As a dog ages, he undergoes changes both subtle and profound. When your dog grows during his puppyhood, most changes are very obvious. In his adult years, the changes may become less noticeable. However, as the Golden Years progress, you may once again observe big changes in his behavior. The reasons for some of the behavioral changes are easy to understand.
Lower energy level. Senior dog have less energy, so you can predict that they will be less inclined to be as playful as they were in their more vigorous years. Because your dog is less mobile at this stage of his life, he will spend longer periods of time lying down in one place. Make sure that he does not lie in a cold, damp spot or out in the hot sun for any length of time. Keep his bed in a warm, draft-free position and make sure that it is well padded. If he lies for long periods on a rough or hard surface—particularly if he is one of the heavier breeds—he may develop calluses of rough skin over the bony prominences of the body, such as the elbows and the hocks. These can become ulcerated and infected, so it is important to provide plenty of bedding.
Aching joints. If your senior dog becomes afflicted with arthritis, you’ll notice that he appears to be stiff, especially when he first gets up. And don’t be surprised if you find him avoiding stairs or higher spots that require a jump. If he has trouble climbing the stairs, put up a gate to prevent any accidents—and keep his bed downstairs.
Deteriorating senses. Don't forget that his senses are beginning to fail and his eyesight, hearing and sense of direction may not be quite what they were. This means he may be easily disorientated, so don't make too many changes in the home or in his normal routine. Try not to leave him alone for long periods, particularly in a strange place.
Reaction to medication. Some behavioral changes in your senior dog may be attributable to medications that he may be taking. Like humans, dogs can suffer from side effects of the drugs that they are taking. These can range from grogginess to sleeplessness to loss of appetite. Tell your vet if you suspect that your dog is reacting to his prescribed medications.
Clingy behavior. Many people with senior dogs notice that their pets have a tendency to become more clingy as time goes on. So don’t be surprised if your older dog becomes anxious when he senses you are leaving the house. Anxiety in older dogs can be indicative of Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome (CDS), a disease which functions much like Alzheimer’s in humans. If your dog is diagnosed with CDS, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help treat this illness. If your vet has ruled out medical causes for your dog’s behavior, then you should start treating him behaviorally.
Symptoms of CDS include:
- Pacing, crying, or barking for no reason
- Loss of appetite, forgetting to eat or drink
- Sudden fascination with mirrors
- Repeated attempts to get into small spaces
- Getting confused in a previously familiar place
- Loss of house training
- Turning away from his favorite people
- Drastic change in sleeping patterns
- Lack of interest in being petted or getting attention
- Forgetting his name
You’ll find that simple exercises, coupled with lots of love and patience, can make your older dog feel more independent and less anxious. A simple exercise to try is to distribute your dog’s kibble around the house. If he wants to eat, he has to walk away from you. This reminds him that he can still have positive experiences even when you’re not right beside him. A few other things to keep in mind:
- Don't make a fuss when you leave or come home. This will only make him more anxious when you leave the house.
- Review the "sit" and "stay" commands with your dog. Practice these commands while moving away from him a short distance, then slowly increase the time and distance. Reward him when he obeys.
- Try not to reward clingy behavior. Ignore your dog if he follows you around or demands attention, and reward him when he lies quietly.
- If your dog is experiencing vision loss, don’t rearrange the furniture. He will adapt much more easily to his environment if furniture remains in the same location.
Always remember, older dogs do need extra attention. Make an effort to spend time with him when you can. Take him on car rides, play gentle teasing games by tickling his paws. Or sit on the floor just touching him. Small gestures can reassure him that you’re still there for him in his Golden Years.