Understanding the Personalities of Aging Dogs with Traditional Chinese Medicine's 5 Element Theory

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Old Golden

Editor's Note: This is a guest post on the Grey Matters Blog and not written by anyone affiliated with Grey Muzzle. We allow guest contributors from time to time in order to provide our supporters with a wide range of topics pertaining to senior dogs.

The Five Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a great tool for understanding your dog and possibly, yourself. The personality and behavioral aspects of this ancient technique provide a fresh view for how to see the world around us. As you learn more, you will never look at things the same way.

In this brief review we look at a segment of TCM’s Five Element Theory which includes personalities, emotions, physical characteristics, and potential maladies. This fun approach can both gift us with “aha!” moments and settle our souls with helpful information that can’t be found anywhere else.

You may see several elements reflected in your dog, however, there will be one that clearly stands out. Once you identify your dog’s predominant element you can support him or her with simple lifestyle measures to keep your pup balanced and happy.

In the scenario below there will be typical coat colors for each element. Because there is so much variety in coat colors and combos, this may or may not be relevant. Look more towards the personalities, needs, and wants of your dog to determine his/her element.

This interpretation is not meant to diagnose or treat but to open our eyes and help us create harmony in our home. Have fun!

Old Terrier
The Scenario

Five people lead their dogs into an obedience class. The first dog, brawny, brown and black, struts in, pulling a bit on the leash while assessing the “competition” around him with a confident air.

In bursts the second dog, a flashy red dog who pulls at the end of his leash and excitedly wags his whole body as he changes direction to say hello to everyone and anyone.

The third dog, a bit pudgy and yellow, looks to his handler with worried eyes and nuzzles the treat bag while wildly wagging his tail as he tries to ignore the flashy red dog.

The fourth dog is lean, angular, greyish tan, and walks quietly along the handlers’ side paying absolute perfect attention to the bubble of his owner and himself.

And lastly the fifth dog, mostly black, comes in slowly and quietly, head down and eyes up moving slightly behind the handler, aware of every movement around her and yet confident… until she is not.

Each of the five dogs represent the common behavioral and physical characteristics associated with the Five Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Find out below who’s who!

Old Wood Dog
The Wood Dog

The Wood Element dog thrives on movement, competition, and leadership. This dog usually ranks high in the “pack” in any circumstance where there are multiple dogs such as dog parks, competitions, and even possibly at home, if they do not have a strong human leader. Wood Dogs need clear boundaries from their humans. A human partner being clear, consistent, and firm will easily earn respect from a Wood dog, however, they will test us regularly just to be sure someone is in charge.

Wood Dogs are always alert and aware. In the human world we often relate the Wood Element archetype to being an army sergeant or a world class competitor. They are unflinching under pressure and will take charge if they see a weakness or an opening.

Think your dog’s got Wood Dog written all over them? See if you are right...

The Old Wood Dog

The Wood dog does not take getting old very gracefully. They are not used to limitations with their bodies and will almost always be incredibly frustrated and grumpy as aging takes hold. His mind that is still raring to go, along with his strong determination and drive, can wreak havoc on his aging body. Continued senior support of acupressure and massage will help, as will long walks out in a familiar forest or venue. As they continue to age, multiple short walks with some variety of scenery and smells will be an effective way to counter stiffness and keep his mind and nose stimulated.

Teaching your fast learner Old Wood dog some new tricks will keep him engaged and feeling successful. There are several great books out there on this. Enrichment activities are abundant and finding what “gently challenges” your aging Wood Dog may be a simplified version of an event or play style that he loved and found success with in his early life. He will always need to be successful at something to be happy and balanced.

Old Fire Dog
The Fire Dog

Everyone adores a Fire Dog! And a Fire Dog loves to be adored. Not only do they thrive on social interactions and attention but they carry a charisma and magnetism that is hard to ignore. Fire dogs, often red or a red combo, are happy being the center of attention in any crowd. They thrive on play, adoration, and social stimulation. They are the quintessential party dog!

The Fire Dog needs both physical and emotional contact as much as they need food. They are quite cuddly and are as good at giving affection as receiving it. They love fun activities, are quick learners, and fun to train. They love praise and they create lifelong partnerships and friendships with other animals and humans. Being incredibly social, they typically do not like being alone.

Is your dog the life of the party? Discover if they're a Fire Dog...

The Old Fire Dog

Include your Old Fire Dog in your daily life as much as possible. Train them on a ramp early so you can take them with you on errands or bypass stair climbs. Take short walks about town or your neighborhood where they can gather attention and feel adored. Have quiet play sessions with other dog friends. Give them cool places to be outside in the summer heat and have regular vet checks for their big hearts. Give them praise for anything and everything. Spoil them rotten! They deserve it and need it. And most of all, schedule regular time to share touch with them. This special being has brought smiles and joy into so many other lives and touch is a great way to give back.

Old Earth Dog
The Earth Dog

The quintessential caregiver. Kind, gentle, abundantly patient, and a bit chubby. The perfect kid loving family dog. Easy-going, loves everyone, loves touch, comfort, and of course, food.

As I write this I’m watching my older rescue Earth Dog Wilbur (the cute guy in the contributor photo) play ever so gently and patiently with my new rescue pup Pretzel. They are sharing a bed and chew toy as she sings loudly, while Wilbur is gently holding the toy in her mouth and trading it back and forth. They have been playing like this for about 4 hours. It can be mesmerizing to watch this gentle interplay of kindness between an elder and young dog.

Pretzel just fell asleep tucked in Wilbur’s arms and he hasn’t budged, just watching over her quietly. Wilbur, now dubbed “the Uncle”, has been my best asset with Pretzel, a very sweet, shy, wily, and feral, six-month-old Water Element Dog (more about that element below). Wilbur has taken on the task of teacher. Uncharacteristic for Wilbur, he is now doing everything I ask him to, absolutely perfectly, as she mimics his behavior. He has even helped me potty train her by going potty on command every single time I ask. He is happily living his Earth element with purpose and patience.

If your dog keeps you grounded he or she could be an Earth dog. Learn more...

The Old Earth Dog

The Old Earth Dog needs comfort and a peaceful atmosphere with very little change. They need lots of praise for doing small things; it makes them feel loved. They like to have buddies with them. Cats and other dogs help them feed their nurturing spirit. They also need to keep an adequate weight for the age-related decrease in physical exercise. Chubbiness will be a detriment to them. Feeding them vegetables when they are young, so they learn to like them early, is a low-calorie way to help fill the tummy.

Earth Dogs like the slow life so getting them to exercise may take some gentle prodding and praise. However, they are “routine based” animals so if you keep the same routine as their younger years, but just dial it back as needed, they will do their best to get motivated. Low calorie treats help too!

Lastly, they really need their humans to spend time just being with them, maybe giving them long belly rubs and petting sessions. Some of the best memories I have with my old dogs is taking the time to simply sit and just be with them. It is a profound and loving gesture in dog language and a healing balm for our own hearts.

Old Metal Dog
The Metal Dog

We often describe the Metal element archetype as a librarian. Extremely intelligent, methodical, calm with a clear mind, dependable, easily rattled by noise and lack of order, and generally not very tolerant of emotional closeness. This is the Metal Dog.

Metal Dogs are typically lean, almost elegant in their presentation and movement. They are capable of intense focus and are mentally and physically extremely competent. They like challenges and doing things that matter. Metal Dogs thrive on having a sense of purpose and having a handler that takes their partnership seriously. They bond deeply with their handlers once they can trust that the person is committed to their training in the manner the dog needs. They make incredible working dogs as they have a calm and cool exterior and a strong inner sensitivity.

Is your dog your wing man? If so you may just have a Metal Dog. Find out if you do...

The Old Metal Dog

The Old Metal Dog still needs a purpose. This can be challenging for owners to find. Teaching scent work/nose work earlier in the aging process can give them a fun, rewarding, and purposeful challenge in their later years. It can also strengthen the respiratory system and keep the body somewhat supple and limber, as can doggie yoga. I’ve taken many of my aging dogs to Canine Nosework classes and it has been great enrichment for them. Some of the working dogs may have had this earlier training and will find it fun and exciting.

For Old Metal Dogs, and with all elder dogs, it is important to pay attention to environmental factors affecting the respiratory and immune systems. Their powerful nose may be the only sense they are relying on in their elder years. They can be adversely affected and confused by strong scents in detergents and cleaners, carpets, heavy dust loads, smoke and pest/weed control products etc. Be safe and green in and around your homes. You have a sentinel to remind you to be healthy, too.

Old Water Dog
The Water Dog 

The magical force of the ocean is deep, full of intelligence, teaming with wisdom, unpredictable, and full of treasures, and so is your Water Dog. When you are ready for one, they come to you and you stand astonished at the complexity of this animal in your life.

Water Dogs teach us to trust. We learn trust for them, for ourselves, and for our own inner wisdom. It may not be in the most conventional or easy way, but a journey awaits that will enrich, change, and sometimes baffle your life. Water Dogs are often considered a spiritual teacher with four legs.

Water Dogs are emotional beings and also extremely sensitive to our emotions. They are pools of reflection for us. Do not expect to act differently than you actually feel around them, the Water Dog will know. They are the quintessential empaths. Accept this reflective gift and utilize it to create a deeper connection with them and hopefully with your own self, as that is always their ultimate goal.

If you consider your dog an old soul, you could be graced with a Water Dog. Discover what it means...

Old Water Dogs

Old Water Dogs hold a wellspring of wisdom in their eyes. They have “been there, done that” on so many otherworldly levels as well as this one we live in. Old Water Dogs need to feel quiet and peaceful as they age as well as deep connection and devotion. They prefer to be right by your side if they can be. Keep their muscles and back strong, start ramp training early as they tend to weakness in the hind end and may have problems jumping into cars and climbing steps. Slings can be very helpful also. Watch for excess drinking and urination, and be sure to schedule a vet visit if you see this.

Women and Dog
In Closing

As you start to view your dog’s world in this new interesting way, try broadening your scope to yourself and imagine your own predominant element. This can provide a unique and helpful understanding of both your dog’s inner and outer world as well as your own.

May this bring peace into your relationships with your animals, yourself, and this amazing and intricate world we live in!


About the Contributor: 
white haired woman with two dogs in a field

Guest author Elizabeth Johnson, EEBW, CMFT has been working with the health and wellness of small, large, and exotic animals and wildlife for 35 years. She works from the point of deep clinical understanding, empathy, and compassion to find the "health" of each animal while promoting well-being in the physical, spiritual, and emotional realms of all involved. She is a TEDx speaker, Author, Animal Empath, mentor, and joyful dog lover.

Visit ElizabethAnneJohnson.com for more information or to sign up to receive updates on Elizabeth's upcoming books and latest blogs. You can also connect with Elizabeth on LinkedIn.