dog we have ever had. She has lost most of her hearing and is having a few mobility problems. we visit our vet more often and keep a good eye on her as she is beginning to fall at times, and other times she runs around enjoying the outside. We will miss her greatly when she i gone.

Julia Levitt

Wed, Aug 29, 2012 : 4:52 p.m.

Thanks so much for your comments katherine- Julia


Wed, Aug 29, 2012 : 4:36 p.m.

Lovely article about old dogs. They teach us so much. If you multiply dog years by 7 your article could apply equally well to old people. Getting old does not have to be complicated or painful. See for the photosaga of Sam the Great Dane.

Julia Levitt

Wed, Aug 29, 2012 : 4:01 p.m.

Thank you for your comment-Julia


Wed, Aug 29, 2012 : 2:09 p.m.

The beauty of aging and the sadness of letting go. We have been thru this already. Not looking forward to the next one. Thanks for the article.