Most, if not all, dog parents will notice behavior changes in older dogs. These are natural and come with the aging process.
But did you know many of these behavior changes result from a medical condition?
I cannot impress upon you enough the importance of taking behavior changes seriously.
Too many people assume they’re a natural part of the aging process and do nothing. But “old age” is not a diagnosis!
Not only can this worsen a condition so much that it is no longer treatable, but your dog is likely living in pain, which is never acceptable.
Let’s look at common behavioral changes in older dogs and what to do about them.
Last Updated: Sept 28, 2023
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One of the most common behavior problems we tend to see in senior dogs is anxiety when separated from their humans.
Some dogs may experience it when away from a specific person, while others aren’t picky and show signs of anxiety only when they are separated from all people.
There are degrees of severity ranging from some barking and peeing or pooping in the house to all-out destruction.
Trust me when I say it is heartbreaking to witness.
Here is a very important fact – your dog’s anxiety starts long before you leave the house!
We’re so used to our routine when leaving, and we don’t think about all the cues we’re giving off that our dogs witness.
Where or how we put our coat on, in which order we pick up our purse and keys, etc.
Your dog recognizes the signs even before you start, and panic sets in.
Then, factor in how many people go over to the dog, give them a hug and kiss (even pick them up like a baby, as one of my neighbors does), and plain make a fuss.
When they come home, they do the same thing again.
In doing this, you are communicating to your dog that you will miss them and that this separation from them is stressful or emotional for you.
Hey, I understand that. But to your dog, this signals that it is a huge deal when you leave the house and definitely worth being anxious about.
That’s right, that’s the message you’re reinforcing.
What Do I Do?
Addressing behavior problems in older dogs like separation anxiety will take time – you won’t see a solution overnight.
But there are steps that you can take today to start working towards a resolution, including:
- Change the order you do things. For example, if you usually grab your coat and go, put it on, and sit on the couch for a minute.
- Never make a big deal out of coming and going. Just leave.
- Be sure you give your dog lots of exercise before you go out.
- How about playing some relaxing music…on low. Through a Dog’s Ear is one you should seriously consider.
- Dogs should not be left alone for hours on end. Hire a pet sitter, ask a friend or neighbor to take the dog for a walk, or sign him up for doggie daycare.
A compulsive behavior is something your dog appears to do repeatedly without even thinking about it, like the constant licking of a particular spot, chasing a tail, air biting, or staring at walls.
Although some medical conditions like dementia can be responsible, it’s often the result of anxiety.
If left untreated or unaddressed, anxious behaviors often develop into compulsive behaviors.
What Do I Do?
If you can identify the anxiety source (a conflict between your pets, perhaps?), you can eliminate/manage it before it becomes a compulsion.
It’s hard to say what the treatment will be as it depends on the cause.
The solution may include something as minor as a change in routine to more complicated options like medication/natural therapies or a behaviorist’s help.
Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (Doggie Dementia)
You may notice your dog wandering aimlessly, getting stuck behind doors or under tables, forgetting their housetraining, and not recognizing the familiar.
These behavior changes in older dogs could be signs of dementia.
There is no test to diagnose it. Instead, a diagnosis is made through a process of elimination.
What Do I Do?
There is no cure, but drugs such as Selgian (UK) and Anipryl (US) can help with the symptoms by increasing blood flow to the brain.
Call your veterinarian to talk about your concerns and the medical options available.
Some changes can be made to your living spaces to make your home more senior dog friendly.
This will help make your older dog more comfortable while also preventing injuries.
Have you noticed your older dog crying at night? Is your otherwise quiet dog suddenly starting to bark, whine, or howl?
There are many explanations for this sudden change in dog behavior, including:
- Medical causes: illness, pain, discomfort, loss of hearing, dementia
- Behavioral causes: stress, separation anxiety, generalized fear, or anxiety
- Just plain attention-seeking
Before we can help our dogs, we must know the reason. This usually starts with asking yourself questions to narrow it down.
Here are some questions to help you get started:
- Has there been a recent addition to the household?
- Have you moved?
- Are you busier than usual and not spending enough time with the dog?
- Have you noticed something “off” about them lately?
What Do I Do?
If you’ve stopped spending time with your dog, they may be barking for attention. In this case, the solution is simple – spend more time with them.
If you’ve recently moved or welcomed a new family member, it is likely stress-related, and there are things you can do.
Make sure you still spend plenty of time with your dog.
Provide them a quiet area when they need to escape the hustle and bustle, and look into calming remedies or plugin pheromones to relax them.
Peeing/Pooping in the House
One of the more unpleasant senior dog behavior issues is when a previously housetrained dog starts peeing and/or pooping in the house.
I suggest you get some pee pads to save your sanity.
For example, we use a reusable pad under our senior dog’s bed at night as an extra layer of protection if an accident happens.
Okay, now to the problem at hand – Peeing and pooping in the house.
Your dog is not doing this deliberately if that’s what you think. This behavior is often uncomfortable for them, too.
There are a lot of reasons why your dog is suddenly using your carpet as a toilet, such as:
- Dementia is causing your dog to forget their housetraining
- Illnesses that may cause increased thirst/peeing (kidneys, diabetes…)
- Incontinence is a common issue in aging dogs
- Mobility issues making it harder for them to go out
- Increasingly hectic schedules affecting your dog’s break times
- Showing dissatisfaction with changes in environment/schedule/new pets/people…
- If it’s only when you’re out, they may be showing signs of separation anxiety
What Do I Do?
If this list has triggered your “aha” moment and the reason has been revealed, great! You’re halfway to a solution.
Now, you need to figure out how to prevent that “thing” from affecting your dog.
If everything has been status quo, you’re probably looking at a medical issue. But don’t start panicking.
Your first stop is a visit to the vet for diagnosis, and then you take it from there.
In the meantime, you may want to take them out for a quick pee break more often, introduce them to a crate, or block off a well-protected or easy-to-clean area for them to sleep at night.
While most dog behavior changes are inconvenient, this one can be a serious safety concern, especially for those with children or other pets in the house.
Older dogs who have been sweet and loving can suddenly become aggressive, and we’re thrown by something so out of character.
Pain is a big reason, as is anxiety, a lack of mobility (for example, he can’t get away from the annoying other dog he lives with), doggie dementia, vision loss, or hearing loss, to name a few.
Signs your dog is in pain include:
- Licking one spot on his body
- Difficulty getting up and lying down
- Withdrawing or not wanting to be touched
What Do I Do?
A trip to the vet can help solve the mystery of what’s causing his aggressiveness. If the cause is medical, a treatment plan can be put in place.
For example, if the cause of your dog’s aggression is pain, you can address the problem to relieve the pain entirely, or if that’s not an option, get started with a pain management plan.
Pay careful attention to any signs of aggression and keep detailed notes.
This information can be beneficial for your vet and also help you to recognize and reduce your dog’s triggers.
If your vet rules out medical explanations, I recommend contacting a dog behaviorist.
Fears and Phobias
As always, a trip to your vet is the first course of action so an underlying medical problem can be identified.
It’s possible that treating the condition will eliminate or at least reduce the fear or phobia.
These behavior changes in older dogs are often overlooked or downplayed, but they can be extremely challenging and unpleasant for your dog to experience.
What Do I Do?
Here are a few things you can do to help your dog cope:
- Dogs thrive on routine and consistency, so don’t change if you can help it.
- You may like to redecorate, but your dog may not appreciate it if it involves their stuff. Leave their bowls, blankets, and beds where they’ve always been. Keep walking and feeding them at the same time as always.
- Try keeping them away from what they fear, if possible. It doesn’t mean it will always have to be this way. It might just be until the treatment kicks in.
- If they have become more sensitive to noise, calming music like “Through a Dog’s Ear” may help.
Desensitization can help overcome the fear of noises like fireworks or thunderstorms. To do this, you will play a recording of the sound (you can find it on YouTube) on super low volume.
If they don’t react to the trigger, give them a treat.
Gradually increase the volume over several days or weeks and reward them each time they ignore it.
Continue with this desensitization process until they can hear it at a normal volume without it triggering fear or anxiety.
Don’t rush it, and if they exhibit signs of stress at any point, go back to the volume level they were comfortable at and continue from there – slowly!!
Pheromone products, natural calming agents, or anti-anxiety medications may also be in order.
Another behavior that may develop after having never seen it before is destructive behavior.
This could result from separation anxiety, boredom, or something else. However, to stop the behavior, you will have to identify the cause and address it first.
Call your vet and explain your concerns. They may be able to help with a diagnosis if there is a medical explanation.
Some questions you should answer before your vet appointment include:
- Are they destroying one particular thing or anything in their path?
- Any particular room, or are they happy to have a go anywhere?
- Does this happen at a specific time of day?
- When you’re home or out?
- Has there been any change to their exercise routine? Frequency? Duration? Type of activity?
What Do I Do?
Treatment/management options will vary depending on the underlying cause of the problem.
To keep your dog (and your things) safe, change your home environment based on what they have been going after.
If they have decided to chew your shoes all of a sudden, keep them out of reach.
Older Dog Chewing Suddenly
If you notice your older dog chewing suddenly, this is another dog behavior signaling that something may be wrong.
There may be a sudden increase in boredom, new or returning separation anxiety, pain, or age-related complications.
When a normally well-behaved dog starts to suddenly chew on everything in sight, consider if there has been any change in their environment or routine that could be responsible for triggering the behavior.
What Do I Do?
Once you find the cause, you can work on a solution. This starts by addressing the cause directly, like working with a behaviorist to eliminate separation anxiety or finding ways to reduce boredom.
In the meantime, there are also things you can do to manage this unwanted older dog behavior, such as:
Dog Proof the House
Put away anything your older dog may be able to get to and shouldn’t have. If they can reach it, they will chew it.
There may be no real rhyme or reason for what your senior dog decides to chew up.
They may be attracted to a pair of socks left at the foot of the bed or, ironically, that bottle of No Chew Spray you tried and left on the coffee table.
When dog-proofing the house, get down to their level and try to think like your dog. This will help you to identify where these chewable items may be.
Crate the Dog
If you can’t fully doggy-proof the house, or you have to leave for a bit during the day, keeping your older dog in a crate might be safer.
An alternative would be confining the dog in a smaller, dog-proofed area of the home.
Start the crating process by putting an old blanket your dog loves, along with their favorite chew toy, in the crate.
Keep the door open and watch as they discover the crate all on their own. It will seem less scary and forced this way.
Plenty of Exercise
Since an older dog chewing suddenly could result from simple boredom, ensure you and your dog get plenty of exercise and playtime together.
Walks are especially beneficial for older dogs to help keep their joints and muscles in great condition.
All the Right Chew Toys
Finally, make sure you have a good selection of chew toys you know your older pup will love.
Always read the labels of each product you purchase for your pup to ensure it is safe and age-appropriate.
Is your older dog hard of seeing or blind? Check out our review of some of the best toys for blind dogs.
All these tips can help with destructive chewing behavior in an adult dog while giving your pup something positive to look forward to throughout the day.
Changes in Sleep Patterns/Restlessness
Have you noticed that your dog, who once slept peacefully throughout the night, is now struggling to enjoy a good night’s sleep?
Restlessness, pacing, and changes in sleep patterns could stem from:
- Confusion caused by doggie dementia
- Pain (like arthritis)
- The need to pee more frequently
- Vision or hearing loss
- Your dog has started sleeping more during the day and is now restless and active at night – possibly the result of boredom
A visit to the vet will answer the “why,” and then we can focus on what we can do to help address the situation.
What Do I Do?
You may want to confine your dog to an area away from your bedroom at night so your sleep isn’t disturbed, or conversely, sleeping in your bedroom may give them comfort.
It could be a case of trying one and seeing how it works.
Increasing the amount/frequency of walks or playtime during the day and evening (within their abilities, of course) can be the solution.
You can also help to wear your dog out by introducing more mental stimulation from interactive toys or a fun training session.
Adjusting to Interlopers in the House
Before you run out and adopt a new dog, consider whether or not your senior would be happy about it.
You may think they need a friend, but they may be happy on their own, living a quiet life.
If, for whatever reason, you insist, think about your dog’s needs, likes, and dislikes. Take your time to find the right match.
If your dog has mobility issues or is not as sociable as they used to be, a puppy or high-energy dog will not be the right fit.
Behavior Modification for Dogs
Whether it is your dog’s aggression, a bad chewing habit, or another destructive behavior, you may find behavior modification necessary.
The proper behavior modification techniques can help with these issues and more.
Training is vital in stopping these behaviors. Positive reward-based training teaches even your old adult dog that they get rewarded when they do good and do what we ask.
Exercise is also a great way to help a dog release any pent-up energy and keep your senior dog stimulated.
Dog-proofing the house is also essential in curbing bad behavior.
Final Thoughts: Behavior Changes in Older Dogs
Your older dog may be more easily stressed, have lower tolerance levels than they used to, need more alone time, or have a medical issue.
It’s up to us to identify the cause of any sudden change in dog behavior and address it accordingly.
Ensure changes to their routine are done gradually, exposure to stressors is minimal, and any concerns are quickly brought to a vet’s attention.
You can still have many quality years together with timely medical care and ensuring your dog’s needs are met.
Have you noticed any behavior changes in your senior dog? What specifically made you take notice? What was the underlying cause, and how were you able to help him? Sharing helps others, so leave your comments in the section below.