Behavior Changes in Aging Dogs
As with all the behavior problems covered here, any number of medical problems can contribute to house soiling, including sensory decline, neuromuscular conditions that affect your dog’s mobility, brain tumors, cognitive dysfunction, endocrine system disorders, and any disorder that increases your dog’s frequency of elimination or decreases his bladder or bowel control.
If your dog soils in the house only when you’re gone and shows other signs of separation anxiety (please see above, Anxiety-Including Separation Anxiety), then he may be suffering from this disorder. Please see our article, Separation Anxiety, for detailed information on this problem and its treatment.
Since they’re often less adaptable to change, some older dogs might begin soiling in the house if there’s a change in their schedule, environment or household. Once your dog has used an indoor location to eliminate when you’re gone, that area can become established as a preferred spot, even if you’ve cleaned it thoroughly. It’s often necessary to have a complete behavior history taken by a qualified professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), to determine the reason for your dog’s house soiling and design effective treatment. To find one of these experts in your area, please see our article, Finding Professional Help.
Once your dog’s medical issues have been identified and treated-for example, after his anxiety has been eased, his pain reduced or his incontinence controlled through medication-then you’ll need to reestablish proper house training with the same methods you used when he was a puppy. These methods include close supervision indoors, confinement in a crate or other small area away from previously soiled sites when you can’t closely supervise, and a regular, frequent schedule of trips outdoors with tasty rewards for outdoor elimination. You may need to adjust your schedule to accommodate your dog’s need for more frequent elimination in his senior years. If you can’t, consider hiring a dog walker or providing your dog with a place indoors to eliminate, such as newspapers, a dog litter box or potty pads. Please see our article, House Training Your Adult Dog, for detailed information about house retraining your dog.
Just as with other behavior problems of senior dogs, the underlying cause of destructive behavior needs to be determined in order to provide effective treatment. Some destructive behaviors reported in senior dogs are pica (ingesting inedible objects); licking, sucking or chewing body parts, household objects or family members; and scratching and digging. Each of these may have a different cause, so a thorough medical evaluation combined with a behavioral history is necessary to determine a cause or causes for your dog’s behavior. For example, cognitive dysfunction might be considered in dogs with licking, chewing or pica. Treatment of underlying medical problems and cognitive dysfunction may resolve some problems but not others. If your dog is suffering from anxiety, phobia or fear of particular things (people, situations, objects, thunder, etc.), these issues need to be treated. Please see Fears and Phobias below for more information. Modifying your home and your dog’s environment can be helpful as well. Prevent access to sites where your dog’s destructiveness has occurred or might occur, and provide him with new, interesting toys to chew (or bones, rawhides, bully sticks, food-stuffed KONGs, etc.).