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The Older Active Dog – Coping with slowing down & anticipatory grief

I generally write my blogs about ‘how to’ and ‘what is’ with instructional content that I think will help people get into and enjoy the sports we are so passionate about. Occasionally I will write something personal about what’s going on in our lives at the moment and as a lifelong dog owner and enthusiast, I like to think that sharing this type of blog might also be useful to my audience of dog lovers.

I have written before about when to stop running with your dog and the importance of rest and recovery for dogs in general but this blog is more specifically about how I’ve had to deal with the gradual decline in fitness and activity in my oldest dog Judo.

Judo is my oldest dog and has been canicrossing with me from the start of my journey

To give you some background, I rescued Judo when he was about 5 months old and was a little scrap of a dog, full of worms, dumped with his brothers and sisters at the Many Tears Animal Rescue’s door-step. I was looking for a companion for my other rescue dog, Tegan and I have always (I say it grudgingly!) had a soft spot for collies. His name was the one given to him by the rescue on the day he went to the centre to identify him and I just never changed it, according to my vets and Pit Pat UK, the name Judo for a dog is unique and I found out recently means ‘gentle way’, which is so perfect to describe Judo, I wish I had known earlier.

Judo on the right of Tegan as a baby

Judo has been canicrossing with me since he was about 14 months old and has attempted the West Highland Way with me, completed the Cotswold Way with me, taught me how to bikejor and gave me the confidence to compete on the bike. Judo has been the most focused and reliable canicross dog I’ve ever had, I even used to loan him out to others so they could enjoy an easy run at social runs and races. I really felt the loss when he had to retire from harness sports in 2017 due to spondylosis which meant running in a harness wasn’t suitable for him any longer.

Judo was and still is the best canicross dog I’ve had so far

At the end of 2018, I discovered both Judo and my other dog Tegan, had heart murmurs and the vets discussed how this would eventually develop and degenerate over time. But the advice was to keep allowing them both to enjoy an active life because the heart is essentially another muscle in the body and so exercise, (as long as done at their pace) would be good for them. Sadly I lost Tegan the following year due to a mass, which couldn’t be operated on and as heart-breaking as that was at the time, she had been fighting fit right up until 2 days before that took her from me.

Judo on the other hand has been gradually slowing down over time, we’ve added and increased medications to help support his heart and he’s had regular cardiologist appointments to make sure he’s still receiving the best care possible. For the last 6 months, I have been watching his activity levels reduce and his enthusiasm and ability to keep up with our walks has also slowly gone, to the point where he now doesn’t accompany us, other than on the shortest of walks. This is what I have found most difficult to deal with and have genuinely struggled to come to terms with.

Judo has gradually slowed down since 2017 and now isn’t capable of keeping up with us on walks

My beautiful, active, little pocket rocket has turned into a very slow, sedate, old boy whose greatest pleasure comes from licking the plates before they go in the dishwasher! For a good few months now I realise I have actually been grieving for the loss of my active dog, even though he is still here.

Now some people might find this difficult to understand, after all, he is still here and is still enjoying his life, albeit in a very different way to how he used to, but anticipatory grief is a recognised form of grieving and Carrie Kearns discussed this with Canine Arthritis Management in this blog: Anticipatory Grief – CAM Conversation in 2019.

Carrie runs Animal Bereavement Counselling through her website: and the main take-away I have gained from her advice is to ‘Use this time not to lament and think about what is to happen. It will never be far from your thoughts but don’t let it steal away the time you have.’

I have spent a long time trying to work out how I could include him in our activities and not leave him behind, feeling guilty if I did leave him at home whilst taking the others out and getting really, really upset about the inevitable conclusion to his condition which means he will no longer be in our lives. Judo has been a constant in my life for the last 13.5 years and his quiet, gentle and funny ways will leave a huge hole in my heart and for a while, it’s been all I can think about.

I have been devastated thinking about the hole in my life Judo will leave

I have always considered myself a fairly rational person but when it comes to being able to rationalise the decline of my dogs’ active life and health, I have found it very difficult to put any of it into perspective. Those who know me have seen my anxiety about doing the right thing for him and the fear I have about having to say that final goodbye. We had another vet appointment this week and they have confirmed we’re doing everything we can for him now and it’s just a matter of time, which is just breaking my heart.

I have however decided to take Carrie’s advice and make every last day count, she mentioned a few things you can do to enjoy whatever time you have left with a dog on limited time and these include:

  • Make a bucket list, what would your pet love to do if they could get away with it?
  • What foods were forbidden but now with the days reducing they can eat as a treat?
  • Where is their favourite place to be?

I booked us into a dog-friendly light show in early December that meant he got to be sociable and wander around with other dogs and people which he loved. We took an extended break over Christmas at our favourite place and made sure there was time for activities which included Judo. I have always taken loads of photos but I’ve been making sure to take more, aware that any of these things we do might be the last time we do them with Judo.

Judo at the Winter Glow event we took him to

It might seem a bit strange to be so focused on the sad ending which is inevitable but when you’ve had a dog as active as Judo has been his whole life, the difference in him has been night and day. So it has been hard to ignore the decline and even harder to incorporate his needs into our regular day without acknowledging that he is now a senior dog who needs extra special care and attention that involves very carefully restricting his activity when his whole life has previously been about getting him out to enjoy being active.

I feel I need to explain to people, the best way I know how, why I might not be doing so many events at the moment, why I am sticking to specific venues for races and not travelling too far away from home. My whole focus has had to change from our usual adventures away, to making sure Judo’s needs are being met and he is as comfortable and happy as he can be now, which often means just being in his own space at home.

If there is anyone else out there experiencing this, I’d love to hear from you. I can offer little advice but I can tell you, you have my deepest sympathy and I fully understand the term ‘anticipatory grief’ now in a way I never did before.

In trying to finish this on a more positive note, I am going to enjoy all the time we have left and now I’ve accepted and understand the process I’m going through, hope I can give Judo the best last days which is nothing less than he deserves, having been my side-kick and original team member since we started our crazy career in canicross all those years ago.

Judo will be living his best life for as long as he has left and I will be doing my best not to get too sad

“Dogs die. But dogs live, too. Right up until they die, they live. They live brave, beautiful lives. They protect their families. And love us. And make our lives a little brighter. And they don’t waste time being afraid of tomorrow” – Dan Gemeinhart

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Louise

    I lost my newfoundland 10 days off her 13th birthday and I can sympathise with how your feeling, we go camping and her kids trio I stayed alot nearer to the tent with her rather than go for walks, walks were when she wanted with frequent stops , some days you would think is it today , but then one day she let me know and it broke my heart , but i always said she would let me know. Make the most of every day you have left, one of the hardest moments I had was first walk without her I cried the whole walk , sending love ❤️

    1. k9trailtime

      Thank you, it is so hard but I am grateful we have had so many years together

  2. Caroline

    What a good read. I too am in the anticipatory grief part of my boy’s slowing down towards the autumn of his years. Just slowly but surely, he has stopped the behaviours that defined him, they are the talking point of everyone who knows him. Not sure if he will make the summer but at nearly 13 he has had a great life, has been a fantastic member of my pack. My promise to my lad is to continue to give him the best life I can until the end.

    1. k9trailtime

      It’s so difficult isn’t it? I hope we get lots more good days of quality time with our boys

  3. Karen

    Thanks for sharing. We went through this last January with Tyler. He let us know what he could and couldn’t do and when the time came he told us that too. The hole has not gone away. Enjoy your time with Judo and continue making the memories which will make you smile and help when you have to say goodbye. Xx

    1. k9trailtime

      Thanks Karen, I’m finding it really hard!

  4. Gail

    Well that me cry! This is exactly me at the moment. I have two elderly teenagers who are not in the best of health and I’m constantly worried about whether they’re suffering.
    On New Year’s Eve I remember thinking that the new year is likely to herald the loss of one or both!
    Having said that I’m also feeling that I should do things that they like and make the most of the time left, so thank you for addressing this and making me realise that I’m not alone.

    1. k9trailtime

      It’s really hard isn’t it? I know I wasn’t sure we’d make Christmas and we have so now the next milestone for Judo is his next birthday in May, I can’t see him making it but nothing is set in stone and I have to keep telling myself not to think like that and just enjoy each day!

  5. Debbie Reed

    Hi I am in the same boat so to speak,my labbradoodle misty is 13 in April and has cancer,I found that out when she started doing strange things like eating dead fish or birds thT she has never we took her to the vets nd did bloods than had to have a scan nd that’s when they found it.That was 21/2years ago and she is still going strong so I make the most of every day with her as I don’t know how much longer I will have her.I also got a rescue dog who was left to roam on a farm with no interreaction with anyone eles other than his mother,he was also 5months but did t have any social skills and wasn’t toilet trained nd didn’t know wot todo with stairs but he slowly getting there although still nervous nd anxious with other dogs.Harley has certainly kept misty going and she is very protective of him,they love a good run outside fetching balls even if she can’t keep up with him nd is speed..

    1. k9trailtime

      I think one day at a time is a good way to deal with it, I just find it very hard!

  6. E Hall

    Thank you so much for this blog. My Staffie is 10 1/2 now and after an operation to remove three very small lumps in February, she has slowed down considerably, to almost a different dog from the very active, up for it, go for it, many miles a day walks. I too am finding I have to adjust my lifestyle to fit around her much more now and am very much missing the bouncy, active dog I have had with me for so many years. On K9 Trail time’s advice I got a Zero DC harness for her so we could go recumbent triking together (I can’t ride an upright bike). She loved towing the trike. I got a trailer for the trike, which converts to a pram, and when we go on the trails now, she gets to ride in the trailer some of the time. As I use a wheelchair, when we go for walks with friends, one of my friends pushes my dog in a pram, so we can still do things together and my dog can get in the pram when she is tired. She rides on my lap on the wheelchair when she gets tired on some walks now. Thank you for sharing about anticipatory grief, it is so relevant for us.

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