Featured articles, Lab report

Bright Minds

Most of The Wildrose Way content covers puppy development and training of gundogs, adventure dogs and therapy companions all in their developmental prime.  It’s time we devote attention to our senior sporting dogs among us those beyond their peak, active years yet retaining their undiminished desires for activity, companionship and “The Hunt.”

We see the enthusiastic expression in their eyes, wag of the tail and body all expressing a

passion TO GO without regard to their faded capabilities. Then there is their heart-wrenching disappointment which appears if left behind.

Maintaining the senior dogs’ health, physical abilities, skills and mental conditioning is accomplished by focusing not so much on what they can’t do but rather what they can, keeping dogs active, engaged and, of course, happy.

Three considerations:

  1. Mental Conditioning
  2. Physical Conditioning – exercise and agility
  3. Nutrition

Physical Conditioning – Exercise and Agility    

Obviously older dogs require a balanced exercise routine for body conditioning promoting strength, agility and cardiovascular maintenance.  Dogs are creatures of habit.  They benefit from predictable routines.  Body conditioning management is accomplished with scheduled exercises and training routines with these tips in mind:

  1. Long walks on trails or grass fields with intermittent, short retrieves of memories or marks.
  2. Wildrose drills are applicable, just shorter in duration and distance.
  3. Reduce high-impact activities such as long runs, running on hard surfaces, jumping from elevated objects, running on low-traction surfaces (ice, boat decks, etc).
  4. Avoid exercise just after eating.
  5. Swimming is excellent, low-impact conditioning for training.
  6. Avoid heat stressing. Confine activities to the cooler times of the day.
  7. Always be watchful for fatigue, change in the dog’s gait, and condition of the dog’s pads.

Training activities remain important for skills retention and keeping the dog’s mental state engaged. Encourage continuous learning and problem solving in daily activities modifying the routine to shorter distances, reducing the duration of the activities and impact on joints and hips.

In addition to physical limitations, age often affects the dog’s eyesight and hearing which impacts their abilities to be successful in training or afield.  Most dogs will retain their keen scenting abilities.  The key with these challenges is modification in activities, not elimination.

Tips for Sight Challenges  

  1. Hunting cover for unseens.
  2. Hunting cover with stops to the whistle.
  3. Tracking rolled, scented tennis balls.
  4. Close marks by sound into cover or water.

To offset sight limitations, use large white bumpers scented with a feather. The noise made by the fall along with the scent will assist in success – The Nose Knows.

Tips for Hearing Challenges

  1. Use pull/push, pull/cast exercise where the dog is handling coming toward you rather than attempting stop to the whistle going out routines. The dog is watching you.
  2. Practice silent handling – left/right cast, stop, hunt in, recall which are all accomplished by hand signals silently. The simple baseball pattern works well.
  3. Practice whistle exercises in very close proximity. If it’s not right at heel, it won’t be right in the field.
  4. Water splashes of a large bumper usually attracts attention. It seems that dogs lose high-tone recognition (whistles) before recognition of sounds like gunfire, big water splashes, duck calls or hand claps, and, of course, unwrapping crinkly papers is always heard!

Mental Conditioning – Deke’s Diary

Deke’s recommendation for bright minds involves activities for exercise, agility and mental stimuli, all to keep him alert and in good physical condition with many of his hunting skills intact.


Catch – Games that Deke loves involve catching objects mid-air like a soft Frisbee or tennis ball. Place the dog at sit a distance away and toss the object toward the dog for a catch. The activity promotes coordination between eyes and mouth. It requires patience and timing for a successful catch. The stationary catch replaces the chasing after the object like catching a mid-air Frisbee which requires running and far more stress to joints. The dog remains motionless until the flyer is airborne and his name is called. Actually, this is an exercise we use with any hunting dog to improve wounded gamebird recovery.

Bounce – The dog sits remote and the ball is thrown to the ground to create a bounce. Double and triple bounces before the catch qualifies for extra points requiring concentration and patience.

  • Ball to the Wall – With the dog sitting parallel to your position facing a solid wall, bounce a ball off the wall so that it returns bouncing toward the dog. Catch some of the balls yourself as denials reinforcing steadiness.  The dog responds only by name.
  • Walking Flush – Walks become more exciting if ball rolls or bouncing balls are involved. We walk the trails and occasionally a ball is bounced down the path and the dog pursues the moving ball.  Incorporate memories to the rear as you progress and denials to reinforce steadiness.
  • Out of sight but not out of mind – A favorite activity of Deke’s is for me to throw a ball or launch shot over a building, solid fence or over a thick hedge requiring him to figure out how to find a route to the prize. Problem solving and exercise are combined in this activity.
  • Multi TDM (time delay memory) – To build memory, place bumpers along your path in various locations. Complete the hike, then return to the location for the recoveries.  With each successful retrieve, move your position. For added challenge, invert your picking position for retrieves from how you placed the bumpers, basically running from the opposite side.  Keep the duration and distances short.  The goal is exercise, building strength and mental recall.
  • Obedience – Revisit heel work, reverse heel, squares, steady to flush and whistle work all in warm-up activities.
  • Steadiness – The old Wildrose pigeon on a string routine. Hide a few short memories then begin a walk up with your senior at heel. Occasionally, toss the tethered bird forward for a flush.  Redirect the dog from the flush and pick one of the memories.  Keep distance short and surfaces conducive (grasses, woodlands, water).
  • Agility – The mental and physical challenges of feet placement, balance and problem solving can be accomplished through agility exercises. Boardwalks involve walking on 1-in x 6-in planks in various patterns off the ground 12 inches.  (a) Step over (b) walk forward (c) back up while remaining on the boards.  Slight inclines may be incorporated but avoid steep steps, high ramps, and elevated platforms.  Joints should not be stressed.

Another interesting activity is to take ropes of different sizes and lace them at knee height to the dog in web patterns between trees and posts.  Have the dog walk, turn and recall through the formations.

If a tunnel is available, perhaps at a playground or connecting 50-gallon barrels, have the dog locate retrieves inside the tunnel.  Similarly, you can hide objects to be found in hollow trees, low limbs, buried under leaves, or on top of stumps.  It’s hide and seek hunting style.

Retrieving Skills

Most Wildrose techniques can be modified to maintain and teach new skills for the older dog.  Just adjust duration, impact and be mindful of fatigue.  Keep lessons short and interesting.

Simple Baseball

Walking Baseball

Group work honoring other dogs

Swimming in moving water for drifting bumpers

Swims across open water for memories

Off-the-ground finds in woodlands

Hunting cover with occasional whistle stops

Tracking bird drags or scented tennis ball rolls

Your training efforts should focus on engaging the dog’s mind as well as maintaining physical condition. Old dogs can be taught new tricks.

On the Job

All dogs, despite their age need a job.  The senior values the security of self-worth, belonging, purpose and mental stimuli. Although their physical condition may be limited, their need for enjoyment, fulfilment with people, activities and even hunting remain.

Beneficial activities for old dogs:

Short put and take quail hunt

Hunting for hidden sheds

Picking up a few retrieves at a tower shoot

A float trip by canoe

Becoming a fishing partner

Activities that the dog has always enjoyed just with limitations and reasonable

Therapy Services

Dogs are very intuitive. They quickly realize they are fulfilling a purpose once they have been training as a therapy canine resource. Visitations and demonstrations offer opportunities for road trips, meeting people, entertainment and the affection they will encounter.

School resource services

Retirement home visitation

Hospitalized patient therapy

Many of our retired gundogs excel in these activities.  The dog’s emotional wellbeing and mental conditioning remain keen when they recognize their value through visitations and outside human contact. Actually it becomes reverse therapy, enhancing the wellbeing of the dog as well as those the dog encounters.


The senior dog benefits from a diet specifically developed to address some of the issues of aging.  The food of choice for Wildrose dogs over nine years is Purina Pro Plan Bright Minds. As a dogs mature, they tend to lose muscle while gaining body fat.  A balanced diet scientifically developed for the older sporting dog combined with exercise proves beneficial in offsetting some of the conditions of aging:

Excessive weight gain

Digestion issues

Cognitive degeneration

Eyesight deterioration

Coat conditioning

Muscle retention

It’s important to reduce the amount of fat provided to older dogs while retaining appropriate levels of protein intake as well as provide omega 3 fatty acids, important for healthy joints and coats. Bright Minds is designed to help in the promotion of memory, attentiveness, and trainability. It retains 29% protein while decreasing fat content to 14%. The omega 3 fatty acids and fish oils remain as does enhanced botanical oils useful as an additional energy source for the brain. Bright Minds has been extensively used at Wildrose with our senior labs with excellent notable results.

Deke endorses Purina ProPlan Bright Minds!  For in-depth information on conditioning for senior sporting dogs, I highly encourage you to read Dr. Brian Zanghi’s article in this issue of the Wildrose Journal. Brian is owner of Wildrose Aspen and is the Senior Research Nutritionist with Purina Pet Care.  A must read.