If you have a senior dog, you'll know that dog behavior changes with age. Our dog's old age sort of sneaks up us, though, ever so slowly.
The years whip by, until one day you realize that your sidekick doesn't seem all that interested in chasing sticks and going for long hikes anymore. She grunts a little when she lies down, and is a bit slower in getting up again.
Stairs become more difficult to manage. Noisy kids, while once fun for your pup, are now tiring and slightly annoying.
"Senior" age for a dog begins around 7 years old, a bit earlier for large breeds. That's the sad thing about being a dog owner - their lives are so short and the decline of old age happens in a relatively quick time frame.
It's been several years since my sweet old dog, Justice, died at 13 years old. She was such a patient, gentle girl, right up to her last day. But those last couple years of her life were hard on both of us. I want to try to help make it a little easier for you.
The senior years of your dog's life can feel scary, for both of you. A lot of that comes from the unknown - are these changes that you're noticing in your older dog normal? What can I expect? What should I be worried about?
Drawing from my experience as a trainer, as well as having been through this with my own dog, Justice, let me show you what to expect with dog behavior changes with age and how best to help your senior dog.
In a younger normally-house-trained dog, any regression in house-training would typically make me think that something medical was at the root of the problem, such as a urinary tract infection.
And while that could be the case for your senior dog - in fact, I would still start with a visit to the vet to double check as UTI's can be quite common in old age - it could also simply be old age.
Either your dog isn't quick enough anymore to make it outside due to arthritis pain or there is cognitive decline causing her to forget that she's not supposed to pee or poop in the house... both are very common dog behavior changes with age.
As our dogs age, their eyesight and hearing begin to fail. Combined with possible cognitive decline, that can make their world feel scary and different!
This in turn often causes new anxiety or fears to surface, which displays as increased barking and whining, timidness around things or environments that never used to bother your dog, or clinginess to you. It may simply be caused by vision and hearing loss, or it may be combined with CCD (see below).
Perhaps you've noticed your senior dog standing awkwardly in the corner or seeming lost in a familiar place. Canine cognitive dysfunction, or CCD, is a common condition that affects our aging dogs.
Statistics are that 1 in 3 dogs over the age of 11 experience CCD, and by the age of 16, almost all dogs will display at least one sign.
Here's what to look out for:
Not much can be done to treat CCD, unfortunately, as it's a brain deterioration disease similar to Alzheimer's in humans. As always, do take your dog to get checked by the vet though.
That being said, small changes around the home and in your lifestyle can help in the short-term with dog behavior changes with age (see below for tips on how to help your aging dog).
What might look like aggression in an old dog is often simply a defense mechanism. Senior dogs can't hear or see very well anymore, and are easily surprised by an unexpected person petting them that they didn't see or hear coming, or perhaps it's painful to be petted because of arthritis.
It's also common to see older dogs become more clingy or attention seeking, even at night when you are trying to sleep! Or the opposite can be true, too, with your dog wanting more space and time alone.
Just like us, our dogs slow down as they age. Even a previously active dog won't be as interested in long walks or boisterous games of fetch!
Sore joints is largely to blame for this, and you'll notice that it takes your dog a little extra time to get up from her bed or the floor. Going up and down stairs becomes more challenging, as does getting in and out of the car.
Making changes to your home and lifestyle can go a long way to keep your dog comfortable and minimizing the impact of these dog behavior changes with age.
Paying attention to your dog's needs will go a long way to helping them age comfortably.
If you notice your older dog acting newly anxious, aggressive or showing cognitive failure, start by visiting your vet to rule out any medical issues that may be causing these dog behavior changes with age.
Sadly, there comes a time when you have to make the decision to let your old friend go. Sometimes the decision is simple, where an emergency happens that requires immediate veterinary intervention. Often, though, it's difficult to know as an owner when is the right time.
I'm not a vet, so it goes without saying that your vet can give you the best advice on how much pain your dog is in, and if what you're noticing are dog behavior changes with age. You know your dog, but it is easy to want to hold on for too long...
Trust your vet's advice, as they are looking at it from a clinical, less emotional viewpoint. Sometimes that's exactly what you need - an outside, clear-headed opinion that has your pet's best interests in mind. It's what we want, too, but it's harder to see that when we're so emotionally involved!
For us with Justice, I knew it was coming. She was 13 years old, and the last year or so she had significantly declined. She was still happy, and with medication, her joint pain was mostly under control.
didn't go for walks anymore, as that was too much for her, but she did
enjoy lazing in the sunshine in front of the house where she could see
everyone who was walking by. As a hound, she sometimes followed her nose
away from home a couple houses away, and then didn't hear us when we'd
call her back.
But near the end, Justice was stumbling a lot, even when the ground or floor was level. She would miss a step and fall on her face, and trip on the stairs. Her panting increased (both a sign of pain and/or cognitive dysfunction) and she had trouble sleeping.
I agonized over the decision of when to put her to sleep. Just
when we arrived at the conclusion that NOW was the time, she fell down
the stairs. The exact situation I had wanted to avoid, an emergency, left us no choice.
We rushed her over to
the vet so she could be relieved of her suffering. Let me tell you, it was a heartbreaking way to see my sweet girl go.
not having made that vet appointment a week earlier, but I think she'd
forgive me. I wanted to share my experience with you, though, so that if
you are in that hard place, maybe it can help you in your decision.
Yes, it's a lot of extra care as your dog ages, but is so worth it. Our dear dogs
need us, especially at the end, to help them live comfortably through
their golden years, navigate those dog behavior changes with age, and then to pass softly on.