Unlike my dog Zazu, who completely turned my life upside down since he was a puppy, Haida joined us at the age of 12. She is a European Sled Dog and spent most of her life on a sled dog farm where she was active in dog pulling sports. Later, she came to the Wolf Science Centre to mate with a young male dog, where I was lucky to meet her in 2019. Less than 6 months later she already moved in with us. I liked her a lot from the beginning, despite her age she was a little whirlwind, always in a good mood and above all hungry!
“Zazu was not very keen on the idea”
However, as she got older, living in the kennel became more and more difficult for her and so I decided to give her a home. Surely there will be another article on having more than one dog, but for now let me say this: Zazu was not very keen on the idea. He was a typical single dog and reluctant to share his owner with another pet. Several times before Haida moved in we went for walks together, which worked wonderfully. Straight away Haida took guidance from Zazu and enjoyed this task very much. Nevertheless, it is a big difference to go for a walk together or to share the same water bowl. Zazu is very picky about those things. By now each dog has its own water bowl, which has contributed to the great satisfaction of everyone involved. Nevertheless, Haida quickly won Zazu over with her charm, but above all with her gentle and reserved personality.
“Haida made me realise that life consists of individual moments”
For me, a second, older dog was a big change and also a challenge. Haida had several health problems, including a chronic respiratory infection and a partial ligament rupture. She also has severe arthritis in her joints and is deaf. When she moved in with us, she had to complete a number of visits to the vet and undergo several operations, which did not make it any easier to adjust to life in a flat. Being inside a flat was completely foreign to her. Friends and family asked me several times why I was taking on this burden, especially since she won’t have much longer to live. I guess that’s a question that a lot of people have these days. Animal shelters keep many older dogs, often for a long time. The majority of potential dog owners are looking for a younger dog so that "you get to enjoy them for longer". I get it, I thought the same for a long time. But Haida made me realise that life consists of individual moments, living in the here and now and not necessarily an accumulation of moments.
Haida needed a home and my heart needed Haida.
Whether Haida stays with me for one month or five years, it is her decision and every moment with her is valuable to me, regardless of how many I may experience with her. Of course, I had to be aware of the fact that high costs could come my way. But that could easily happen with Zazu as well, after all, he is not getting any younger and is very talented at hurting himself through unthinkable actions. He also has to go to the vet. The question was rather whether I could take in a second dog in general, regardless of young or old. In the end, it was simple -
Haida needed a home and my heart needed Haida.
End of story.
What should I pay special attention to and how can I offer an older dog a wonderful life together?
In general, it is assumed that dogs enter the senior world from the age of seven. However, this number can vary greatly depending on breed and individual dispositions. Normally, small dogs age slower than big dogs, but due to the good medical care nowadays, there are always strong variations.
One should keep a close eye on their own dog in order to not overlook the signs of aging and to be able to respond to the changing needs accordingly. Usually, it is often the small changes at the beginning that can alert us to signs of aging. These include physical changes due to a slower metabolism. Often older dogs are not as active as they used to be, which means they use less energy. This may lead to weight gain, which is not good for the dog's overall health. It may be required to change the food to suit their needs. Simply reducing food is not the best option, as this would also reduce their intake of vitamins and minerals. These ingredients are important for the immune system, healthy bones, joints, and much more. Haida would certainly look at me in horror if I offered her only half of her usual portion, because she definitely wouldn't get full that way! Food for senior dogs often contains fewer calories and more fiber, as well as easily digestible proteins to support the digestive system. I am a fan of natural food supplements such as green-lipped mussel, devil's claw, etc. which can support the musculoskeletal system. Of course, the needs and taste of your own dog should be taken into account. In addition to metabolism and digestion, also other functions decline with age, e.g., the bladder function. Especially in neutered dogs, bladder weakness can increase as they age due to a hormonal imbalance. If the dog suddenly starts urinating in your house, it is advisable to consult a vet. Apart from age-related bladder weakness, which is not a reason to worry, it can also be a bladder infection or worse, diabetes. I first noticed Haida's bladder weakness during the summer of 2020. She suddenly made a huge mess in my flat, even though she was able to go out frequently. Haida was drinking significantly more than usual due to the summer heat and could not hold her urine for as long as she was used to. So, for about one month I set myself an alarm every night to let her outside. She accepted it with gratitude. Later she had no more problems with it, but I am sure that similar things will await me next summer. As dog owners, we must always be prepared to make small sacrifices for our pets, such as leaving the warm bed at night to let them go to the toilet.
In addition, their 5 senses often deteriorate with age.
Sight and smell can get worse over time, deafness and loss of taste are also common companions of old age. Haida is deaf, which has its challenges. As she is showing additional signs of dementia (yes, even dogs can get dementia!) it is important that I always keep an eye on her. Just recently she escaped through an open gate and got completely lost. Due to Haida’s deafness, my desperate call was pointless and so I went to look for her. Luckily, I found her soon after and she was incredibly happy to see me. She probably wouldn't have found her way back home by herself. So, if a dog is used to exploring the world freely and without a leash, it may be necessary to lead him the way as he ages. This ensures that dog and owner do not lose each other, and the leash can give a sense of security and connection. A tip in advance can be to train commands not only verbally but to combine them with visual communication signals at the same time. These signs help dogs to understand us even if they are deaf.
Walks are also very important for senior dogs.
They become slower and need more time to sniff out important information, but exercise is crucial at any age, both for physical and mental health. We should pay attention to how much exercise is still possible. If my dog can no longer walk long distances, I can take him for several short walks to different places. It is important to observe your dog well and to respond to his individual needs. Haida is still quite fast and loves long walks. I'm lucky enough to bring my dogs to work with me, so we walk to and from work every morning and every evening. I can vary the length of the walk so that I'm out for between 30 minutes to 2 hours, and Haida is happy to do both. Last year she even took part in a little camping trip. But every now and then we just sit down in a meadow and listen to nature. Haida enjoys these little breaks and cuddles up to me to observe her surroundings. That, too, is real quality time with the dog!
Situations with young and excited dogs, which they may have mastered confidently in the past, can now cause great stress or insecurity to senior pets.
Increasingly every day the so-called "stubbornness of old age" shows up in Haida. Meaning she insists on sniffing a single spot for a while or even digging for a mouse, no matter what my plans are. For me, that's perfectly fine at this stage. Thanks to Haida, I am more mindful, and I go through the world slower and give her the time she needs. Patience and consideration are required when walking an older dog. They can no longer perceive and process new stimuli as quickly as they used to in the past and sometimes, they forget that they already sniffed a spot several times. This is what makes our senior dogs so lovable. Likewise, if we come into contact with other dogs on walks, we should take good care of our older four-legged friends. Situations with young and excited dogs, which they may have mastered confidently in the past, can now cause great stress or insecurity to senior pets.
This was the case for Haida. Although she has been with other dogs all her life, she now intensively seeks my proximity during dog encounters. I am lucky because Zazu blocks other dogs from her and offers her protection. I must make clear to other handlers what my dog needs and if necessary, send other dogs away if they are too wild or pushy (by the way, this applies to all dogs at any age).
On very cold or rainy days, I often walk my dogs separately, as the weather clearly affects Haida. She likes being warm, not only when she is outside, but also indoors. This is typical for older dogs. The immune system is usually not what it used to be and so they start to feel cold. Haida now has a diverse collection of dog coats, including winter coats, mackintoshes, and a housecoat, which she wears with dignity. In the meantime, she loves to be wrapped up in a blanket at home. This probably has something to do with her dementia, as the blanket gives her a sense of security. To me, it feels as if the blanket is holding and protecting her, and in addition she knows the smell. It means that even when we visit friends or family, her blanket can't be missing.
That way, she always has something familiar with her that protects her in every situation.
A predictable daily routine creates security and protects our dogs from unnecessary stress. Haida needs this security because she often loses orientation due to her dementia. So, I try as best as I can to maintain a (more or less) identical rhythm for her.
In that sense, fixed feeding times are extremely important. If I miss a feeding time, Haida quickly reminds me by running around the flat like crazy. She still carries this habit from her days in the kennel. If there was food, she was so excited that she couldn't keep still and had to run up and down several times. And she does the same at home! Even though Haida doesn't know many commands, we have one rule: "Wait in your basket while I prepare the food". That way I protect her from injury and my home from destruction. The more excited she gets, the more risk-taking she becomes, like jumping onto my glass coffee table, for example! Today we have this well under control. I keep an expert eye on the clock and accept Haida's internal clock as best as I can. Haida has two spots in our home to guide herself in her surroundings, her food/water station and her basket. Zazu quickly understood that Haida needs her own basket, which must always be in the same place and accessible at all times.
Haida becomes terribly disoriented when the water bowl is empty and needs urgent help
He likes to respect her space because it reduces the likelihood of Haida just lying on top of him or running him over. Haida has figured out the distance between the two locations and rarely ventures outside these two safety spots as it confuses her. My job is to make sure that "her" path is free of obstacles at all times and that the water bowl is always filled. Zazu knows how to alert me when it needs to be refilled. Haida becomes terribly disoriented when the water bowl is empty and needs urgent help. In addition, I have placed a carpet and a non-slip mat around the flat, to try and make it easier for her to walk, as she slips on my parquet floor. When our dogs reach a certain age, it can become necessary to adapt the furnishings of the home.
In addition to all the things mentioned above, there are of course always individual, age-related challenges for us dog owners.
Haida lived without a caregiver until she was 12 years old. Depending on the age at which a dog enters our lives and the conditions in which it has lived before, this is not uncommon. Haida has mainly learned to live together with other dogs and to guide herself by them. Every now and then she would have people around her for training, a cuddle session or feeding, but after a while they would leave again. She first had to learn what an attachment figure is. It took almost a year until she was really happy to see me, or until she even recognised and made a difference between me and other people. She was able to learn how to trust me and to experience that I am always there or that I come back quickly. This was a wonderful feeling for me, and I wish that other dog owners can experience the same.
the following factors can indicate that a dog is slowly beginning to age:
- The dog becomes quieter, more inactive, and lies down or sleeps more than usual.
- The senses deteriorate, such as deafness or blindness
- Muscles become weaker
- General reactions become slower
- Disorientation may occur
- Possible Bladder weakness
What is important for seniors?
- A regular daily routine
- Age-appropriate exercise and activity - "You snooze, you lose!"
- Senior-friendly furnishings, e.g. non-slip floors and a consistent location of food/water bowls and sleeping areas.
- Regular check-ups with the vet
- But most of all, our patience and unconditional love
Next month Haida will be 14 years old and is really fit despite her age. She still accompanies Zazu and me on long walks and loves cuddling and massages in her basket. I tell her every day how much I love her and that I am grateful that she shares her life with me. If Haida has taught me anything, it is to enjoy life! She doesn't care how old she is or if she gets a little pinch in her back. What is important to her is a warm place to sleep, nice walks together and good food.
I hope to share many more wonderful moments with her, and I am happy that she has become part of my life.