Ask Tom, the Dogcharmer: The virtues of Patience

What to do when a dog slows down.

Patience, 6 years old. Courtesy of Patience's mother

Updated on Wednesday, May 4, 2016 at 10:00 am.

Hi Tom!

We have a German shepherd named Patience who has arthritis of the back, possibly hips, and a misformed hip joint, and is unable to run, use stairs, and generally move the way she used to. She can walk, but her back legs can’t keep up with the rest of her energy. How can we keep this very intelligent hundred-pound dog engaged: What can we do with her so that she doesn’t get bored so that her mind stays active?


Dear Patricia,

Take heart, because in spite of her disability, Patience can still have a reasonably full and stimulating life. In the world of dogs, one often hears, “A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.” Well, mental exercise can be just as exhausting as physical exercise. I remember kidding my son about his complaining of how tired he was after taking the SAT exams: “You were sitting on your butt for three hours, and you’re tired?”

Patricia, there are all kinds of interactive games and toys on the market that will require that Patience figure out how to get a treat without using a lot of physicality. Among my favorites are the games of Nina Ottosson, a Swedish designer of great dog toys. Her toys are made of wood and are big and solid, and require the dog to move pegs in different ways with her nose or paw to get at the treat. Go online and find a few interactive toys that will enhance Patience’s quality of life. When I lived in New York, a director at the Bear Mountain Zoo called me and asked me if I could help them with their two coyotes, which were becoming obsessive-compulsive from being confined. After observing them for awhile, it was obvious that they needed some mental stimulation, and I planned a series of cerebral exercises for them. One of the things I came up with that worked pretty well was their finding a hidden burlap bag filled with live crickets. Then, after tearing the bag open, they loved chasing and eating a million crickets leaping all over the place.

However, I don’t think a bag of live crickets in your house will work for you. So another thing you can do is teach Patience to “go find.” Take a treat or a toy with a treat in it, let her see you have it, tell her to “stay” and back away from her very, very slowly while acting strangely. Keep her fully engaged with your antics. If she won’t stay, put her leash on and attach it to something or have somebody hold it. Then let her see you toss the treat where she she can easily find it. Then go up to her and tell her, “Go find!” and let her go. If her enthusiasm is such that she may hurt herself, hold on to the leash attached to her harness and keep her safe as she heads for the treat. If you use toys, tell her to find them by name, giving her vocabulary: Go find the froggy or teddy bear. When she finds it, she gets the praise and treat. Then slowly graduate from her seeing where you tossed the toy to making the “finds” more and more difficult. That’s when she goes from the visual to having to use her nose to make the find. Make sure to have success build on success.

I never had to hire a clown or magician at my kids’ birthday parties. I’d have my search dog Michelle sit and stay in the kitchen with her back to the door while one of the kids hid somewhere in the house. When I released Michelle to “go find” after she took a whiff of the hiding kid’s sock, the other kids followed her while she searched. You could tell when she found the sock’s owner by the uproar of laughter and cheering coming from somewhere in the house. A minute later Michelle came bouncing back to the kitchen with a smile on her face while chewing the treat the missing person gave her for “being saved.” With some effort, sooner than you think, you’ll be able to hide a toy anywhere in the house and find yourself thrilled with Patience’s perseverance and joy at the search game!

Good luck and enjoy,
The Dogcharmer

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Last week, we ran a photo of a similar German Shephard whose name is Ulli. We have since updated the picture to be of Patience.