Behavior Changes in Aging Dogs
Fears and Phobias
Sensory decline, cognitive dysfunction and anxiety can all contribute to fears and phobias. The first step in treatment is to control underlying medical problems and cognitive dysfunction. Older dogs can suffer from fears and phobias of noise and thunderstorms and, less commonly, of going outdoors, entering certain rooms or walking on certain types of surfaces. Dog guardians’ own understandably frustrated reaction to their dogs’ behavior can also aggravate the problem-especially punishment is used. Try keeping your dog away from whatever triggers his fears or phobia, or masking the noise with background music. With the guidance of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), you can also use behavioral treatment to change your dog’s emotional response to things that frighten or upset him and, as a result, change his behavior. (Please see our article, Finding Professional Help, to locate a CAAB or ACAAB in your area.) See your veterinarian about possible drug or pheromone therapy for panic and anxiety, which can also help ease your dog’s fears and anxiety.
Compulsive and Stereotypic Behaviors
Compulsive and stereotypic behavior problems encompass a wide variety of behaviors with many possible causes. They’re defined as ritualized, repetitive behaviors that have no apparent goal or function. Examples include stereotypic licking or overgrooming that results in self-injury (“hot spots,” for example), spinning or tail chasing, pacing and jumping, air biting or fly snapping, staring at shadows or walls, flank sucking and pica (eating inedible objects, like rocks). Some medical conditions, including cognitive dysfunction, can contribute to or cause these behaviors. Compulsive disorders often arise from situations of conflict or anxiety. Things or situations that make your dog feel conflicted, stressed or anxious can lead him to engage in displacement behaviors, which can then become compulsive over time. (Displacement behaviors are those that occur outside of their normal context when dogs are frustrated, conflicted or stressed. An example is a dog who stops suddenly to groom himself while en route to his guardian who has just called him. He may be unsure of whether he’s going to be punished, so he expresses his anxiety by grooming, lip licking, yawning or sniffing the ground.) Drug therapy is usually necessary to resolve compulsive disorders. But if you can identify the source of conflict early on and reduce or eliminate it (such as conflict between your pets or inconsistent or delayed punishment from you), behavioral drug therapy may not be necessary. Please see our article, Compulsive Behavior in Dogs, for detailed information about the signs and treatment of these problems.
A multitude of factors can contribute to an increase in a dog’s aggressive behavior. Medical conditions that affect your dog’s appetite, mobility, cognition, senses or hormones can lead to increased aggression, as can conditions that cause him pain or irritability. Aggression to family members can occur following changes in the family makeup, such as marriage or divorce, death or birth. Aggression to other pets can occur when a new pet is introduced to the family, as a younger dog matures or as an older dog becomes weaker or less assertive. Increased aggression toward unfamiliar people and animals can arise from your dog’s increasing anxiety and sensitivity as he ages.