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Behavior Changes in Aging Dogs

As they age, our dogs often suffer a decline in functioning. Their memory, their ability to learn, their awareness and their senses of sight and hearing can all deteriorate. This deterioration can cause disturbances in their sleep-wake cycles, making them restless at night but sleepy during the day. It can increase their activity level (resulting, for example, in staring at objects, wandering aimlessly or vocalizing more) or decrease their activity level (leading to less self-care and poor appetite). It can make them forget previously learned cues (commands) or habits they once knew well, such as house training and coming when called. It can increase their anxiety and tendency to react aggressively. It can also change their social relationships with you and other pets in your home. Some pets may become more clingy and overdependent, while others become less interested in affection, petting or interaction. Understanding the changes your dog is undergoing can help you compassionately and effectively deal with behavior problems that may arise in your dog's senior years.

Be sure to report all changes you see to your dog's veterinarian. Don't assume that your dog is “just getting old” and nothing can be done to help him. Many changes in behavior can be signs of treatable medical disorders (please see Ruling Out Specific Medical Problems on Page 2), and there are a variety of therapies that can comfort your dog and manage his symptoms, including any pain he might be experiencing.

In addition to seeking professional help from your veterinarian and an animal behavior expert (such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, CAAB or ACAAB) for the age-related behavior issues covered in this article, a key contributing factor to keeping your older dog healthy is to continue to play with him, exercise him and train him throughout his life. You will likely need to adapt play and exercise to his slower movements, reduced energy level, declining eyesight and hearing, and any medical conditions he may have. Talk to a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area (CPDT) for fun ways to teach your old dog new tricks. Patiently keeping in mind his slower learning curve, you can have fun sharpening up rusty behaviors he once learned and teaching him some new behaviors and tricks. A CPDT can also help you change your verbal cues to hand signals if your dog has lost his hearing and help you adjust your training for any physical impairments your dog may have developed. There are many ways to keep your older dog's life interesting and stimulating that don't require vigorous physical effort. Please see our article, Enriching Your Dog's Life, for many fun ideas. Just as with humans, dogs need to use their brains and bodies to maintain their mental and physical fitness. As the saying goes, use it or lose it!

Checklist for Cognitive Dysfunction

Following is a list of possible changes and symptoms in your senior dog that could indicate cognitive dysfunction1.

Confusion/Spatial Disorientation

  • Gets lost in familiar locations
  • Goes to the wrong side of the door (where the hinge is)
  • Gets stuck and can't navigate around or over obstacles

Relationships/Social Behavior

  • Less interested in petting, interactions, greeting people or other dogs, etc.
  • Needs constant contact, becomes overdependent and clingy

Activity-Increased or Repetitive

  • Stares, fixates on or snaps at objects
  • Paces or wanders about aimlessly
  • Licks you, family members or objects a lot
  • Vocalizes more
  • Eats more food or eats more quickly

Activity-Decreased, Apathetic

  • Explores less and responds less to things going on around him
  • Grooms himself less
  • Eats less

Anxiety/Increased Irritability

  • Seems restless or agitated
  • Is anxious about being separated from family members
  • Behaves more irritably in general

Sleep-Wake Cycles/Reversed Day-Night Schedule

  • Sleeps restlessly, awakens at night
  • Sleeps more during the day

Learning and Memory-House Soiling

  • Eliminates indoors in random locations or in view of you or family members
  • Eliminates indoors after returning from outside
  • Eliminates in sleeping areas (for example, in his crate or on the couch or floor)
  • Uses body language less (body postures and signals associated with feelings)
  • Develops incontinence (accidental release of bladder)

Learning and Memory-Work, Tasks, Cues

  • Demonstrates an impaired ability to work or perform tasks
  • Sometimes seems unable to recognize familiar people and pets
  • Shows decreased responsiveness to known cues for obedience, tricks, sports and games
  • Seems unable or slower to learn new tasks or cues