Activities For Dogs With Dementia

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Introduction

While not all dogs will experience significant mental decline as they age, various studies indicate that somewhere between five and fifteen percent of older dogs and cats, usually those over ten years old, will experience a condition similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. This condition, known in the veterinary field as canine cognitive dysfunction but often just referred to as canine dementia, can cause your dog a great deal of confusion and can manifest as disorientation, changing behavior, and sleep disturbances. 

Scent Work

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Any Day
Cheap
Normal
15 - 90 min
Items needed
Scent marker
Reward
Activity description

While dementia is disorienting and confusing, often for both you and your dog, it doesn’t affect your dog's senses. Dogs typically have somewhere around two hundred and twenty million scent receptors in their nose compared to the five million scent receptors that are present in the human nose, and while dogs that are older than seven or eight years old frequently experience some decline in their sense of smell, their olfactory acuity is still typically many times better than yours and mine. Scent work activities can help dogs that are experiencing canine cognitive dysfunction by both working their mind and by giving them more confidence.    

Step
1
Pick a place
There are many different training facilities and dog sports academies that include scent work classes in which you can learn how to teach your dog to track scents in a safe and controlled environment. One of the features of scent work that makes it especially attractive for dogs with cognitive decline is that it can be done anywhere, even right at home.
Step
2
Choose a scent
While many people who are doing casual scent work will start by using a high-value food treat as the target, most competition and professional scent work experts train the dog to search for a specific scent, typically one that is not food related. This may be particularly helpful in training senior dogs with scent work as strong scents, such as pine or lemon, may be easier for your dog to detect than lighter aromas.
Step
3
Take it easy
When dealing with a dog that has no cognitive impairments, this might be the point at which to step up the game and intensify the action by adding new scents, hiding multiple targets, or hiding the target in harder to sniff containers or locations. While you may be able to add a little more complexity to the game for your specific dog, changes and extra step may be more likely to confuse a dog that is in a mental decline.
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Box Time

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Any Day
Free
Normal
5 - 45 min
Items needed
Box
Clicker
Treats
Activity description

This activity is helpful for dogs that are experiencing cognitive decline as it is designed to reward your dog for thinking creatively without asking them to remember specific commands. While the focal object that is used in this example is a box, the choice of focal object is only a recommendation, and any item will work as long as your dog can safely interact with it using their nose, paws, or even their mouth and it is not one of their own toys. This activity may provide the added benefit of reinforcing clicker training, possibly helping to keep the association between the clicker and the reward fresh in their mind.

Step
1
It's a box!
Choose a medium-sized box for your dog to interact with, one that isn’t so large that they have difficulty interacting with it, but not so small that it is easily carried around by the dog. Depending on the size of your dog, this can be a shoebox, a plastic crate, or even just a run of the mill cardboard box. If you choose another focal object, it should be similarly sized and its generally a good idea to avoid the dog’s regular toys. Place it in the middle of the floor, so that it is conspicuous, but also has enough room on each side for the dog to move around it.
Step
2
Wait and watch
Once you have placed the box, you can position yourself so that you can clearly see if your dog interacts with the box and then wait. At this point you are watching for any behavior at all that is directed at the box; this can include pushing the box, pawing at it, getting in the box, or even just looking at the box. Whenever you see any sort of interaction with the box, immediately click the clicker and give your canine companion a treat. It may be tempting to point out the box especially as it may take a little bit before your dog interacts with the object, but this activity is most successful if you use patience.
Step
3
Shaping
Most dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction will find enough challenge in the first two steps, but some dogs may be able to be challenged further by using this activity as a stepping stone to develop specific behaviors or interactions, such as stepping up on the box or putting a specific paw in it. As your dog’s disease progresses, this step may become frustrating for your canine companion and should be dropped.
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Canine Massage

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Any Day
Moderate
Normal
15 - 90 min
Items needed
Table or bed for dog to lie on
Activity description

Dogs with dementia are often confused and disoriented and have trouble recognizing the people and places that are around them. This frequently has the effect of causing them to feel stress and anxiety. Massage is a relaxing activity that can help to reduce stress and anxiety and is well-suited to senior dogs as it can also improve circulation, and even help to reduce pain and inflammation from disorders that often plague older dogs, such as arthritis-related issues or dysplasias. This specific activity allows you to continue reinforcing your bond with your dog and provide them comfort and compassion, even through the later stages of the canine cognitive disorder. 

Step
1
Visit the vet
While this is typically a safe and enjoyable way for you and your pup to interact, there are some medical conditions that can mar the experience if they are not taken into consideration. Depending on your dog’s age, breed, and any presenting symptoms, your veterinarian may want to check the health of your pet’s skin and joints as well as checking for any lumps or bumps that may be problematic or painful.
Step
2
Learn the technique
There are many different techniques that can be used when performing canine massage on your dog, and many different ways to learn the proper techniques. Some pet parents may choose to learn how to massage their pup by reading a book with illustrations and clear instructions or by watching an instructional documentary or video. You can also learn more about canine massage by attending classes that will allow you to get hands-on training under the supervision of a professional instructor.
Step
3
Make it comfortable
Canine massage is about relaxation as well as physical enrichment, and the environment in which the canine massage takes place can influence the final result. Low or diffuse lighting, quiet, soothing sounds, and even aromatherapy can be used to help calm your canine. It is also important that your dog has a safe and comfortable place to lie down as they are getting their massage, one that is well-padded in order to cradle and protect your canine during massage sessions.
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More Fun Ideas...

A Portrait With Your Doggo

For many individuals, this is a good time to get a great portrait of your pet, and there are many portrait studios that specifically cater to dogs and their owners. If you don’t have the funds for a professional portrait, your dog is uncomfortable going to new places, or you just prefer a more casual setting, many photographers will come to you, or you can simply choose to take the pictures yourself, just remember to include yourself in a picture of two.   

Hide and Seek

This is a fun game that can keep your dog thinking for quite some time. Problem-solving games and activities, like hide and seek, have shown some promise as a way to slow the process of cognitive decline. If your dog begins to show signs of frustration when playing, often wanders off before finding their target, or appears unduly startled when they find their target, it may be time to retire this activity.

Conclusion

While dogs that have developed Canine Cognitive Dysfunction may get confused and disoriented from time to time, they are still typically able to learn new things and enjoy new experiences for quite some time as long as a few considerations are taken. When introducing new activities or places to your dog with dementia, it may be more effective to take it gradually and ease your dog into the new experience, in order to avoid scaring or overwhelming your animal.