Everyone knows that doing a crossword puzzle every day helps keep our brains sharp as we get older. But what about our pets? Well, taking our dogs for a walk every day is the canine equivalent of getting them to do a daily crossword puzzle. Dogs “read” the environment on their walks by sniffing the ground or the closest lamppost for information on the other dogs that have passed by, such as their age, their gender, their health and even the amount of adrenaline coursing through their veins! Dogs have 200,000 olfactory, or smell, receptors, in comparison to the human number of 20,000, so they get a great deal of information from their environment, which their minds must then process and interpret. The world outside their yard is their crossword puzzle, and olfactory stimulation translates into brain stimulation for them.
Just letting our dogs out into the yard is not challenging enough to their brains, and aerobic exercise is important anyway for good blood flow to the brain, so walks, even slow ones, are the way to go. What else can we do to keep our dogs’ brains stimulated? Keep them learning new tricks, or at least practicing old ones! People that retire need to make the effort to stay involved with their former professions, or to develop new hobbies, in order to keep their minds active, and dogs need jobs and hobbies, too. If there are tricks that your dog enjoys doing, or that you enjoy seeing, keep doing them. If both of you are bored with those tricks you have been doing all these years, teach new ones! Dogs of any age will learn new things readily as long as the right rewards are given. Dogs can “hunt” around the house as a new hobby, too – hide favorite rawhide bones, Greenies or treat-stuffed toys around the house, and encourage your dog to find them, then make a big deal of applauding and petting him when he accomplishes that great feat!
There are many other ways to keep your older dog’s brain healthy – most can be extrapolated from human geriatric research. Social involvement with family and in the community is important for humans: for dogs, frequent daily interactions with all the human family members and frequent visits to see favorite canine and human friends would be equally important. Play time at the dog park or at doggie daycare, or just being at those beehives of canine activity and simply watching the other dogs play, would be protective for the aging canine brain. So keep your brain and body moving – and yours, too – age-proofing works BOTH ways!