When Your Heart Dog Is a Senior

I adopted Boots when he was 2ish and I was 19- his adoption fee was my 20th birthday present to myself. I had grown up with dogs, but had never had one of my own. My childhood dream was always to have a little dog who was constantly by my side- a dog who would sleep in the bed with me and go with me everywhere. By the time I met Boots, that dream had long since been pushed to the back of my mind, but still, I knew he was my dog. The minute I saw him for the first time, I knew.

Since then, we have grown up together in every sense of the word. It’ll be 8 years in July and each one of them has taught us something new. I was a little bit of a wild child when I adopted Boots- I was spreading my wings for the first time as an “adult,” and I can’t say I was the most responsible in my first few leaps from the nest. Boots didn’t make me become responsible- I don’t necessarily believe anyone can make that happen. But what Boots did was love me and show me that I was valuable to him and within our bond. The bond with him changed me.

Boots is inching closer to 11 now, and I’ll be 28 this summer. In a lot of ways, we’ve both slowed down and mellowed out a bit, though in others we’re just as tightly wound as we were back in 2011. Boots’ eyes have the blue haze characteristic of a dog his age, and I’ve begun fielding questions about when Chris and I will start trying to have human babies. Things have changed in big, big ways.

And it’s hard. I can say with 100% certainty that I have never loved another being in the way that I love Boots. I don’t mean that to offend my fiancé or my family or Ranger, though I know that they all understand it. Boots isn’t my “fur baby” and he’s not just my best friend- to describe it more accurately, Boots is more like a piece of my soul who just happens to live outside my body. He’s my Heart Dog.

Last night we had a bonfire and Boots, for the first time in almost 8 years, chose to remain on his blanket inside, watching us out of the sliding glass door instead of coming and sitting outside. He gets tired at the end of walks sometimes these days, and I don’t attempt more than a 3-4 mile hike anymore. He has a dental cleaning coming up and the idea of putting him under anesthesia is terrifying to me, despite knowing it’s what’s best for his long term health. It’s both difficult to recognize and impossible to avoid the knowledge that he is getting older, but I’m trying so hard to make every step of our journey good for him, no matter what. I think that sometimes we can’t let go of not only who our dogs were when they were young, but also, who we were. Neither of us is who we were 8 years ago.

There’s no message to this blog post today- maybe it’s just me shouting into the void or trying to see that I’m not the only one who’s ever made this transition with their Heart Dog. If there is a message, maybe it’s to honor your pup’s dogginess, honor what makes them who they are for their whole lives, not just when they’re young and active. Be there for it all, as they are for us. I think that’s the best thing we can do.

Let’s Talk About Enrichment!

What is Mental Enrichment? To me, it’s the process of making an animal’s environment interesting and stimulating so as to decrease boredom and provide outlets for species normal behaviors. It’s letting your dog be a dog in all of his or her glory!

If you had asked me in 2011 when I adopted Boots what enrichment was, I really would have had no idea. And for college me and baby Boots, that shockingly worked out alright because he was getting TONS of environmental enrichment without me realizing it- going everywhere with me that I could possibly take him, being walked often, interacting with many people, going for rides. Now that I work a 40 hour week in a job where he and Ranger can’t come along, I prioritize getting them out for their walks and adding other mental enrichment to their lives. I realized recently that like me at 19, many people don’t know what enrichment is, or how to start in an inexpensive way, so here’s my cheap and easy introduction!

Use Puzzle Feeders instead of bowls! Your pup can solve a puzzle to get their food instead of quickly eating it out of a bowl! Not only does this provide mental stimulation, but it also slows down hasty eaters. Some great puzzle toys are Kongs, the Kong Wobbler, and snuffle mats, but you can also DIY it and use a muffin tin as a puzzle bowl! My boys were shocked and dismayed when I introduced puzzle feeders for the first time because they weren’t used to having to figure something out to get their food, but they quickly got the hang of it, and yours can to! Now they’re excited when the Kongs or snake toy come out.

Take your dog on a Sniffing Walk! Think about how much time you spend watching TV, scrolling social media, and reading books- sniffing novel things is the canine equivalent! Next time you take your dog for a walk, let them lead the way and sniff whatever they want to their hearts content. If you want to learn more about the amazing way that dogs use their noses and why sniffing is so vital for them, check out “Being a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz! I used to worry that people would think ~tHe DoG iS wAlKiNg YoU tHoUgh~ and you know what, they are! It’s THEIR walk!! Let it be!

Play hide and go seek! This can be done with people or treats and is a blast either way. If you have a helper, have them take a treat and hide in an easy location, then ask your dog to “Go find the person!” When they do find your helper, they should give them a treat and praise. You can also do this one on one using just treats- with your pup confined, hide one treat in an easy spot. Ask your dog to “Go find it!” and they’ll be rewarded by eating the treat when they do. As they get better and better at finding hidden people and/or treats, gradually increase the difficulty of the hiding spots. We don’t do this as much as we used to anymore because Boots has a hard time when it’s not his turn, but I definitely want to reintroduce this game when my fiancé and I have a less crazy schedule so he can help me!

Practice Good Manners! Running through the cues that your dog knows, like Sit, Down, Shake, etc. is not only mentally enriching for them, but also helps them to be better citizens of our human world. Using positive reinforcement like treats and affection to train is fun for both humans and dogs! You can also work on new and fun tricks with books like “101 Dog Tricks & How to Teach Them” by Kyra Sundance or by finding a force free, positive reinforcement trainer in your area to take classes with. A good way to find someone credentialed is by searching on the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers website, or on the Karen Pryor Academy website. I’ve loved being in training class with Boots, and Chris is dying to get back in another class with Ranger, but even without class, there’s so much to learn and do at home and through Youtube videos!

I hope you go down the rabbit hole into the wonderful world of Canine Enrichment! It will make you and your dog’s life so much happier, I swear!

Til next time,