Sniffing is for seniors too!

As someone who owns a very special and much loved senior dog, the promotion of improved enrichment for seniors is near and dear to my heart.

My silly senior. 11 years old, which is pretty old for his breed, but he continues to be nutty…long may that last!

I feel it’s important that we don’t pathologise aging or our aging dogs. While there is certainly discussion as to how far we treat aging as disease, I don’t want my default to helping them be the assumption that they are frail and failing.

The dog’s behaviour is information, including that of our aging dogs.

Aging is a multifactorial process, leading to decline right around the body, it is an individual process, requiring individual interventions.

Just like enrichment.

While dogs appear to be living longer lives, they are still here for a good time, not for a long time. Let’s make it a GOOD time!

Effects of aging such as the dog slowing down, sleeping more, appearing stiffness, are often normalised. Just because the dog is aging, doesn’t mean they should be in pain or experience discomfort.

It goes without saying that older dogs should be comfortable, living an enriched life, without pain!

Senior Dog Behaviour Matters too!

The current canine lifestage guidelines define senior dogs as those in the last quarter of expected lifespan (Creevy et al, 2019). 

Healthspan refers to the period of good health across life. Little is known about maximising canine healthspan.

Pet owners often recognise the common physical signs of aging, such as a greying muzzle, but subtle behaviour changes may be the first indicators of cognitive aging and be more challenging for us to spot (Landsberg et al, 2011).

In research, quantifiable measures of healthspan are not consistently established or applied.
Often assessments of liver, brain, heart, muscle, kidney & endocrine organ health, and of cancers, are included.

Cognitive performance, behaviour & QoL must be considered too…right? 

Future proofing

While future proofing is important, and often an automatic consideration, for puppies and young dogs, behaviour markers are still relevant to appropriately adjusting conditions to support older dogs.

We can prepare dogs for what’s to come, while also making sure that we don’t age them via our attitudes toward them.

Sensory and cognitive changes occur over life, and declines are particularly associated with aging.
Early diagnosis, and appropriate action and treatments, are important to maintaining the QoL for older dogs experiencing cognitive decline.

Keep a diary or log of your senior dog’s daily habits, behaviour and abilities. It’s tricky to spot changes in your dog, with whom you interact and see everyday.
Reviewing your log every week or two allows you to make more objective observations.

See an overview of cognitive aging in dogs here, from Chapagain et al, 2017.

Enriching their world

To help them, we might be implementing plenty of changes according to their current and future needs.

As they age, dogs become increasingly sensitive to change and day to day stressors (Fast et al, 2013).

Providing them with predictability and controllability, while creating change in tiny increments, will allow for better coping.

Develop predictable routines.

This doesn’t mean everything happens at the same time each day, but rather, that sequences of events have predictable outcomes for the dog and they can choose how they interact with that event.

When the dog does behaviour, there are predictable outcomes. Their behaviour matters and they have some control over what happens to them.

Feeling helpless and out of control may be experienced by aging humans, their behaviour becoming less meaningful often as result of good intentions on the parts of others (Minichiello et al, 2000) (Salarvand et al, 2007).

Along with changes we might be making, seniors dogs often experience changes that might impact daily routines.

For example, toileting routines.
Older dogs may need more regular toileting opportunities.
Make toileting more accessible and safe. Monitor them carefully so that you can get them out efficiently.

For example, change to eating patterns.
Feed smaller and more frequent meals, warm food and choose food dispensers that allow for the dog to comfortably pick up food.
Older dogs might require more palatable food so choosing softer feed might more yummier and more comfortable to eat.

Think “puppy proofing”, but for seniors.

Audit your car, home and garden, and consider places you take your dog, for accessibility and safety.

(These images are screengrabs from our webinar on senior dog support,
for training/behaviour pros.)

Senior dogs need more, not less

Senior dogs are often presumed to not do so much, to be lower maintenance, and to not need a lot of walks.

Enrichment provision, for any and all dogs, must be so much more than mere walks, and indeed may not include walks at all. So even if walks need to be adjusted, that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook!

Because pet owners often report their senior dogs sleep more, they believe less exercise, interaction and enrichment is required. Not true!

Aging certainly leads to changes to sleep/wake cycles, with senior dogs sleeping more during the day. They tend to wake more over night and wake earlier in the morning (Takeuchi & Harada 2002).

Indeed none of this means they need less of anything…there now needs to be more consideration for making sure they have good sleep, and that all the components to good sleep are provided appropriately.

Senior dogs need more consideration for enriched sleeping & resting.

Consider more choices for resting and sleeping locations, for bedding, and for comfort. They benefit from clear bedtime routines.

Facilitating safe and comfortable resting spots close to their humans during day to day routines helps with relationship building and comfortable resting.

Many older dogs may seek distance and seclusion, so provide comfortable & enriched choices for them.

Make observations about your senior’s resting choices and then provide an array of suitable options.

Senior dogs require more emotional support and assurance.

Provide seniors with more social interaction according to their preferences. That doesn’t mean that we coerce dogs into interacting…it means we be with them as they like it.

Talk to them more, hang out close to them more, bring them more places, do more things with them and close to them. All according to their comfort.

Aging dogs must have more appropriate challenge & enrichment in their lives!

Seniors benefit from:

They need more to maintain and improve their physical and cognitive health.

100 Days of Enrichment is absolutely suitable for aging dogs…for all dogs! Adjustments are individual, not age related.

Think about some of the behavioural and cognitive changes we might expect as dogs age and adjust challenges according to each individual.

More sniffing for seniors!

Aging coincides with cognitive and sensory decline. Olfaction tends to be the least and last affected, so sniffing can facilitate cognitive work-outs and encourage exploration into old age.

Cognitive decline, more so than age, is associated with reductions in exploratory behaviour (Rosado et al, 2012).

That’s why sniffing is a lifeblood for seniors.

Teach them sniffing games and make sniffing happen every day, many times a day.

It doesn’t need to be elaborate or complex. Here I simply toss food rewards into long grass for Ollie (from A Dog’s Life) to snuffle.

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Can old dogs learn new tricks?


Dogs are not too old to learn and be taught.
But adjustments to how we teach them and what we teach them will be necessary…the dog’s behaviour is information (no matter their age!).

They might need more reps and finer splitting of criteria…ya know…better teaching from us….

Dogs may become less efficient at  responding to cues that are delivered by sound or sight, and might find it hard to locate reinforcers on the ground, closer or further away.

This is no big deal, it just means we have to adapt and be better teachers.

Keep ’em lean!

Weight management is one of the most effective factors in mitigating age related changes and effects on health.

Obesity compounds aging in dogs, presenting as a form of accelerated aging (Tam et al, 2020). Being overweight shortens the life of dogs because it causes the production of many of the same metabolic abnormalities associated with age (Salt et al, 2018).

Caloric restriction, ideally through life, and maintaining healthy body condition extends lifespan and healthspan for dogs (Lawler et al, 2007) and other species too (Kaeberlein 2015). Maybe even giving us about two years more with our dogs (Kealy et al, 2002) (Lawler et al, 2008)…now that’s priceless!

Keep ’em moving!

Appropriate physical exercise slows body damage due to aging by influencing metabolic dysfunction (Gremeaux et al, 2012). It helps to maintain lean mass, strengthen and tone, and provide behavioural outlets.

Aging dogs require physical exercise (Pop et al, 2010) appropriate to their health.

As for all dogs, their responses and behaviour are information about what they need. Recognise the effects of physical exercise and adjust accordingly.

Consider adding supportive physical therapies to the aging dogs’ routine too. I recommend Canine Conditioning Coach, and she has an excellent
senior program.

Pet Owners Need Support too!

Many challenges affecting the human-dog relationship are presented as humans and dogs age.

Culturally, we have funny attitudes to aging. The relative rapidity with which dogs age not only provides us with an understanding of aging, but reminds us of what lies ahead for ourselves!

Senior dogs show greying hair, loss of body condition, reductions in activity and changes in attitude to their world. They may show increases and changes to vocalising behaviour, toileting, appetite and may appear confused at times.

These changes, and the rest, can exert considerable pressure on the human-canine relationship, leading to significant requirements in terms of emotional and financial resources on the part of owners.

Monitor your senior pet’s health & behaviour. CAM provides a useful guide to monitor changes here; although relevant to OA, is also useful in monitoring other age related changes.

For a further understanding of the impacts of age on the human-canine relationship, McCune & Promislow, 2021, provide a lovely overview of mutual aging among our species’. provides plenty of guidance for pet owners with aging dogs.

“Care-giver burden” has been identified in owners of dogs with chronic illnesses, using models designed for human patients and their carers, (Spitznagel et al, 2019) (Spitznagel et al, 2019) (Spitznagel et al, 2017) as the strain or load borne by carers of aged and/or chronically ill loved ones.

Maximising healthy aging in dogs is not just good for dogs, but also contributes to improved quality of life for their humans.

Why sniffing?

Sniffing ticks so many boxes for dogs and they already do it really really well. We don’t have to teach them to sniff, or teach them to life it. It’s kinda their thing!

We might need some adjustments to make sure it works for the individual, but we’re doing that for dogs of all ages anyway.

Here we have sniffing and snuffling on some soft, non-slip blankets for senior, Benny:

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#100 Days Of Enrichment provides so many ideas and ways to enrich your dog’s life, each one is adjustable for suit individuals as they age.

Maybe we have to alter puzzles so that the dog can do them lying down, maybe we need to bring the fun to them rather than them going to the challenge.

Try Day 76 Sniffari or Day 81 Bringing the Smellside Inside!.
Most challenges have a sniffing component so any and all will add more fun for your senior.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

— George Bernard Shaw

Keep ’em young

Aging is inevitable. But how they age, doesn’t have to be. Keeping them active, lean, challenged and their world enriched helps to keep them young.

Don’t get caught in pathologising their age, or mourning for times gone by. Start increasing sniffing games and opportunities today. Add more not less for your senior.

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Almost all the photos in this post, of Decker, are since his 11th birthday and all the rest are since he was 10.5. Am Staffs are not long lived (average 10-12yo) so I’m conscious we are living on borrowed time. He remains very active; hiking off leash for 6-10km 3-5 times a week and swimming 30-60 mins in the ocean 3-5 times a week. He busted his cruciate in a traumatic injury when he was nine, then suffered intussusception & impaction soon after so has never recovered his original fitness or condition, likely due to age. So while he’s fit for his age, he probably would have been better without that drama.
I am making sure he lives every day to the fullest so if today is his last day, it was such a good day, filled with all his absolute favourites and absolutely no regreats.