How to Deal With Aggression in Older Dogs

How to deal with aggression in older dogs

In this post we’re going to be taking a look at aggression in older dogs, what causes it and most importantly, what we can do about it.

You must have been so shocked to find your once docile and sweet as can be pup acting like a character out of some horror flick. Okay I may be exaggerating slightly, but I think you get the picture.

Sudden aggression in an older dog can occur for a number of reasons, but let’s first look at what form it can take.

**There are affiliate links in this post, so if you buy something I may receive a commission. This has no effect on the price you pay.**

What can senior dog aggression look like?

Snapping, snarling, nipping or biting you, other family members, strangers, dogs both outside and others you share your life with.

How to deal with aggression in older dogs

Causes of aggression in older dogs

Pain or discomfort

It’s perfectly normal for a dog that’s experiencing pain to lash out. It doesn’t matter if it’s caused by arthritis, hip dysplasia, dental disease or recovery from surgery to name just a few examples.  

Some signs your dog may be in pain

Dogs are pretty good at hiding pain but it doesn’t mean they’re perfect at it.

  • Whining or whimpering
  • Clinginess
  • Lack of interest in things he used to enjoy
  • Reluctant to go for walks/unable to walk
  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty sleeping or resting
  • Licking one spot on his body
  • Difficulty getting up and lying down

 

Whether you’ve noticed any of these or just a general “something isn’t right” get him checked out by your vet ASAP. Too many changes are attributed to the natural aging process, and many dogs suffer as a result.

Once your vet is able to diagnose the source of the pain, a treatment plan can be put together. Depending on your vet, your dog may be prescribed pain medication, natural supplements, acupuncture and hydrotherapy to name a few options.

Anxiety

Dogs may experience an increase in anxiety as they age which could be generalized or in a specific situation such as when left alone. It can sometimes translate into aggression towards their humans, other pets in the family, strangers…anyone really.

Dealing with aggression in older dogs

Dental disease

Has it been awhile since you’ve brushed your dog’s teeth? Has it become increasingly difficult as he’s gotten older? That’s a bit of a vicious circle because the more irritable he gets, the harder it is to brush, the harder it is to brush the more likely he’ll start to suffer from dental disease. The pain your dog will experience as a result can easily lead to aggression.

If your dog has bad breath, is pawing at his mouth, drooling or lost interest in food or treats, take him to the vet right away. If he does have dental issues they can be sorted, the pain will disappear and so will his aggression (if it was the sole cause).

Lack of energy or mobility

If you have younger dogs in the household that he used to play with but just can’t seem to keep up with anymore, attempts by the other dog to play can be met with aggression. He will probably allow some play, but if his tolerance level isn’t what it used to be he’ll let them know when he’s had enough. Particularly if a lack of mobility prevents him from removing himself from an annoying situation.

Dog dementia aggression

Confusion, anxiety and not recognising the familiar are just some of the symptoms associated with dementia, and yes that can lead to an otherwise sweet natured dog displaying bouts of aggression.

Vision and/or hearing loss

Imagine how scary it must be for your dog as he starts to lose his hearing, vision or both. He has no idea what’s going on, and because he is startled more easily, he may lash out before he realises who’s approaching him.

It’s important to make adjustments to accommodate these changes in your dog, and they include;

Calling out to him, or somehow making your presence known before touching him – and that includes telling everyone else to do the same

Not moving furniture around so he doesn’t bump into things, hurt himself and get scared

Keep the floors clutter free so he doesn’t trip, get hurt and become anxious

Try and keep the noise and activity level down for a bit

Brain tumour

Not common but not unheard of, a mass on the brain can cause a sudden change in personality. As with many conditions, there are warning signs but often ignored under the mistaken assumption they are signs of old age.

A new pet

Your oldie may be very content with the life he has, and has little patience or interest in interlopers. You may have decided to bring a new pet into the family without considering your old dog’s needs first, now the new family member is bugging him and he’s not liking it. Don’t be surprised if he starts showing some aggression, and please don’t dump him as a result. He never asked for the change and he shouldn’t have to pay the consequences.

How to deal with senior dog aggression

Calming an aggressive dog

Take your dog to the vet

The first thing you need to do is take your dog to the vet. Aggression in older dogs is usually down to a health issue, so please don’t adopt a “wait and see” attitude. Any change in behaviour, from something as obvious as aggression to a “feeling” something is off must be investigated. Only once you have a diagnosis can a treatment plan be drawn up.

Be aware of what induces aggression

Take note of situations when you’ve seen your dog show aggression, and include as much information as you can –

  • Time of day
  • What behaviour did you witness (film it if possible)
  • What was your dog doing right before it happened
  • Was anyone bothering the dog

This will help identify a pattern and may help your vet with the diagnosis.

Create a safe space

Make sure your dog has a safe space to retreat to, an area that is his where no one will bother him. Whether you want to add a covered crate he can crawl into (leave the door open) or set up a bed in a quiet corner or another room, it’s important to keep him away from stress.

Explain what’s going on to the rest of the family

Let everyone know what’s going on, and together come up with strategies to help your dog.  

Play calming music


A CD called “Through a Dog’s Ear” was a sanity saver when my dog Red had dementia. It would calm her down in no time and reduced the stress all of us were feeling.  

CBD oil

While I don’t believe CBD oil is a cure for everything that ails humans and animals, the success stories I read from senior dog parents I know is compelling, and cannot be ignored. Not all are created equal so do your research. One brand that has been very helpful to may of my FB group members is NuLeaf

If your dog is ultimately diagnosed with pain or anxiety, CBD oil may be an option, but check with your vet first.

Valerian or Valerian with Skullcap

Another possible aid is Valerian which is used to treat anxiety, if that’s what the aggression stems from. You can buy one specially formulated for dogs, or a human grade supplement and have your vet help you figure out the correct dosage. 

Aggression in older dogs – conclusion

If your senior dog is exhibiting behavioural changes in general and aggression in particular, I recommend your first step be a visit to your vet. What you see as aggression may simply be the result of a medical issue, and once treated could be resolved. If no medical reason can be found, a chat with a dog behaviourist may give you the answers you need to help figure out ways to keep him calm and others around him safe.

 

Have you had experience with senior dog aggression? What behaviours did you see that had you concerned? What was the reason and how did you treat it? Sharing helps others so please leave a comment below.

 

**I would like to invite you to join Senior Dog Care Club, my Facebook group for senior dog parents. It is a wonderful community where you will find lots of helpful tips and advice, a place to ask questions and share experiences. I look forward to welcoming you.**

 

For lots of great advice from the “experts” please subscribe and tune into my podcasts. New episodes are always being added so check back often. 

38 Comments

  1. Kitty Cat Chronicles

    Great info! I have a senior dog myself – an almost 17-year=old jack russell. She’s the sweetest, and thankfully isn’t aggressive. Though she has lost her hearing, so I have to gently touch her when I come up behind her or pick her up to let her know I’m there, otherwise she gets startled. Thanks for the great tips. Pinning!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks and thanks for pinning. How sweet and how wonderful she’s still with you and doing well. I do that with Red. She’s blind and although she hears me she doesn’t know when I’m about to pick her up so I let her know otherwise she gets started as well. You gotta love these little sweeties!!

      Reply
  2. Ruth Epstein

    Layla is aging and I know that, I have noticed lately she is afraid of the sound of the microwave, living in a studio does not make it easy, so to solve the problem I made her a bed in the shower so if the microwave is on and she wants to hide that is where she goes. That is the only difference I am noticing and my vet told me not to worry so am not. Once the microwave is off she comes back to lie on her bed.

    I keep a hawkish eye on her LOL

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Sweet Layla!! Interesting what it is about the microwave, but that’s a clever solution. I feel like if Red could talk she’d tell me to stop staring at her all the time!

      Reply
  3. Joely Smith

    Our Lyla is getting older and while we have not noticed any SUDDEN changes in her aggression it is good to have this info. There are so many things to watch out for! Lyla has never been fond of small children so when one is around, or near her – is when she acts out the most. Sometimes she is a little aggressive toward our cats, not overly so, just a warning growl to keep them in line. I think this is all pretty much part of her personality though. She also has always licked one spot on her paw but the vet said it is just a hot spot.
    I am going to be keeping a closer eye on her though as she ages. She will be 8 in April.
    Great information, thank you!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks Joely, so glad you’re finding it useful. It certainly sounds like it’s just Lyla’s personality, but it’s always good to keep a close eye on them. I swear I think if Red could talk she’d tell me to stop staring at her all the time!!

      Reply
  4. Dear Mishu

    A great reminder that just like humans, dogs can be grumpy when they don’t feel well.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I can relate to being grumpy at times, and I can’t always blame being under the weather!!

      Reply
  5. Pawesome Cats

    Great post! Ive tried calming music with cats too and it really can work, helping them relax and de-stress.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks!! Calming music has been a lifesaver for Red, and me! I wish I had known about it years ago when I rescued a feral cat who was always on edge until I discovered Feliway and she literally calmed down almost immediately.

      Reply
  6. Debbie

    It’s so important to be in tune with your dogs, especially as they age and their bodies go through so many changes, not always comfortable ones. They have so many less ways to tell us what’s going on than us humans do. Great article.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thank you Debbie, so happy you enjoyed it. You’re right, it’s extremely important to be in tune with our dogs, as it’s the best way to spot changes quickly. Catching something early leads to the best chances for treatment.

      Reply
  7. Jana Rade

    Sudden aggression, or any change in behavior is most often a result of a health issue.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I agree Jana, and that’s why it’s so important to take behaviour changes seriously, and visit your vet as soon as possible. By the time a dog is at the aggression stage, he’s feeling quite bad and needs quick medical attention.

      Reply
  8. Tenacious Little Terrier

    Mr. N tweaked his back somehow and didn’t want to walk a while back. With rest, he was fine but he had me worried there.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I know what you mean. When they’re out of sorts it’s such a worry, but great to hear a little rest was all he needed.

      Reply
  9. Cathy Armato

    This is great advice Hindy. I’ve seen dogs snap & growl when being touched in a painful area of their body. People often don’t realize that pain is the reason the dogs is lashing out. Thanks for the reco’ on the calming CD, calming music can be so helpful.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Thanks Cathy. You’d think it was obvious the dog was in pain, but you’re right people don’t often realise that. That CD really is amazing, I now have my vet play it when Red goes for acupuncture.

      Reply
  10. The Daily Pip

    Our dog, Pip, did have some aggression in his final year. Mostly around having his nails trimmed and then once when he was up on a chair and couldn’t figure out how to get down – tried to help him and he growled. I think his was a combination of anxiety, dementia, and some painful joints. I remember being quite startled because he had always been so gentle, but I realized he was just having a difficult time and didn’t really mean any harm.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Poor Pip. They get confused and don’t know what’s going on. It’s a surprise when they behave in such unexpected ways, especially when it’s totally out of character. It’s good you realised he was having a hard time and it wasn’t his fault. That’s what we have to help many people realise.

      Reply
  11. Talent Hounds

    Such a helpful article. Always good to take your dog to the vet and make sure there is no underlying cause they can identify with aggression in dogs at any age. Pain and fear can both be dangerous and I need to brush Kilo’s teeth more.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      I’m glad you think so. You’re right – a dog who is acting out of character should always be taken to the vet to check for an underlying cause. I hear you about the teeth brushing. A nightmare here!!

      Reply
  12. Lola The Rescued Cat

    This is important info for people with senior dogs. It’s interesting that there are so many reasons for aggression.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      There are so many reasons for so many behaviour issues, that’s why it’s critical to get your dog (or cat) to the vet as soon as possible. We all know the sooner something is caught, the greater the chances it can be treated or at least managed.

      Reply
  13. Robin

    It is so important to remember that all behavior is communication. Our pets can tell us so much about what is happening to them if we are willing to listen. Aging has a very interesting set of challenges for pets, but the ideas you’ve presented could be valid for pets of any age. Dental disease is not something people would think about right away. Thank you for the reminders and tips!

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      You’re so right Robin, they’re communicating what’s going on, yet many people have no idea they’re even talking, never mind how to listen. What I find frustrating when I talk to people is how much they dismiss as age, without understanding their pet can be facing some real health challenges that can, in all likelihood be managed. They don’ think much about their dog being in pain, because they have no idea it’s not a given. I do try and educate but people don’t like to hear it. Won’t stop me though!!

      Reply
  14. Bryn Nowell

    Great post. Bean has started to get more cranky with time, and I think some of it is the start of losing her hearing/vision.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Sorry to hear that, what has the vet said?

      Reply
  15. Margot

    Our 14 year old Schipperke Chihuahua Mix has been displaying increasing and alarming levels of aggression. He goes from zero to snarling at a moment’s notice over the most innocuous things.

    Currently we cannot walk him because when we try to leash him, he snarls and tries to bite us. He is also becoming aggressive towards our four cats when he sees them walking around. He’ll start growling when he sees them. But two seconds later, he’ll be fine and eager for a trip to the back yard.

    He has bitten both me and my husband in lightening quick moves.

    We’ve taken him to the vet twice and they have done full work ups and find nothing wrong. In fact, he’s in excellent health, according to his blood test.

    We’re not sure what to do. He’s a sweet dog most of the time, but we have to be very, very careful around him and have to limit physical contact with him because he may suddenly bite us.

    I’ve thought about going to an animal behaviorist, but it’s clear he’s “not in his right mind” when he snaps. In other words, I don’t think he has control over his behavior.

    Any advice is appreciated.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Aggression like that is often the result of pain or vision loss for example. Have his eyes been tested?

      Reply
      1. Margot

        Yes. The vet checked his vision during his full work up and it’s fine. Pretty good, in fact.

        I think he’s having brain changes. Some kind of diminished capacity.

        I just discovered we cannot put a leash on him to walk him. When we try, he snarls and snaps and tries to bite us as we try to attach the leash to his collar. Then after we stop, literally 2 seconds later, he’s as happy as a clam. Bring the leash out again and he goes nuts with rage.

        I’ve walked this dog literally hundreds of miles over the past 12 years. He loves walks. But for whatever reason, he now gets aggressive around the leash. I tried simply looping it around his neck, but nope.

        I think I’m going to have to buy a snare because that’s the only was I can safely leash him without getting bitten. I suspect once he’s leashed, he won’t care one bit and will be happy to go on a walk.

        I dread what new changes may happen.

        Reply
        1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

          How strange! Is he in any sort of pain? Have you noticed any other behaviour changes?

          Reply
  16. Michelle Lucas

    My old dachshund has dementia. As long as I’ve had him, he is aggressive toward anyone who tries to trim his nails. Today, he decided to be aggressive with getting a bath. I’m not sure what to do anymore as far as nail-trimming, bathing, and when possible, teeth-cleaning. I’ve had a vet turn him away for a nail trim due to the aggression. I’ve also had a vet to give him a tranquilizer to help calm him … but tranquilizers make him even more aggressive. Once, he was even put under narcosis. When he woke, he panicked … screamed …. ran into walls … and cried until the affects of the anesthesia diminished. Aside from healthcare (nails, teeth, bath), he’s a wonderful dog. He’s my best buddy and I have promised to help him for as long as there is something I can do. But now, his nails are so long … they curl under. This is unfair, surely uncomfortable, and unhealthy for him But, I don’t know what to do for him. Let alone figure out how to bathe him and get his teeth cleaned. It seems as though every possibility is impossible without being bitten several times and scaring the life out of him (he gets terrified). Any advice?

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      Oh my goodness poor baby. It’s definitely bad if his nails are curling under, so it’s important to get something done as quickly as possible. Have you tried a muzzle? What about some dog calming products like Valerian with skullcap or getting him a Thundershirt which you can find on Amazon. Can your vet prescribe a mild anxiety medication to calm him down enough to at least have a muzzle put on him?

      Reply
      1. Michelle Lucas

        Thanks for your comment. Yes, we’ve always tried to use a muzzle. He’s quite good at getting out of it. He has also tried anti-anxiety meds … and they seemed to have the opposite affect on him (aggression instead of calmness). Even anti-motion sickness medication winds him up to where he can’t sleep. Crazy! I’m going to try to find a new vet (will have to travel much further) that has a more modern practice than one I can find here on the countryside. I’m in Germany, so I’ll have to formulate and translate what is going on with my guy. Perhaps a natural product like Valerian would be helpful. Time to do some research. Time is short as his nails continue to grow. There are two of them that tend to curl under and around. I imagine that it would be impossible to trim them to the needed length in one session. It concerns me that he will have to go back regularly until they are short enough.

        Reply
        1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

          You definitely have to get his nails taken care of ASAP, or they’ll grow into his skin and cause a problem. It is a good idea to try another vet. Valerian with Skullcap might be helpful. If it takes a few short visits to get it down that may be the best way to handle his stress.

          Reply
  17. Jay M

    My 9 years old Jack Russell is starting to become aggressive towards his brother dog (who is a shepherd chow mix) recently for no reason. The two have been inseparable since they bonded as puppies but now my JRT lashes out almost daily and always in the early morning (4-530am). My shepherd sleeps on the floor next to the bed and my JRT sleeps on the bed. I’ve taken him to the vet and they can’t explain it medically but I don’t know what to do. Both are severe abuse cases and have never been crated.

    Reply
    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      It could be he’s in pain, having vision problems or the beginnings of dementia. Putting them in a crate is not the answer, it’s more important to figure out what’s causing him to lash out. Has your vet done any tests recently to find a reason? Is he having mobility issues? I recommend you join my FB group, Senior Dog Care Club. There’s lots of great advice there and a very welcoming community. Just answer the 3 questions and you will be approved.

      Reply

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