Mobility is everything to an older dog — if they can get up and down, even painfully, and then get outdoors, then they still have control over their body and their life. But if getting outdoors presents too much of a physical obstacle, then they don’t really have a life with dignity. I was beginning to question whether we had reached that time in my old gal Jazzy’s life. She didn’t want to go outside, because when she did it caused her pain and worry — debating whether to step down off the edge of the porch and bring all her weight down on her front feet. I wondered how long it would be before she couldn’t make the step at all, and therefore be unable to go outside to relieve herself or walk around even a little. Which would basically signal the end of her life.
Jazzy is a 12 year old Collie-mix, whom I adopted from Southampton Shelter (the Official Shelter of my NPR radio show DOG TALK® when she was 2 years old. She tore the ligaments in both her back legs within a month of joining my household, which meant two ACL repair surgeries and the expected arthritis from it — with the net result that she had become more and more lame as the years passed, even taking joint supplements. Her arthritis has gotten so bad in her front ankles and shoulders that it had become nearly impossible for her to get down off the porch — which is only one step to get down onto a big stepping stone, and then onto the ground.
There’s a dog door that leads from the mudroom to this porch, and Jazzy has always used it several times a day to go outside to relieve herself, have a fresh drink of water, or have a little amble around. But I had found her hesitating at the edge of the one step, debating whether it was worth the pain or if she had the strength to make it down. She often looked stuck, trapped, anticipating the pain, and unable to make the decision. I was considering asking a carpenter to build a “handicap ramp” for Jazzy as you see on houses for people in wheelchairs, but I knew that would be a problem because it would be built of wood and therefore heavy and probably impossible to get out of the way if we need wider access to the porch from the step. Also, once winter and snow came around, a permanent wooden ramp would be in the way of snowplowing; the surface would become slippery so I would have to find something to cover it with that would give Jazzy traction.
Then a light bulb went off above my head: maybe the ramps people use to get their dogs into a car could be useful here. I had never considered getting a ramp for the car because I had known Jazzy would never walk straight up a steep ramp into my car because the back of my SUV is so high it makes a ramp impossibly steep. But now I wondered: what if I could prop a ramp against the edge of the porch and create a gentle slope for Jazzy to get on and off the porch without any jarring pain to her front legs. I had seen the Solvit ramps that were well made of lightweight aluminum that telescoped in half, with a rough surface for traction, so I asked the company for one to try. And that ramp has completely changed — I dare say saved — Jazzy’s life. I never fully appreciated the versatile uses of an adjustable ramp for a dog, beyond getting in and out of a car, but for anyone who has a dog struggling to get onto a bed or sofa, up onto a deck or down a few steps, these Solvit ramps really do “solve it,” they are a godsend in a dog’s golden years.
Keep in mind that old dogs can learn new tricks, but they may be cautious about it. Any time you introduce something new into their lives, it needs to be done slowly, patiently and with lots of positive reinforcement (in the form of Halo Liv-a-Littles whenever possible!) Jazzy was fearful of the ramp at first because it felt so different under her paws. I put a leash on her and lured her gently up the ramp with pieces of Halo Liv-a-Littles that I placed on the ramp in front of her. Then I turned her around and urged her to come down on the ramp by putting more bits of Liv-a-Littles out ahead of her. Next I urged her up and down the ramp with only my voice instead of a leash — always rewarding her brave efforts, especially when she paused in the middle of the ramp. Within three days Jazzy became comfortable enough to use that ramp on her own and avoid the step completely. I watched her go out, from habit, to the edge of the porch above the step — seem to consider whether she could handle the step — and then look over and remember her new Solvit ramp, which she marched right down with a wag of her tail.
Halo is a sponsor on Radio Pet Lady Network, by our invitation.