As our dogs get older, they can begin to lose some of their mobility and have trouble with stairs or jumping up into cars. In my own case, my nearly twelve-year-old collie has developed severe arthritis in her lower back and hips and is no longer able to hop into my SUV and climb up on the back seat. We’re addressing her age-related health issues with medication and physical therapy, but we still need a pain-free way to transport her to the places that she needs to go.
The solution for short trips around town was to place her in the SUV’s rear cargo area rather than the rear seat. For her comfort, and to spare us the need to vacuum her fur out of the car every week, I put down a canvas sheet with an old wool blanket on top of it. With the back seat folded down, this gives her a comfortable place to lie down with familiar scents and protects our vehicle. Which left the issue of how to get her into the vehicle. I’m a large individual myself and have no difficulty in lifting and carrying a 65-pound dog, but the same isn’t true for my spouse. Therefore, we decided that it was time for our old girl to start using a ramp.
Some dogs are very accepting of new experiences and will take to using a ramp very easily. They’ll see the ramp, say “Challenge accepted!” and will scamper right up it. However, there are a lot of others who will be apprehensive about using it. So, when planning to implement the use of a ramp for a geriatric dog, keep in mind that she is already uncomfortable and is losing strength and mobility; she is becoming unsure of her footing and will be nervous about walking up a narrow surface that is suspended in the air. There are things you can do to make it easier for your dog.
Selecting the right ramp is very important. They come in different sizes and lengths and a made of a variety of materials. I have some suggestions for picking the right one: First, it must be of a size and weight that can be managed by anyone who handles the dog and drives the vehicle that will be used to transport her. Second, the walking surface should be composed of a non-slip surface that won’t be torn by a dog’s claws. Avoid any fabric coverings that can become loosened or ripped. Third, the ramp should be wide enough for your dog to walk on it with a fairly normal gait and posture. Lastly, when fully extended, it must be long enough that it securely overlaps the bed of your vehicle and has a gentle slope to the ground – I recommend that it be less than the 35-degree angle commonly used for residential stairs.
The next issue is helping your dog to use the ramp. As I indicated earlier, older dogs are likely to be reluctant to start using one. They can experience a certain amount of discomfort when they’re walking or using stares and are losing some of the mobility they had in their younger days. They’re also likely to be apprehensive about walking up a ramp with empty air on either side of them. So, start slowly and let your dog become accustomed to using a ramp.
Begin with laying the ramp flat on level ground, folded or collapsed to its smallest dimensions, with the walking surface on top. In the illustrations, I used a telescoping ramp that I had slid closed. Put your dog on leash and walk him on it, with encouragement and treats, so that he becomes used to walking on the ramp’s surface. Do this several times a day with only a few repetitions in each session. Once he’s comfortable walking on it, repeat this process with the ramp opened to its full extension but still lying flat in the same location. Again, take it slow. Have several sessions each day with only a few repetitions each time. Keep in mind that your goal is to have your dog comfortable with walking on the ramp, there’s no reason to rush him.
Once he is comfortable walking on the ramp when it is laid on a flat surface, you begin to get him familiar with walking on the ramp when it is suspended in the air on a small incline. The objective is to help him learn to trust the ramp when he is walking above ground level. Find an outdoor location where you can put the ramp on a small incline, such as the front stoop of a house or a small set of steps. Just make sure that this spot is stable and the ramp won’t shift under the dog while he’s using it. Then put on his leash and walk him to the bottom of the ramp. Shorten your grip on the leash so that he can walk easily but you can prevent him from falling off either side. Give him a verbal cue, such as “Up!” and walk him up the ramp, staying close to him and using treats and praise as incentives. Once he’s at the top, turn him around and give him another verbal cue, and repeat the process as he goes down. Repeat this only a couple of times. You want the duration of these sessions short in case he has any anxiety about using the ramp, so that his nervousness doesn’t build while you’re training him. Repeat these short sessions a couple of times a day until he willingly goes up and down the ramp.
At this point, you’re ready to use the ramp to get him in the car. Repeat the same familiar process of using the ramp when you take him into the car: Shorten your hold on the leash, stay beside him and use the same incentives and verbal cues. And continue with short sessions several times a day. He may balk at first, and you may find that he is nervous or hurries up and down the ramp. But with repetition and positive reinforcement, he’ll get accustomed to using it.