3 Fun and Easy Ways to Bond with a Senior Dog

Adopting a senior dog can be a wonderful alternative to buying or adopting a puppy, for both the owner and the dog. Senior dogs have a harder time getting adopted from shelters once they have grown out of their adorable puppy phase, but giving a senior dog a comfortable and loving home in their twilight years can be extremely fulfilling and rewarding for the right owner – one who does not have the energy, inclination, or space to train a hyperactive young puppy, or simply someone who wants to both adopt a dog and feel like they are doing good in the world.

While there are many benefits to senior adoptions, they also come with their own special challenges. The most obvious of these is that older dogs are more susceptible to health problems, sometimes extremely susceptible depending on their breed; Boxers, for instance, have higher rates of cancer and arthritis, while Irish Setters are known for developing hip dysplasia. Adoptive owners also might not know their dog’s health history, which can make it more difficult to properly care for them. And even for the many, many perfectly healthy senior dogs out there, it can be difficult to find good advice on how to spend time and bond with them, since so much of the dog industry is focused on puppies and their new owners. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to help your senior dog develop a strong relationship in a new home.

1. Include your dog in your daily routine.

This is, in some ways, unavoidable, since getting a dog is already a tacit admittance you are prepared to rebuild your daily routine around things like feeding time and walks. With rescues, though, this process is especially important, because they almost certainly have a major breach of trust with a human in their past, whether it was abuse or neglect, an actual abandonment, or a painful but necessary separation from a loving home. Senior dogs might have more than one such incident in their past, so it will be especially hard for them to trust a human again. Your number one virtue, then, as their new human needs to be reliability. Including them in your regular routine as much as possible – every morning at seven you walk to the mailbox together, for example, or every night at eight you sit on the couch together – will help establish for them that you are here to stay and worthy of their trust and affection.

2. Give lots of pets throughout the day.

It may seem like the hardest thing about getting a new dog is finding a time to stop petting them, but regular affectionate physical contact is especially important for building a relationship with a senior dog. As discussed above, the dog likely has some form of abandonment in their past, so having the reassurance that you are there will be important for establishing yourself as a trustworthy figure. So while intense cuddle sessions or long belly rubs are great, equally important are the little touches that let them know you have not forgotten them – a few ear scritches while you are waiting for the microwave or a head pat as you walk past their bed. It is important, though, to gauge how comfortable your dog is with touching (which might be different for different members of the family or different kinds of touch) and move at their own pace with petting and other forms of affection.

3. Work on the dog’s training, even if they already know the basics.

It can be hard to tell how much prior training a rescue dog has, but even if they seem like a perfectly behaved pup, training has benefits beyond just getting your dog to sit and stay. When done well, the biggest benefit of training is building up a relationship between an owner and their dog, with clear communication and mutual trust. These are two of the most important goals in forming a relationship with a rescue. Working on training, just like you would with a new puppy, will give you all of the safety and convenience benefits of a well-trained dog. Equally as important, it will also help a rescue who started off thinking of you as a scary stranger then fulfill their role as man’s best friend, which is the best outcome for both owner and dog.       

Adopting a senior dog is both a uniquely challenging and a uniquely rewarding undertaking, with its own ups and downs totally different from those of raising a puppy. However, with a little thoughtfulness and care, there is no reason you cannot form a bond with your senior dog every bit as loving and lasting as any other.

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