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.
Activity-Increased or Repetitive
Sleep-Wake Cycles/Reversed Day-Night Schedule
Learning and Memory-House Soiling
Learning and Memory-Work, Tasks, Cues