Retriever Rehab

Expert tips on how to restore an older dog to top retrieving form
By Wade Bourne

Buster is an eight-year-old golden retriever whose antics more than justify his name. When the guns come up, this strong-willed dog goes out to watch for falling ducks. He used to be steady. Now he consistently ignores his owner's "stay" or "come" commands and stubbornly fetches ducks for himself. 

Millie, a seven-year-old Chessie, has packed on too many pounds. Though she was once a capable hunter, she has become lackluster in the field and lethargic everywhere else. She waddles when she walks—and rarely runs.

Max has become more aggressive as he's aged. The 10-year-old Lab now routinely tangles with any male dogs he encounters. When duck hunting, he refuses to honor other dogs' retrieves and will sometimes take away their birds.

It's not uncommon for older dogs like Buster, Millie, and Max to experience an assortment of physical, psychological, and behavioral changes that suddenly limit their abilities in the field. This can be baffling and frustrating for retriever owners, who often misjudge the causes of such changes and struggle to find ways to get their retrievers back on the right track. 

What can you do when your seasoned duck dog suddenly changes for the worse? I posed this question to veterinarians Elizabeth Shull and Jim Burchett and professional dog trainer Mike Stewart. Their collective answer was that many older dogs can be physically and emotionally rehabilitated as well as retrained—if you go about it the right way. Here's their expert advice on how you can get your older retriever back in top form in time for hunting season.

Treat Medical Conditions First

"As retrievers age, they face a range of related problems that can affect their temperament, companionability, and effectiveness as hunting dogs," says Dr. Elizabeth Shull of Knoxville, Tennessee. "The first thing you should do if you see any changes in your dog's temperament or personality is take him to a veterinarian for an examination. The vet will look for a medical cause for these changes before looking elsewhere." Shull is a board-certified specialist in treating canine behavioral and neurological issues, and she's also a proud Lab owner. 

According to Shull, one of the biggest challenges older dogs face is a condition called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. "Depending on what survey you read, this senility problem may affect 20 to 50 percent of dogs, beginning at seven years of age," she explains. "The older the dog, the greater the risk of developing this disorder, which is comparable to Alzheimer's disease in humans."

Symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome may include confusion, disorientation, pacing, loss of house training, excessive barking, and anxiety at night. "There's a whole constellation of symptoms associated with this disease, and every dog's experience is different," Shull says. "Dogs that develop this syndrome may also become more reclusive or more irritable."

To make matters worse, many retriever owners don't realize that canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome may be the underlying cause of behavioral changes in their dogs. "Owners frequently attribute human behavior to their dogs' problems," Shull explains. "They think their dogs are just becoming disobedient or ill-tempered. What they don't realize is that many times this medical condition may be responsible for the dogs' behavioral changes." 

Although there is no cure for canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, there are several multiple-treatment options for managing the symptoms associated with it. Special diets, medicines, and supplements can help, and so can altering the dog's environment. 

Other late-onset medical conditions can also cause changes in a retriever's behavior or personality. Kidney disease can contribute to a loss of house training. Hearing loss can make a dog unresponsive to commands. And pain or discomfort can make a dog irritable. Each of these conditions can be misinterpreted by owners assigning human traits such as laziness, stubbornness, and grumpiness to their dogs.

Moreover, if an exam fails to turn up a medical cause, the problem could be psychological. "An aging dog may develop anxieties—noise phobias, separation worries, increased aggression, and so on," Shull says. "There are basic therapies for treating these problems. Many of these involve gradual training regimens to replace undesirable behaviors with more desirable responses. 

"For example, an older dog might become increasingly aggressive about his food bowl. There are therapies to teach the dog that the human hand is providing food, not taking it away. This is done in a gradual, systematic way. We teach the dog owner how to do this; then he, in turn, trains his dog."

Veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists can prescribe medications to reduce reactivity, fear, and impulsivity to help alleviate the dog's anxiety and increase its response to behavioral modification. "When a dog has a behavioral problem, we try to figure out how to stop the triggers that bring on the bad behavior," Shull says. "Then we apply basic therapies to make the behavior more acceptable and desirable.

"One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to think, Oh, my dog is just getting old, and there's nothing I can do about his problem. In fact, there are many things that can be done to help dogs by minimizing and controlling difficulties associated with aging."

Make Sure Your Retriever Is Healthy and Fit

Dr. Jim Burchett says that owners of older retrievers need to pay extra attention to the dog's conditioning and nutritional needs. Burchett, a veterinarian from Clarksville, Tennessee, is an avid duck hunter who has raised and trained Labrador retrievers for 25 years. 

"Hunting dogs are canine athletes, and their nutritional requirements are different from those of house pets," Burchett explains. "Retrievers face tough physical and mental tests, and they need special nutrition to reach top performance. A good comparison would be the difference between diet requirements for Olympic athletes and for everyday people."

Like Millie, our hypothetical Chessie, many of the older retrievers Burchett sees in his clinic are overweight. He says that as dogs age, their metabolism slows and they don't burn calories like they did in their prime. This makes it not only easier for them to put on weight but harder to take it off. Heavy, out-of-shape retrievers are more lethargic and incapable of reaching peak performance. This is why owners of older retrievers should monitor their dogs' weight year-round and keep extra pounds off through proper diet and exercise. 

Aging retrievers should also have their blood tested once a year to check all organ functions, particularly thyroid production. "Hypothyroidism [low thyroid output] is the number one endocrine abnormality in dogs, and it is prevalent in retrieving breeds, especially Labradors," Burchett says. "The thyroid controls metabolism, and low thyroid output causes a dog to become lethargic and gain weight.

"This disease is easily controlled with daily thyroid supplements. Once a dog's blood work returns to normal, or if it was normal in the first place, you can put the dog on a low-calorie, low-fat diet designed especially for weight control in older dogs. Combined with exercise, such a diet can get the dog's weight down to a desirable level."

Burchett warns against rushing the conditioning process with older retrievers, and recommends starting an exercise program well before opening day. "Older dogs take longer to get into shape than younger dogs. If you're going to run a half-marathon on Saturday, you don't start training on Wednesday," he says. "You have to start far ahead of time with short workouts and build up to longer ones. It's not fair to a dog if you have him in poor shape, and then expect him to hunt all day when the season opens."

According to Burchett, a dog's nutritional needs can also change during the hunting season. "If you're hunting him only three or four times a year, you can keep him on a maintenance diet with his normal food," he says. "But if he's hunting three or four days a week or more, you should switch to a high-performance feed with a higher fat content. When a dog burns energy, he breaks down the fat first, so the fat percentage in a food can be just as important as the protein percentage."

Most major dog food brands offer performance formulas with extra calories and protein for active dogs like retrievers. Burchett recommends feeding your dog just as soon as he cools down after hunting. This will help him absorb nutrients from the food more easily, which can decrease recovery time from a long day afield. Taking a can of dog food to the blind can also help; a proper meal at lunchtime will give your retriever the energy he needs for the rest of the day.

Veteran duck dogs are also susceptible to problems such as joint stiffness or soreness, says Burchett, who adds that keeping a retriever's weight under control will put less stress on his joints. In addition, glucosamine supplements will help keep an older hunting dog's joints lubricated and functioning smoothly. There are a number of safe pain relief medications you can give your dog if he returns from a hunt with soreness, but Burchett recommends that you consult with your veterinarian first.

"The main thing is to take your dog for a thorough physical exam before the season starts," Burchett says. "Find a vet who understands the demands of hunting, and follow his instructions for caring for your dog. This is the best way to keep your dog healthy and useful well into his old age."

Regain Control Before Retraining

Even seasoned retrievers that are healthy and fit can acquire bad behaviors, says Mike Stewart, owner of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi. Stewart is the trainer and caretaker of DU's official mascot, Deke, and has extensive experience in developing retrievers to their full potential as gun dogs.

"The good news is that older dogs can be retrained if you make training sessions interesting and fun," Stewart says. "However, retraining an older dog can be more difficult than training a young dog from the ground up. With a beginner, you don't have bad habits to overcome; you start right out putting the good stuff in. But with an older dog, you usually have to weed out the bad habits before you can put the good training back in. This takes a lot of consistent repetition in training, and patience on the trainer's part."

When rehabbing an older retriever, a trainer must reestablish what Stewart calls "essential behaviors." These include basic commands such as sit, stay, heel, and place. Compliance with these commands provides the basic obedience needed to progress to more complex training concepts.

In the case of our hypothetical dog Buster, for example, Stewart says a trainer must reestablish control over a retriever that has become used to hunting for himself. This means correcting the dog immediately—and appropriately—when he fails to comply with commands. "You've got to stop any dysfunctional behavior right up front," he says. "This can be a challenge with an older dog that's used to getting his way. But you must regain control over the dog and teach him you're in charge, not him."

Stewart recommends correcting your retriever at the very moment and place of the infraction, so the dog will associate his disobedience with the correction. Corrections should not be too harsh and should be used only to stop unwanted behaviors, says Stewart, who cautions that a trainer should never lose his temper when disciplining a dog. 

In addition to weeding out bad habits, trainers should work on encouraging good behavior. For example, when a dog complies with a known command, the trainer should reward him with praise. This is classic positive reinforcement, which will help you replace bad habits with good ones.

Once you reestablish control over an older retriever, you can retrain him by using the same methods you would use on a young dog. "You teach the dog to be steady. You teach him marking, lining, handling [responding to hand signals], honoring, delivering to hand, and other skills, all through various training exercises," Stewart says.

Repetition and consistency in training are essential to getting the desired response from your dog. "You do a drill over and over," Stewart advises. "You also make it clear what you want and that compliance brings a reward, while noncompliance merits an immediate correction."