As someone active in dog rescue, I network with many other folks involved in the same activity. Lately, I’ve seen a disturbing increase in the number of senior dogs being picked up as strays or turned in to shelters. In some cases where the dogs are being dumped, their owners are calling them aggressive; in others they are upset that the dog is ignoring his training. It’s heartbreaking that these senior citizens are being lost or turned out of the homes they love because they’re suffering the pangs of old age.
Sometimes, because our dogs are so stoic and cooperative, we don’t realize how much is changing for them. Many dogs suffer hearing loss as they age. They may not go completely deaf, but they do become hard of hearing, just as people do. Because of this, it may seem your dog is ignoring you, when in fact they simply aren’t hearing your commands. The hearing loss can also make some dogs seem aggressive, if they wheel or jump when someone approaches them unseen or startles them when they sleep. A dog that formerly could hear you approach is now clueless that you’re there, and may react in a manner you aren’t accustomed to. You can help your senior dog by approaching him from the front, talking more loudly than normal to him, and by waking him gently, with a gentle caress rather than an abrupt shove.
Vision changes can also impact your old dog. As he grows older, the lens of his eye may become cloudy. Some dogs also develop cataracts, which can impair how well they see or even cause them to go blind. As with hearing loss, full or partial blindness can cause your dog to startle easily if he doesn’t realize you’re there. Approaching from the front or speaking to him as you approach will help him realize you’re there. You also need to accommodate your dog’s loss of vision by keeping things the same for him. Rearranging the furniture, or adding something new to the room or the yard, can make it a confusing place for your old timer. Keep things the same if at all possible. If you do move things around, take the time to introduce the changes to your dog.
The partial or complete loss of hearing and/or vision also make it easier for your dog to become lost. If you take your dog to an off leash park or allow him to run free, he may not make it back to you. He may not hear you when you call to him, and not recognize you from a distance. Senior dogs should be watched carefully when not at home. They should be leashed when walking along streets or when in parking lots. The ability to be startled by unknown people and dogs means that even in “doggy places” such as off leach dog parks, it’s better to keep them on at least a long lead.
Arthritis is another issue your old dog may have to deal with. Painful joints may make your dog reluctant to come to you, especially if he needs to climb stairs. He may hesitate to get into the car. He might refuse to fetch or sit up or roll over as you have previously trained him to do. These responses may make him appear disobedient, when in fact he just hurts. Your dog might also shy away from your touch, flinch when petted, or respond to pushing or pulling with a grumble or lifted lip. Many owners take these behaviors as signs of aggression, when in fact the dog is trying to tell you you’re hurting him. Ramps, orthopedic beds, nutritional supplements such as glucosamine and prescription medications from your veterinarian can help relieve your dog’s pain and make life more pleasant for him. His days of jogging with you may be past, but he’ll probably enjoy a short amble at your side.
Old age may mean your elderly dog needs to urinate and even defecate more frequently. Dogs that formerly “held it” for hours may be physically incapable of doing so. A senior dog is usually not being disobedient or stubborn when he “goes” in the house, and scolding or punishment do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Frequent bathroom breaks or an available potty pad will help him get through this time.
Your senior dog has given you a lifetime of love and devotion. As his body begins to fail, his love for you does not. Adjust and accommodate, and allow your dog to spend his last days loving you.
Karlene Turkington, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years. Readers are welcome to send their questions to: info@TrainMyK-9.com. Information provided here is a basic overview of issues. Specific health or behavioral concerns should be discussed with your veterinarian or qualified animal trainer or behaviorist.