Senior Dog Exercise: It all Begins with a Plan and Some Creativity

cookie rewards for dog behavoir

As our pets approach their senior years, things begin to change for them. Their vision and hearing can become impaired, weight can become an issue (too heavy or too thin), and their activity levels seem to slow down (often times due to arthritis or degenerative processes). From a rehab therapist’s perspective, it is very important to not let these changes negatively impact a pet’s mobility and independence if we can help it. Keeping our senior dogs on their feet and moving is one of the most important things an owner can do for the aging pet. Once an older dog (especially a larger one) goes down and decides that they do not want to get back up, it can a difficult situation for everyone. So how do we avoid this problem? Keep them healthy and moving!

Keep Them Moving!

Exercising a senior dog does not have to be complicated. If we keep in mind some basic goals and expectations, then we can turn a daily routine into an enjoyable home rehab therapy session. What should our goals be? To keep the geriatric pet up and moving at a level that is comfortable for them. Combining activities that challenge body awareness (Where are my feet?) and support strengthening are an ideal senior exercise plan. To put it in simple terms: older pets need to find a low intensity activity that engages their mind, gets them walking with changes in direction (circles and turns are important), and has them stepping over stuff.
Many of our older dogs still have a huge play drive and desire to go-go-go, but what we need to do as pet parents is to channel this energy into a more structured and controlled play time. It is better to be able to participate in that loved activity such as swimming or ball play for a shorter/less intense time every few days then to go all out with high-drive fun in a single day and then be sore for the next few days or weeks. On the other hand, some senior dogs could care less about going for that walk or being active. These pets are a challenge because we need to find what motivates them and then use it to encourage productive activity.

Things to Consider for Your Pet’s Senior Exercise Program

Keep time of active exercise so that you have an idea of the minimum amount of true activity that your pet is getting. Letting a pet out in the yard for 1 hour does not equal an hour of exercise. Dogs have a tendency to have a short burst of energy or play time and then spend the rest of the time sniffing, scratching, marking, and doing all of the other non-exercise dog stuff that dogs do.

Jazz up your walk: Sure you can continue to go around another block in a straight line on your flat road (because we all know Delaware is pretty flat). Instead, try to add in a few circles, zig-zags, or figure eights to your walk to challenge body awareness and engage different muscle groups. Find a park or trail that has it all: different terrain (grass, pavement, gravel), small incline and decline hills, tree roots or low ground obstacles to step over. If there are sidewalks or curbs around, have your dog step on and off them for some low intensity strengthening moves.

canine body awareness exercises


Lift Those Feet: Stepping over stuff is great for a pet’s body awareness and joint mobility. Lay a ladder on the grass and have your dog step over the rungs one foot at a time (avoid hopping with 2 feet). To increase the challenge, try back stepping or side stepping between rungs. Take advantage of the great outdoors and use tree roots or drainage spouts as something to step over. The only limitations are to have the dog step over one foot at a time and to have the object low enough to avoid jumping.



Doggie Yoga Movements (Doga?): Strengthening or maintaining a pet’s core muscles is super important for mobility. A pet with a strong core can better manage a weaker hind end with less loss of function in day to day movements.

Single Leg Lifts- Start with the dog in a comfortable standing position with all four feet evenly spaced apart. Lift one leg at a time and hold for up to 10 seconds so that the pet is balancing on the remaining three legs. Work your way around the body if able and repeat 3-5 times for each leg.
Diagonal Leg Lifts- For a bigger challenge, lift the diagonal legs at the same time so that the dog is balancing their weight on the remaining set of diagonal legs (ex: lift left front and right rear at same time). Hold for up to 10 seconds or until the pet begins to sway or loose their balance.

canine muscle conditioning
Leaning Forward While Standing- Begin with the pet standing with feet evenly spaced. Using a treat or toy, encourage the dog to lean or stretch forward ( their head should be neutral and not too low or arched high) while keeping their hind feet firmly placed. Hold this position for 10 seconds and repeat 3-5 times. In some pets you will get a better stretch if you place your hands in front of the hind legs to hold them in place while encouraging a farther reach forward. To add a challenge and engage the core even more, have the dog complete this exercise while standing on an air mattress or wobble board.

Downward Dog (play bow)- If this is a trick or natural behavior that your senior pet knows then use it for a great spinal stretch. Using a treat or reward, encourage the bowing of the head and front limbs so that the upper body and elbows are stretched forward and down on the floor. The key is to have your pet hold this position for up to 10 seconds for the greatest benefit. Repeat 3-5 times.

hind limb strength exercises in dogs

Paws UP- How “up” the front (or hind) feet go will depend on the condition and size of the pet. Start by having the pet place their front feet on a stair tread or step and hold this position for 10 -15 seconds (if able). Remember to keep the head neutral and not too low or arched back looking for the treat or reward. To increase the challenge, use a chair or stair step that is further up. For the smaller dog, be creative and look for things in the house that may comfortably elevate the front feet to shift the weight to the hind end (a book or box?)



Mental Game Ideas: Remember the goal- to engage the mind and encourage focus. Be creative and don’t over think it. There are mind engaging games available commercially or with just a little creative ingenuity. Practice basic commands or some trick training (sit, stay and then recall, shake paw, roll over). There is the ever popular game of “find the treat” or “find the toy”. Is your older pet a retired sporting dog or competitive dog? Dust off the old training commands such as “heel”, “hold”, and “come” and use them as a game to engage your pet’s mind. Do you have a very uninterested and unmotivated dog? A real couch potato? Use what they love (a ball, food, affection) to get them to pay attention. The only rules are that this needs to be a positive experience with an activity that the pet will find success (avoid pet and owner frustration).

These are just some starting exercises, a place to begin with your geriatric exercise journey. There are many ways to customize your program to better fit a senior pet’s life-stage and ability. Need a hand developing your program? Ask your local veterinarian or rehab professional for some input. The point to all of this is to just keep your older fur babies happy, healthy, and moving.

The Management of Canine Iliopsoas Strains: Getting to the Bottom of Chronic Lameness

When Evaluating for Pain, Don’t Forget the Musclesagility-dog

After several years of managing the lame and painful dog in our rehabilitation practice, we have learned a thing or two. One of our biggest accomplishments has been to recognize that joints are not the only source of chronic pain in our patients. Sure, things may start with a torn cruciate ligament or other joint issue, but for our painful patients, it rarely stays as just one source of discomfort. Shifting off of a painful limb or area changes how a pet moves and maintains their body weight. This puts an aggravating stress and strain on compensating joints and muscle groups. During a period of play, a dog may twist the wrong way and partially tear a cruciate ligament.  They then begin to shift their weight to the opposite hind leg, tuck their pelvis, or shift weight primarily to the front limbs to avoid painful movement. That works great initially until the joint and muscles of the other limbs protest and begin to spasm.

Iliopsoas, a Common Source of Paindog swimming in summer

A great example of a compensatory strain and a common source of chronic pain and lameness is the iliopsoas muscle. The psoas major and iliacus muscle groups combine to form a band of muscle (the iliopsoas)originating along each side of the lumbar spine and inserting on the inside portion of each femur (we would call this a groin muscle). A dog would use these muscles to flex the hip and lower portion of the spine, for lateral rotation of the thigh, and to advance the femur forward. Canines who participate in activities or sports that involve a lot of jumping or movements with great hip extension can aggravate the iliopsoas resulting in knocked bars, shortened jumps, and a skipping gait. What kind of activities would that be? Dock Diving, Agility, Fly Ball, Lure Coursing, regular frisbee and ball play. We will also see iliopsoas stain and pain as a secondary issue in our patients with orthopedic changes such as hip dysplasia, arthritic hind end joints, disk disease/back injury, and recovering post-op orthopedic repair (to name a few).

What Signs to Look For

Things that a practitioner may look for in a pet when evaluating for this type of condition would be hind limb lameness that gets worse with exercise, a skipping or shortened stride in the back legs, pain with palpation of the iliopsoas insertion, and pain with hip extension and simultaneous rotation. An acute iliopsoas strain may respond to 6-8 weeks of rest, a course of NSAIDs +/- muscle relaxers, laser therapy, and massage/heat therapy to loosen the tight and painful muscles. In cases of chronic iliopsoas strain (or a mix of both acute and chronic), most patients won’t respond to the acute protocol and need a different approach to find healing and effective pain control. So what are the options for the more chronic conditions?

Treatment Options

Our doctors have found that a combination of modalities focusing on stimulating a healing inflammatory response and loosening tight and spasming muscles will eventually work to manage iliopsoas symptoms and get our patients back to controlled exercise. In this practice, we have seen great success with acupuncture therapy as a primary modality in the management of this soft tissue condition. The acupuncture needles, placed in strategic locations, will release stagnation and create an inflammatory response that is vital to the healing process in chronic conditions. The frequency and duration of acupuncture depends on the patient’s symptoms and response to treatment. The average pet generally receives an acupuncture session once weekly for 2-4 weeks and then assess progress and decide on future therapy. Heat therapy combined with massage is another important modality to help bring circulation to the area, release tension, and provide pain control. Pet owners will place a warm gel pack along the lower spine and along the inside muscles from hip to hock for 15-30 minutes twice daily to start. Heat would then be followed by gentle massage along both sides of the lumbar spine and down the hind limbs (inside and outside muscles). After some heat and a relaxing massage, applying a light stretch to all of the warmed up hind limb muscles and joints (from toes to hip) would be a great way to end a session. Gentle flexion and extension, held for 10-15 seconds, hastreatment for canine muscle pain it’s greatest benefits when applied to limbs that have been warmed up through easy exercise or manual stimulation.

Long Term Considerations

When the pain is controlled and the lameness has resolved, it is time to evaluate for environmental triggers and sources of future strains that may start the cycle of strain all over again. Many of the canine athletes and dogs that play fast and hard will need to have their activities controlled. A lot of the older competitive dogs may be sound as an average pet but will not be able to return to their sport of choice due to risk of re-injury. Controlled activity is important as well as avoiding triggers such as running, jumping, and splaying of legs. This means no ball playing, rabbit chasing, jumping off the deck, or rough play. Swimming, while a great conditioning tool, can actually aggravate iliopsoas pain. Leashed walking on land or in the underwater treadmill at a slow to moderate pace would be a better exercise choice. Slipping on hard wood or tile floors is a common source of iliopsoas injury (especially in the older pet) and can be avoided by providing runner rugs or using booties for traction. In the case of dog with concurrent arthritic disease or orthopedic change, the trigger for an iliopsoas flair up is not going to go away. These patients are managed long term with a variety of options such as oral pain control, regular laser and/or acupuncture therapy, and strengthening exercises such as aqua therapy or targeted core work. The frequency of long term therapy can be every 4-6 weeks for a “tune up” or more often if needed.

Don’t think that your pet needs to live with chronic muscle pain.  There are a variety of treatment options available that can bring relief and healing. If you are concerned about your pet or think that they need to be evaluated for therapy, it is time for a check up with one of our doctors. Contact us today to see what would best fit the needs of your canine companion: medication, acupuncture, rehabilitation, or a combination of all of the above.

Doggie Fitness 101

Canine Fitness

The Fitness Craze: Not Just for People Anymore

We seem to be surrounded with an overwhelming amount of health “aids” designed to assist us in finding a fitter and healthier existence. There are the watches that monitor our every move and calculate calorie consumption, gyms and fitness centers open 24 hours a day so that there are no more excuses to avoid that workout, nutritional supplements and programs to increase our metabolism and provide greater energy for more….stuff. It is not surprising that this fitness movement has spilled over into our pet’s lives as well. Our pets are battling the obesity epidemic just as we are. Pet weight loss has become a huge niche in the veterinary world: dog collars specially designed to monitor activity level and baseline resting info, the numerous specially formulated weight loss foods promising to be ” THE ONE” to help your pet shed those pesky pounds,  fitness centers providing gym services for the client who is unable or the dog who is unwilling to exercise enough at home. The list goes on and on as we all know, so is this all hype? Should we be concerned about our pet’s fitness level? The answer is….YES!

Why Fitness is Important for Our Pets as Well as Ourselves

Not all (or even most) of the pets that come through our hospital are athletic in any organized way. On one end of the athletic spectrum we have the sporting dogs such as agility, field trials, and dock dogs. The complete opposite end is the companion animal whose primary job is offering unconditional love and left-over food tasting. The majority of our pets fall somewhere in the middle: maybe a little overweight, plays some but doesn’t have enough structured exercise time, generally healthy but not very well conditioned. We have all heard about these studies looking at weight and activity and how they relate to the longevity of our animal companions (too boring to read but they are out there if you are interested). The bottom line is that pets living with a healthy weight have less medical issues such as metabolic diseases, mobility limitations, and respiratory dysfunction. Active pets that are exercised regularly and are better conditioned will recover faster and with less complications from injury such as cruciate tears or orthopedic issues. A dog that is engaged in exercise or consistent activity is working both their body and mind. Exercise can be a way to divert the trouble maker from undesirable activities (chewing up things) to healthier ones (ball playing or tug of war). Canine (and feline) fitness does not necessarily have to mean “athletic”, but rather healthy, active, and engaged. So now what?

Need a Place to Start? Visit Your Veterinarian and Discuss Your Plan

The first place to start (especially for the rounder pets and couch potatoes) is with a thorough exam by a veterinarian. If we are about to make some changes in our pet’s lives about what they are going to eat and increasing exercise, it is important to make sure that they are healthy enough for what you have planned. Sometimes dogs who appeared laid back or quiet are actually dealing with things that may not have become apparent yet such as orthopedic disease (hip dysplasia) or cardiac issues (some congenital defects can be revealed at just a few weeks old). Changing our pet’s diet (especially if you are considering serious calorie restrictions) should be done under a veterinarian’s supervision. Pet food labels can be confusing and often times we really don’t know how many calories they SHOULD BE getting or ARE getting each day. A veterinarian or animal nutritionist can help you to determine your pet’s food needs and make a healthy plan for weight loss or maintaining a good weight without sacrificing muscle. And finally, the last thing to consider is your pet’s life-stage. Younger dogs with open growth plates (usually under 2 years old) can sustain permanent orthopedic damage if exercised too hard too early. Sure they can run around and play, learn commands and begin groundwork for future athletic goals, or be engaged for mental stimulation and general self-control. What you need to avoid is consistent, organized activity such as daily jogs with their owner, sustained jump work, or any heavy conditioning exercise. The older athletic competitor may have used to work out for 45 minutes to an hour in their favorite event in the past but now really needs to have a toned down 20 minute session. It is up to us as their guardians to set appropriate boundries and keep our pet’s nutritional and physical activities in a safe zone.

Just Place One Foot in Front of the Other…

Well, both you and your pet are now cleared for some life-changing healthy get-up-and-go fitness. The best place to start is by putting one foot in front of the other. Walking is the cheapest form of activity (the cost is only a few calories burned) and can be varied in many ways to keep it fresh and interesting: add hills, turns, change neighborhoods or parks, make it a hike off road. Keep in mind that a lean, well muscled pet is not necessarily a well CONDITIONED pet. A dog that can pull a sled full of weight across the length of a yard may not be able to go on that 5 mile jog if they do not have the cardiovascular and muscle conditioning for that longer, high-energy task. There is a big difference between the physiology of a sled dog pulling over a long race and a dog competing in a fly ball event that lasts seconds but is very fast. Pick a starting point (5 minute walk , 20 minute jog, just around the block, one loop around the lake) and then add challenges in increments each week. Ideally, the best exercise program has some form of activity 3-5 days a week with some variety. For example a healthy adult dog could have a brisk walk for 30 minutes MWF with game play such as bumper/ball retrieval, frisbee catch, tug of war on T/TH ending with rest on Sat and Sun (meaning free dog time). If your pet is already participating in regular activities such as obedience/rally work or specific sport training skills during the week, then use the off days to work in a different kind of exercise activity. Consistent effort with allowed periods of rest days are key to any good fitness program. Remember to set realistic goals, evaluate your pet frequently to pick up any issues that may change your fitness program and avoid setbacks (for example needing to rest because of soft tissue pain instead of pushing on and suffering a more permanent injury), and celebrate each victory (learning a new command, losing that extra 3 ounces). Fitness is a process that is never finished, so let’s just settle in and enjoy the ride (where ever it may lead us!). If you do need a little help along the way, feel free to contact us at the Rehabilitation Center at Haven Lake Animal Hospital. We are prepared and ready to take this fitness journey with you.