graphic for shrinking world syndrome blog

(It’s a small world, after all … but it doesn’t have to be!)

By Keri Stevenson

I ran across this article that Keri Stevenson wrote for an Old Dog Haven newsletter awhile back and thought you might find it interesting and helpful.  It’s a big long, but Keri offers some very specific suggestions in terms of toys, games and puzzles that might interest you. Most of the toys, games and puzzles can be found at your local pet store. Thanks for your comprehensive treatment of the topic and for your very specific and practical suggestions, Keri.     Blog Mistress

Each day I watch my almost-12 year old dog’s intelligent brown eyes grow cloudy, her steps falter, and her muzzle grow ever-more gray. I’m overcome with such a bittersweet emotion that it is almost painful. The bitter part, of course, is that I know she won’t be with me forever. But the sweet part is that I feel so incredibly blessed to still have her in my life.  I know that many dogs never live to this ripe old age, particularly very large breeds like Nova (English Mastiff). Nova entered my life when she was just three years old and still in the prime of her life – strong, agile, and ready for anything. For more than eight years she has been my sidekick, my willing partner in crime, and my best friend. Now, however, arthritis has settled so deeply in her joints that the long walks around Green Lake are just a distant memory. Her failing hearing and limited eyesight have made the once highly prized trips to the dog park anxious ones, as it is more difficult for her to locate me in the midst of all of the chaos. Her favorite red ball that she once loved to chase sits untouched in her basket of toys, mingling with an old tug of war rope and squeaky football. These days, most of her time is spent in a deep slumber on her bed, head hung over the edge, emitting snores that would rival those of any grown man. She’s depressed about getting old, I decide, never realizing that I was the one that wasn’t making the necessary adjustments to accommodate her most important senior asset – her mind.


I recently came across an article online about ‘shrinking world syndrome’ in older dogs. “Many dogs get what I call the ‘shrinking world’ syndrome,” says certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug. “Their owners get in a rut with them; they start walking the dog less and they don’t train the dog or teach him tricks. The dog doesn’t get as much stimulation and enrichment—maybe they stop taking the dog to the dog park—and there’s a significant decline in mental and physical challenges.”  I flinched inwardly, feeling as though those words were aimed directly at me. (After all, I rarely took her places anymore; figuring that she preferred the comfort of home). Dr. Haug points out that old age doesn’t have to mean stagnation and boredom.  “Maybe she can swim. Or the walks are shorter. Or maybe you just take her into a wooded park, lie down on a blanket and let her look around and sniff.”

I took this article to heart, and began making a true effort to include Nova in our family activities – even if it meant just going for a short drive to the grocery store. (I even take her to Home Depot, something she didn’t get to do as a youngster!) She has learned to balance a treat on her nose and shake hands. I often take her to a local beach where loves hanging out in the water and to a park where she can

enjoy new sights, sounds, and smells. And, little by little, I see the light come back into her eyes as she realizes she is, once again, our household’s VIP (Very Important Pet).


Watching our pets age is difficult for all of us; we want them to be the same forever. Instead, their senses of sight, smell, and hearing diminish, and their joints stiffen. Some even develop cognitive dysfunction syndrome, a canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s.  But just because senior dogs may be less energetic than younger dogs does not mean they have stopped learning or no longer wish to participate in family activities – in fact, they live for these moments! Not only should you maintain a good feeding and exercise schedule, but also special time with you. Dogs love to be the center of attention. A dog who might feel mopey or lethargic can get an instant burst of energy when she knows she’s going to go for a ride, playing a game, earning a treat for performing an old obedience routine, or learning a new trick. Dogs love learning – even when they’re old.

By working within your dog’s senior limits, you can help your dog maintain a healthy attitude and prolong her life by stimulating her mentally and physically. Find new ways to connect with your dog. Teaching a trick is not only good for the dog’s brain, but it’s a fun, easy way to do something that doesn’t require a lot of physical strength. The trick (or game) doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated. It can be performing a favorite old trick, or learning a new one. Old dogs can learn to bow, shake, speak, or find an object on command. You can also play with them using dog toys made just for seniors. Or, just use your imagination (and theirs) to create simple or mentally challenging games that engage her mind, body, and spirit.


That old adage about not being able to teach an old dog a new trick is completely untrue. The act of spending time with your old dog, plus the sense of accomplishment and communication that training brings, is well worth the time and effort.  Physical limitations such as arthritis may make certain movements like lying down, jumping and even repetitive sitting uncomfortable for your pet. Choose tricks that promote slower, less repetitive movement like speak, give a kiss, or shake. If your dog has hearing limitations, change your verbal cues to hand signals. Dogs with limited vision will appreciate the use of high contrast colors. Use especially tasty treats with strong scents to make up for diminished olfactory senses. Whatever you do, make it fun! This is about quality time with your best friend and bringing the sparkle back into her eyes (and yours). Here is a list of tricks that might just, well, do the trick!

1. Run/walk between your legs

2. Speak/sing

3. High five, wave

4. “Find it!”

5. Dance

6. Shake hands

7. Balance a treat on her nose

8. Walk backwards

9. Put away your toys

10. Bow

11. Kiss

12. Crawl

13. Drop

14. Hold a sign, flag, etc. (great for photos!)

15. Cover up with a blanket

16. Get your leash

17. Push a ball with your nose

18. Rollover or play dead


Here are just a few ideas for your senior:

The Kong Senior Dog Toy is constructed from a soft compound that is easy on old teeth and gums.

If your old dog used to love a game of Frisbee, take it down a geriatric notch with the Booda Floppy Disc that is flexible and gentle on teeth and gums.

Treat dispensers, like the StarMark Bob-A-Lot, Kong Wobbler and Dog Treat Dispenser, Buster Food Cube Interactive Dog Toy, and Enrych Soft Buster Cube Pet Toy will keep your senior entertained for hours.

Treats specially formulated for seniors, such as Dogswell Veggie Life Happy Hips, can help keep your senior dog occupied with chews that contain Glucosamine, Chondroitin, and Vitamin E to help promote healthy hips and joints.

Fragile teeth (and your lamps and vases) will appreciate the Chuckit! Soft Indoor Balls. Just make sure the dog has adequate traction on floors so he does not slip and fall when going after it.


We all know that food is #1 on most dogs’ Top 10 list. Some of the simplest (and most fun) games involve food. Because olfactory senses may be diminished, use treats with stronger and more enticing scents.

Here are some simple, inexpensive ideas:

Scatterbrain: Simply scatter dry dog food on the floor or in the backyard, then let your dog loose to find it. Dogs have a blast with this game. (Just be careful to not overfeed your dog since excessive weight is tough on the hips and joints).  Sometimes I feed Nova her entire meal by this method, as it gives her mental and physical stimulation to find each piece of kibble.

Kibble Catch: Play a game of catch with the same dog food. Toss a piece up in the air aimed toward her nose, and she will likely try and catch it. If your dog has difficulty with this, lie down in front of her and gently toss each piece of kibble toward her and watch her catch and gobble it up.

“Three Card Monte” with yogurt cups: Collect three empty clean yogurt cups, and punch a few small holes in the base of each yogurt cup. Grab a handful of her favorite treats and have her watch as you cover one of the treats with a cup, and then tell her to ‘get it.’ (Sometimes you might have to show her what to do). It may take a few moments to push the cup over and get the treat. Then, put the three yogurt cups upside down on the floor and have your dog watch as you put a treat under just one of the cups. Move the cups around as in a game of monte, then give your dog the okay to find the treat. Your dog may knock them all over, or she may carefully evaluate the situation and go for the correct cup.  Whatever her method, she will be happy to do it over and over again. (This is also a favorite game of Nova’s – she opts for the ‘knock ‘em all over at once method).

Food Fetcher: Make a food–finding game with random containers. Hide treats in and under any items you have handy—such as yogurt cups or empty                   cereal boxes. Have your dog stay while you set up the treat-finding course. Scatter a few treats on the floor as freebies, then turn your dog loose to poke and hunt.

Cardboard Catcher: This game comes from a book called Playtime for Your Dog, by Christina Sondermann. Take a cardboard box and fill it with crumpled newspaper, then toss in some dry food and treats. Choose a size box that works well for your dog—such as a shoebox for smaller dogs or an apple box for larger dogs. Make this game more challenging by taking squares of newspaper or wax paper and tightly wrap four or five pieces of dry food in each, like hard candy. Put a few pieces of food in empty containers you save, like takeout containers and cereal and cracker boxes. Put in a few treats, and close the lids. Then everything goes in the big box, and your dog goes to town. You may end up with a messy floor when it’s all done, but the fun your dog had while foraging makes it worth the cleanup afterward.


A busy mind is a happy mind. Interactive dog puzzles are extremely engaging because they make your dog work to locate and reach treats inside. Dogs typically spend more time with them than average dog toys simply because not only is it fun, the reward compensation is always there. Here are five interactive puzzles on the market; there are various levels of difficulty, so choose the one you think is best for your pet.

Kyjen Hide-A-Squirrel.

This toy works as a reverse puzzle. Initially, hide the squeaky squirrel pieces in the openings in the plush tree trunk. Then your dog makes use of her own problem solving abilities to collect them. Older dogs enjoy searching for, and catching, the “squeaky” victim.  Difficulty Level: Easy. There are several sizes available.

Nina Ottosson Wooden Treat Fighter

This puzzle will really make your dog think! Treats are put underneath the wooden blocks, which your dog needs to slide through the channel to take out. Great for smart dogs that really like to use their minds (Any Australian shepherd owners out there?).  Make it even more challenging with the inclusion of the two bigger pegs which may be utilized to block the channels.  Difficulty Level: Medium.

Aikion Interactive Dog Bowl

In this game treats are concealed within the several compartments and are accessed by your dog as he opens the doors or rotates the central wheel. This is great for your senior dog’s problem solving instincts.  Difficulty Level: Easy / Medium.

Nina Ottosson Plastic Dog Magic

Nina Ottosson Dog Magic is a fairly simple interactive dog game where the dog needs to shift bones to gain access to the concealed treats. By changing the location of the treat you can encourage your dog to concentrate and use her nose for hidden secrets.  Great for dogs with limited eyesight.  Difficulty Level: Easy.

Nina Ottosson Dog Twister

The Dog Twister is a more difficult game where you conceal treats in the depressions underneath the blocks and your dog locates them by shifting one block after another in a circular direction. By securing the blocks with the bone pegs you may add more difficulty.  Difficulty Level: Medium / High.

One final reminder: Whether it’s as simple as taking your dog to a local park to sit by your side and watch the world go by, a short ride to the grocery store, or playing a game of “Kibble Catch,” the time you spend with your dog is priceless. There is one thing that age cannot affect – and that is the love and bond you have forged with your dog over the years.

Celebrate it.




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