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Aging Brings Behavior Changes: How We Can Help

Updated: Jan 2

By: Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

Aging is inevitable. It happens to all of us. I just tried to thread a needle to do some sewing this morning and could not do so because I could not see the eye of the needle. Just a few months ago this was not a problem. Luckily, there were some reading glasses sitting around the house that I could use. Aging hits all of us, sometimes swiftly and earlier than we would expect. Pain, stress, and cognitive changes may happen to all of us as we get older, but there may be solutions to make aging a little bit easier. Pets are not able to verbalize what is happening to them so we are left to observe their behavior to try to deduce what is happening, why, and what we can do to help them live their best lives.

Changes can be more benign like changes in appearance, while others can seem like our old friend has disappeared. Some pets turn grey in the muzzle starting as young as 6, while others live into their later years without a single grey,…which leaves me wanting to know their secret!!! The more striking changes can start in later middle age or early teens for some dogs, but they are not uniform across dogs.

· Excessive barking, sometimes with a stimulus like a visitor, sometimes seemingly at nothing

· Sensitivities about touch, being handled, and guarding their personal space

· Separation Anxiety/distress emerging (barking/howling, house soiling, and/or chewing/destruction when the owner is gone)

· Changes in activity levels

· Secluding themselves during the day to sleep most of the day

· Getting stuck in corners

· Uncharacteristically becoming a watch dog -- staring out the window or property gates, seemingly always on edge for something to happen

· Evening/nighttime: Panting, restless pacing, where they cannot settle down

· Disinterest in activities they previously enjoyed

· Irritability and aggression in situations that would not have previously provoked such a response

These can occur due from environmental changes like a new puppy or child in the home, and changes in work schedules. They can also develop due to pain issues that emerge with age, cognitive changes, and anxiety as their senses diminish. Owners I have worked with sometimes notice these changes coinciding with their dog’s loss of hearing and/or sight. Losing one’s ability to perceive the environment around them would invoke stress in anyone, as it compromises one’s ability to feel safe. The fortunate thing is that things can often be improved for these dogs if we are proactive in addressing it. It is important to be a team with your veterinarian since this could potentially involve pain, anxiety, or neurological changes. This is not something to ignore or try to address alone.

Sometimes we just assume that because they are old they will not want to do fun things anymore, or that they want to lay around and sleep all day. I think these are faulty assumptions. Although I speculate that perhaps this is because when many of us grew up, that WAS what old dogs did. Maybe we did not have the same understanding of these behaviors, what they mean, and maybe did not have the abilities to address them as well medically. These things are not always easy to spot in dogs. Sometimes we get very few indicators of pain or cognitive changes. Sometimes that snappiness whenever the puppy approaches, hesitance to engage in running or play, or growling at people who come near the senior dog’s resting place are the few signs of pain that might be noticeable to owners. With cognitive changes, it may be a few subtle things that eventually start adding up to actually be larger changes in our pets.

A few months ago, we noticed Bones, our 12.5 year old Kooikerhondje female showing signs of losing her hearing. It was not selective hearing. She was not noticing loud sounds that would normally have caused some nervousness with her lifelong noise sensitivities. She also was not hearing important sounds like “treat” or “walk” or the sound of treat bags opening unless we were within a few feet of her. It seemed to happen very fast, within a few weeks. Around the same time, we started noticing restlessness in the evening. We would normally sit in the family room together in the evenings, but she would pant heavily with stress ridges across her face, big dilated eyes, and lots of pacing around the house. She started experiencing separation anxiety when we would leave the home, even with our other dog at home with her. We heard her barking and howling at times when we would leave and when we would come home, which was not typical. In the mornings, we would normally sit outside and have breakfast on the backyard patio as we watch the varieties of birds eating at the feeders. Instead, she started lying down in front of our gate that looks out toward the road. She started barking at anyone going by and sometimes at seemingly nothing at all. Once she was barking it was hard to get her to calm down and stop. She started doing this in the house too, barking at seemingly nothing.

Her ability to perceive her surroundings had diminished and she was on edge. Perhaps there are other changes going on too – we may never know – but it seemed to happen in a matter of a few weeks where she underwent major changes physically, mentally, and behaviorally. We attempted using pheromones, nutraceutical supplements, and increased enrichment to help her settle down and relax, but they seemed to help in a very limited way. She still seemed to be struggling from day to day, suffering separation anxiety, always on guard duty, and appearing stressed when nothing was going on in the environment. Whenever she started barking – whether it was when friends visited, a dog walking by the front of the house, or a noise at the front door -- it would be hard for her to calm back down. This was a big change. Bones also had difficulties with problem solving. She seemed less interested in learning new things or practicing things she already knows. When we would do our daily conditioning exercises I normally sit on the floor next to the equipment to work with them. She seemed to have problems figuring out that she could walk around me to climb onto the equipment – something she had done for years -- and appeared less interested in practicing the training. She only wanted the carrots that were the reward for the activity.

My husband and I had our suspicions about what was happening from my work with other dogs, but we wanted to be sure and have her thoroughly checked out. Once we had a fuller picture of her health, we could work with our veterinarian on solutions. We booked an appointment with our veterinarian and described her behavioral changes and her diminished hearing. Pain seemed to be well-addressed for Bones with her arthritis and mid-back spondylosis, so pain was not believed to be a factor. She is very active and agile for her age running and chasing her younger brother, daily zoomies, and lots of digging in her designated spot in the garden. She loves to dig, to bury things and play chase, but these activities had reduced recently and been replaced with patrolling behavior around the yard. We had often joked that she was aging backward and becoming a puppy again. She is more active in some ways than our 3 year old dog, and until we saw these behavioral changes she seemed high on life. To me, this is how an old dog should experience life, if possible. Aging does not have to mean less enjoyment of life. We have been aggressive over the years working with her veterinarians on pharmaceutical treatment for her arthritis, as well as daily conditioning exercises and regular chiropractic care. We also try to keep her weight down, but as she has gotten older this has been more challenging.

I had seen a few different medications used by client dogs' veterinarians over the years to successfully address canine cognitive issues and associated anxieties. Many client dogs experienced reductions of troublesome symptoms as a result of strong owner-vet-behavior consultant teamwork. Our veterinarian initially suggested a situational medication (a medication that only lasts several hours and can be given as-needed), but I shared my concerns with using a situational medication because her symptoms were not situational. Her anxiety was ever-present daily and worsened at random times. Based on my description of the issues, the vet prescribed Anipryl (Selegiline), a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) that was FDA approved in 1998 for treating dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction, and also used in humans with Parkinson's disease. The medication came with a list of possible side effects, but we hoped that she would not have any, and if she did, that it would be worth the benefit she received from taking it. The vet collaborated with colleagues back at her alma mater's veterinary behavior department and started Bones at the lower end of the dosing range to hopefully avoid possible side effects. Given that it can take a couple months to see changes, we were lucky that we saw results sooner rather than later without any observable side effects. After about 3 weeks of taking the medication daily the barking when we were away from the home issues suddenly stopped. The guarding of the yard and home decreased drastically, interest in training began to return, problem solving abilities improved, and she was no longer anxious and restless in the evenings.

It felt like we had gotten our girl back! Most importantly, she seemed content and carefree again. High on Life. With her anxieties reduced, we were able to be more successful with environmental changes to maintain proper sleep/nap hygiene, proper exercise and mental stimulation, and the calming enrichment we had attempted before during times of increased arousal showed greater effectiveness. All of this helps her to better cope with changes in her environment that -- from her perspective -- likely seem to happen with little warning since she does not have the same abilities to perceive environmental changes as she did just a few months ago.

Each case is unique. What is appropriate for one animal may not be appropriate for another, and individual animals’ responses may be different to various training or medical approaches. This is why it is important to work closely with your veterinarian who is a medical professional and knows your pet’s individual medical history. One thing I know is that changes in our older dogs should be closely monitored and rapidly addressed to make sure we are giving them the best quality of life possible. Their needs one week may be different than their needs the next week (see my blog post "Is Your Dog Getting His Five Freedoms?"). Much has changed with our understanding of behavior changes in senior dogs, as has the ability to address these issues. Do not hesitate to work with both your veterinarian and behavior consultant to see if there are ways to address issues as soon as they crop up, as these issues will not go away on their own. Pain, stress, and cognitive changes may happen to all of us as we get older, but there may be solutions to make aging a little big easier if we all work together as a team. Please let us know if we can help your older pet live his/her best life.


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Eileen Koval, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, MSc (in Operations Management) is a fully certified dog behavior consultant with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). She believes the foundation of a good cross-species relationship is understanding the needs and normal behavior patterns of each dog as an individual, as he/she was bred to be. She enjoys helping humans and dogs communicate more effectively to create brilliant relationships with joy, purpose, and fulfillment for all species involved. She offers private consulting for serious dog behavior issues, obedience/manners, and agility training. Eileen developed a unique online course to help pet parents and trainers develop reliable snake avoidance behavior off-leash through positive reinforcement techniques. These techniques have been applied by trainers worldwide to teach dogs reliable avoidance of dangerous environmental hazards and off-leash property boundaries. She lives on a small ranch in Las Vegas, Nevada with her husband and their Nederlandse Kooikerhondjes.

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