By Rolan Tripp, D.V.M.

The behavior: (any of the following)

  • Lapses in housetraining.
  • Changes in sleep patterns.
  • Uncharacteristic pacing, barking, growling, or nipping.
  • Signs of confusion, apathy, or fear.
  • Overexcited or destructive behavior.
  • Failure to recognize family members.

Why dogs do it: Everything from failing health, sight, or hearing to the canine version of Alzheimer's disease can affect the behavior of a geriatric dog.

Training Tips

Start with a veterinary exam. The physical effects of aging give rise to many of the behavioral difficulties that crop up in older dogs. Your dog's eyesight, hearing, or sense of smell may have grown dull, impairing his ability to recognize people he knows so that he growls or snaps at them. His memory, too, may not be as good as it once was. Also, arthritis could be making him sore. A complete veterinary workup will point to the specific problems, and your vet can advise you on how to ease them. Canine cognitive dysfunction, which has symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease, may be treatable with oral medication.

Give your dog his space. Older dogs often benefit from having a place in the house where they can go and not be disturbed by anyone. Dogs who are having trouble recognizing family members sometimes lash out when startled. If you have a house rule that no one bothers your dog when he's sleeping or in his crate, you'll make that response less likely as well as give your dog a peaceful respite.

Don't assume your dog no longer needs to exercise. Moderate physical activity benefits most older dogs. Fresh air and intriguing smells help keep your dog healthy and engaged. Not only will the activity strengthen him physically, but a neighborhood walk or a visit to his favorite romping grounds will provide intellectual stimulation, so he doesn't lapse into fuzzy thinking. Be aware of his limits, though: If he lags behind, slow down and keep the session short.

Be sensitive to inevitable changes. If your dog can't always control his bladder or develops other behavior problems that might be related to old age, don't punish him. Instead, use reward-based training to help him remember the rules, as if he were a puppy again. If he's soiling the house, make his bathroom area more accessible or take him out more frequently.

Consult a professional behaviorist. If you're having trouble understanding why your dog does something or what to do about it, ask your veterinarian to recommend a behaviorist.

Tools you can use

Crate. If he's not already crate-trained, go slowly. You want to make the crate a favorite place; try putting a cushion, chews, toys, and treats inside.

A comfortable dog bed. The aches and pains that come with old age or arthritis can disturb your dog's sleep. A soft bed that's lined or heated not only will cushion your dog while he sleeps but will provide a spot where he can retreat when he doesn't want to be bothered. If urine leakage is a problem, get a washable cover.

Diapers. If your veterinarian feels that medical treatment and retraining efforts can't resolve your dog's house-soiling problem, using dog diapers can make the situation easier to handle.

Senior diet food. Dogs' nutritional needs change over the course of their lifetime, just as people's do. A diet specially formulated for senior dogs provides the protein, vitamin, and fat levels needed for optimal health. If your dog has a medical condition, your veterinarian may prescribe a specific diet to alleviate the problem.

Dog treats. You may find it necessary to housebreak or crate-train your dog all over again. Whatever the retraining need, keep it positive by using dog treats to reward the desired behavior.

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