Recognizing the superhero in your senior dog

It’s so easy to develop narratives for ourselves and our animals. It’s even easier to focus on polaroids of behavior as opposed to looking at the entire roll of film.


15697562_10106136606922417_7286159598223965557_nYesterday, I took Earl to our veterinarian for his weekly underwater treadmill workout. I was helping him do some “warm-up” exercises when another client asked me, “What’s wrong with your dog? He looks amazing to me!”

I had to stop and think about my reply. After all, what was wrong with Earl?  As it turns out, I didn’t have an answer to that question. I ended up telling the other client that Earl was at the rehab clinic for prevention.  The other client told Earl, “You don’t look like you belong at the rehab clinic – you look too healthy!”

Earl has been taking weekly underwater treadmill sessions, along with continuing a series of fitness exercises at home, for over a year now. Our vet jokingly calls him a “super senior” because of his strong muscles and his enthusiasm for anything related to fitness training. And whenever he goes to the rehab clinic, people remark how strong and healthy he looks.

I’ve been thinking about this interaction ever since. It’s so easy to develop narratives for ourselves and our animals. It’s even easier to focus on polaroids of behavior as opposed to looking at the entire roll of film. Since Earl’s treadmill appointment, I’ve been challenging myself to reframe the narrative of Earl being unwell. After all, on paper, he’s a super senior: Strong heart, strong lungs, strong muscles, active brain. On paper, Earl is a healthy dog. Off paper – my recent narrative – Earl has not been a healthy dog. Polaroids include moments of increased separation anxiety, times when he looks confused, one night when he got stuck in a closet, and the nights when he paces back and forth. While these are all symptoms of cognitive decline, and stressful symptoms at that, I’ve been neglecting to view the entire roll of Earl’s film.

16711765_10106371649145917_4455544129247633828_nAwhile back, I blogged about getting stuck in training ruts, and three questions that help me and my clients when we’re faced with negative narratives and training roadblocks:

1) What does my dog need?

2) What can I do better?

3) What am I missing?

Question three is the theme of this post, and the theme of my current narratives with Earl. After yesterday’s interaction at the rehab clinic, I realize I’m not acknowledging Earl’s physical strength. I’m forgetting the benefit his fitness and treadmill exercises bring him. If he gets stuck behind a desk or under a chair, more often than not he can navigate his way out of the obstacle because his muscles are strong enough and flexible enough to do so. I may have to worry about him becoming confused on a walk, but I don’t have to worry about his endurance. (He does 20-25 minutes straight on the underwater treadmill!) And no matter what kind of dementia symptoms he’s experiencing, whenever I pull out the fitness equipment, he wags his tail, jumps around, and immediately starts training and offering behaviors in rapid succession. In fact, doing 5-10 minutes of fitness exercises has been an effective way to help him sleep and interrupt his cycle of anxious pacing.

16649104_10106384837226897_5500978303599437094_nSo a special thanks to that client who spoke with Earl and I yesterday at the rehab clinic for helping me reframe my narrative for Earl’s journey. And a special thanks to Ilana Strubel, Earl’s veterinarian, and Lori Stevens, a training colleague who introduced me to the benefits of canine fitness training!

In a future post, I’ll write more specifically about Earl’s exercises and rehab program. For now, check out these resources on canine fitness and its benefits for senior dogs:

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

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