Behavior Changes in Senior Dogs (cont.)

Compulsive and Stereotypic Behaviors

Compulsive and stereotypic behavior problems encompass a wide variety of behaviors with many possible causes. They're defined as ritualized, repetitive behaviors that have no apparent goal or function. Examples include stereotypic licking or overgrooming that results in self-injury (“hot spots,” for example), spinning or tail chasing, pacing and jumping, air biting or fly snapping, staring at shadows or walls, flank sucking and pica (eating inedible objects, like rocks). Some medical conditions, including cognitive dysfunction, can contribute to or cause these behaviors. Compulsive disorders often arise from situations of conflict or anxiety. Things or situations that make your dog feel conflicted, stressed or anxious can lead him to engage in displacement behaviors, which can then become compulsive over time. (Displacement behaviors are those that occur outside of their normal context when dogs are frustrated, conflicted or stressed. An example is a dog who stops suddenly to groom himself while en route to his guardian who has just called him. He may be unsure of whether he's going to be punished, so he expresses his anxiety by grooming, lip licking, yawning or sniffing the ground.) Drug therapy is usually necessary to resolve compulsive disorders. But if you can identify the source of conflict early on and reduce or eliminate it (such as conflict between your pets or inconsistent or delayed punishment from you), behavioral drug therapy may not be necessary. Please see our article, Compulsive Behavior in Dogs, for detailed information about the signs and treatment of these problems.

Aggression

A multitude of factors can contribute to an increase in a dog's aggressive behavior. Medical conditions that affect your dog's appetite, mobility, cognition, senses or hormones can lead to increased aggression, as can conditions that cause him pain or irritability. Aggression to family members can occur following changes in the family makeup, such as marriage or divorce, death or birth. Aggression to other pets can occur when a new pet is introduced to the family, as a younger dog matures or as an older dog becomes weaker or less assertive. Increased aggression toward unfamiliar people and animals can arise from your dog's increasing anxiety and sensitivity as he ages.

Aggression can't be effectively treated until a diagnosis has been made and the cause has been determined. Please see our article, Finding Professional Help,to locate a qualified animal behavior expert in your area, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can't find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating aggression, since this expertise is not required for CPDT certification.

One of these professionals can evaluate the situation and help you treat your dog's aggression. Treatment-whether drug therapy, behavior therapy or making changes in your dog's environment-will depend on the specific type of aggression and its cause or triggers. For example, treatment for fear-based aggression involves desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC), as well as training to improve your control over your dog. Please see our article, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, for a detailed overview of this treatment. Medical problems that can't be resolved, such as sensory decline, may limit what improvements can be achieved. Avoiding or preventing the triggers of your dog's aggression may be the best option in these cases. Head halters, such as Premier's Gentle Leader® Headcollar, can give you more control over your dog and increase everyone's safety. Please see our article, Aggression in Dogs, for more information.

1Landsberg, G., Hunthausen. W., & Ackerman, L. (2003). Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. Saunders: New York.

The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.

If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.