Senior Dog Behavior Changes

Behavior changes can occur in our dogs as they get older. It's not unusual to think that a dog is just being stubborn, acting out or being 'bad'. As always, though, and especially with aging dogs, it's important to consider whether there is a medical reason behind . Older pets deal with changes to both their bodies and their minds that can affect the way they act. Our pets can't speak with us - but they can often tell us through their behavior if there is something wrong.

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Changes in Sleeping Patterns

You may notice that your dog is restless at night, awakens more often, or even sleeps during the day but stays awake most of the night. Pet owners with dogs who frequently wake them up overnight often struggle with the lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. Changes in a dog's sleeping pattern can arise from:

  • Anxiety. Many older dogs experience diminished sight and hearing, and as a result they can become more anxious when they think there's something strange afoot, or when they think they're alone. You might think that reduced hearing would make a dog less worried about noises, but oftentimes it's the exact opposite - since they can't readily identify the noise due to their poor hearing, that noise becomes a source of anxiety.

    If your dog is worried about being away from you, consider letting him sleep with you, or at least close by the bed where you can easily reach down and touch him if he needs reassurance. Or try leaving on a night-light or playing soft background music to mask out other noises during the night.

    Sometimes simple changes can help dogs who are starting to show anxiety. For instance, DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) and Feliway for cats are scents that help to calm some pets. Many people have also had great results with a Thundershirt or calming wrap.

  • Needing an extra potty break during the night. They might not be able to hold it all the way until morning. Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot that can be done to manage the situation. If your pet is otherwise healthy, water can be removed an hour or two before bedtime - however, older pets sometimes have medical conditions where free and ready access to drinking water is absolutely essential.

    Let your dog out for a potty break immediately before bed... it may just be that you'll have to get used to that extra bathroom break during the night.

  • Pain or discomfort, such as from arthritis or another medical condition, can cause dogs to awaken more often. Dogs might even pace or remain standing if they cannot get comfortable. Good pain control is essential to any pet's well-being, so talk to the vet to see what can be done.

    Dog incontinence or protection pads (or puppy pads) can be useful for dogs that need to be let out often. Dogs can be trained to use these pads whenever you aren't able to let them out.

  • Dementia can mess with a dog's normal sleep-wake cycle. Dogs may sleep much more during the day, but pace restlessly or show anxiety throughout the night, a behavioral disorder known as . Talk to your veterinarian about getting your dog assessed for cognitive dysfunction. He may be able to suggest some supplements that could help to regulate your dog's sleep-wake cycle.

Soiling in the House

Many people are surprised when their rock-solid housetrained dog has an accident in the house. Senior dogs, though, may soil in the house for many reasons - and none of them have to do with the dog willfully being 'bad':

  • Pain or decreased mobility. It might be too hard for them to come get you to ask to be let out, or too hard to get to the door in time.

  • Your dog may need more frequent potty breaks as he gets older. If you're not at home to let him out, he may simply be unable to hold it.

  • Incontinence or less control over his bladder or bowels can result in accidental house-soiling.

  • Some illnesses, or the medications used to treat the illnesses, can cause dogs to drink and/or urinate more. Examples include canine diabetes and . Sometimes the dog just can't make it to the door in time.

  • Cognitive dysfunction (senility or dementia) can cause a dog to forget his housetraining.

Dealing with the underlying pain or illness may be able to alleviate some house-soiling accidents... however, sometimes older dogs just need to go out more. Offer more potty breaks or, if that's not possible, put down some pee pads. These are normally used for , but they can be used for senior dogs too. If it's medication that's causing your dog to have to go more, ask your vet if there's a different medication your dog can try.

Sometimes simply will help to remind or reinforce housetraining. However, it could just be that age-related conditions have caught up with your dog and he will need to go out more frequently.

It can be tough keeping up when your pet has a lot of accidents in the house. A spot cleaning machine like the Bissell SpotBot can take some of the stress off. It makes cleaning up a lot easier and less time-consuming. When choosing a spot cleaner, look for one that has a stair attachment - dogs may sometimes 'dribble' as they walk, and the stair attachment will make staircase cleanup much easier.


Hearing and vision loss, pain, cognitive dysfunction (dementia), or even side effects of some medications are all reasons why dogs can become anxious as they get older. It's a terrible thing to watch a dog suffering from anxiety, as they don't seem to be able to settle down and relax.

Dogs suffering from anxiety can behave in ways that are atypical for them. This can include destructive behavior (chewing or destroying things around the house); irritableness and growling, even during normal interactions with their owners; fearfulness or ; or becoming 'clingy' and needing more attention or reassurance.

While medication isn't always a good option due to the potential for side effects, anxiety is a very real cause of distress for dogs. A discussion with your veterinarian may be helpful. Other things that you can try include making adjustments around the house to account for the hearing and vision loss (i.e. make sure your pet always has a clear path and won't be tripping over stuff); effectively manage any pain issues; and try simple things like a Thundershirt (an 'anti-anxiety' wrap that's easy to put on/take off), a Dog Appeasing Pheromone spray or diffuser, or Bach's Rescue Remedy.

Make sure you check with your pet's veterinarian before trying any sort of supplement to ensure that it won't interact with your pet's current medications.

Anxiety isn't an easy thing to manage. Not everything will work for every dog. You don't know what works specifically for your dog until you try.

Increased Vocalization

An increase in any type of vocalization can indicate a problem with your senior dog. Pain can cause groaning or whimpering when moving around, for example; while barking or whining might indicate anxiety, whether from dementia or otherwise.

Ask a veterinarian to assess your dog. If a medical reason is found to be behind the increased vocalizations, treating the condition may return to your dog is his usual level of 'chattiness'. Some conditions, like dementia, may not respond to medication and the increased vocalizations may become your dog's new 'normal'.

If no medical reason is found, you may be able to alter your dog's behavior and train him to be quiet upon command. Be consistent with what command you use when you want your dog to stop vocalizing, and offer lots of praise and positive reinforcement.

Managing Behavior Changes

Senior dog behavior changes are often caused by a common set of factors: pain, decreased mobility, loss of sight or hearing, canine cognitive dysfunction, or illness. A thorough check-up by the veterinarian can help identify any issues your dog may be having, as well as figure out how to help him. Remember that aging dogs aren't engaging in 'difficult' behaviors out of malice; they're simply growing older. Kindness, patience, and understanding in their senior years is a small price to pay for our dogs' steady companionship, loyalty, laughter, and love.