Caring for a senior dog is immensely rewarding, yet it can also be quite challenging. On good days, you feel joyous, but on difficult days, fear strikes, and the thought, “Is this the beginning of the end?” often arises. This can be quite the emotional roller coaster.

Challenges with older dogs

This past week, the topic came up twice during consultations. There was the 14-year-old Labrador who had issues with one of his paws twice (in different paws), causing quite a scare. He suffers from significant arthritis and spondylosis, and the question arose both times whether the medication that had been effective until now was no longer sufficient and if this was the beginning of the end. Fortunately, in both instances, it turned out to be something completely different that could be resolved effectively.

And then there was a family with two Golden Retrievers, one aged 14 and the other 12. Both dogs are starting to show symptoms of aging in different ways. Just as one dog began to improve, the other started having problems – just when the owners thought they could breathe a sigh of relief, a new challenge presented itself. Two dogs to worry about…

The joy of living with an older dog

Despite the challenges, caring for an older dog can bring a deep sense of fulfillment and unconditional love that is hard to put into words. These loyal friends, with their wise eyes, touch us profoundly. Moments of quiet connection, like a head resting gently against your knee or a slow, contented sigh, are precious memories we cherish. These senior dogs teach us about resilience, adaptability, and living in the present.

Caring for an older dog brings its own rewards. In the daily routine of care, a deep bond based on trust and mutual respect forms. These moments, often small and subtle, strengthen the connection between you and your dog and highlight the importance of patience and empathy. Caring for your loyal companion also teaches you a lot about yourself, such as perseverance and the value of unconditional love. These experiences provide a satisfaction that is hard to find elsewhere and remind us that caring for each other is one of the most natural and enriching aspects of life.

Caregiving for dogs

However, caring for an older dog also has its tougher moments. I often compare the care of an older dog to caregiving as we know it in human healthcare. What is caregiving? It refers to the non-professional, informal help that people provide to a family member or acquaintance who needs support with daily activities due to old age, disability, illness, or another cause that makes them dependent on others. And that is exactly what we do for our older dogs.

Emotional challenges in dog caregiving

It is generally recognized that this care can be emotionally taxing for people, but for pet care, this understanding is less common. Especially if the environment lacks understanding of how much time and  (emotional) energy the care requires, you can feel quite alone as a person with a dog with special needs.

Unfortunately, I don’t have ready-made solutions for you. Everyone experiences this in their own way, and people may need different strategies to cope. I do have a few suggestions, though, that have helped many people.

Seek support and share your experiences

Try to find like-minded people to talk to. Sharing this emotion can greatly help to lighten the load. If that’s not possible in your immediate environment, look online. There are Facebook groups for just about everything, including this. And remember: your experience and your emotions are valid, no matter what “non-dog people” say.

Take care of yourself

Try and find an outlet. Writing is a great way for many people to release and process emotion. It’s also nicely private, and no one needs to read what you write. Write with pen and paper; the impact is really different than typing on a screen.

Also, take time for yourself: make sure you can occasionally do something for yourself while you are away from your dog. Having some time off from caregiving can greatly help you recharge.

Celebrate the small things

Look not only at what is no longer possible but also at what still is. This phase of life can sometimes set you on a completely different track, leading you to new activities you hadn’t engaged in before. For instance, play might still be possible in a modified way. One of my previous dogs loved balls, and when her mobility was no longer as good as before, we found a way to still play together with the ball: she would lie on her dog bed, and I would roll the ball towards her. She would then pick it up and could actually “throw” it back to me. We could play this game for quite a while, and I will never forget how happy and satisfied she looked.

Celebrate a good day, a walk that was a bit easier, a day when your dog is cheerful and active. Keep a journal in which you record the good days, with a brief note about what you did. This can greatly help to keep things in perspective. We humans tend to dwell on the negative and forget the positive. By looking back through your journal, you can sometimes see that there were more good days than you thought.

Cherish the moments together

While caring for an older dog certainly has its difficult times, the joyful moments make it all worthwhile. Every day with our dog is a gift, an opportunity to enjoy life together. Through the challenges, we find strength in knowing that  we are providing our loyal friends with the best care and love we can offer. It’s important to remember the good days, the playful moments, and the quiet moments of deep connection. Let’s not only focus on the inevitable challenges but also celebrate what is still possible and cherish what each moment brings.