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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

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This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

Special consideration for the ageing dog

Mrs Holling's Great Dane had always been a very good dog. After the brief period of destruction and housetraining as a puppy, Pippa had been a model pet. Having a busy career, Mrs Hollings was out of the house for long periods of the day but had always made sure that Pippa was not left alone for more than three hours at a stretch without a walk or a visit. This routine had served both she and Pippa very well for more than eight years but during the past three months, Pippa’s behaviour when left alone had deteriorated. The neighbours had complained that Pippa had begun to bark and howl during the day and Mrs Hollings ,more often than not, had come home to destroyed door facings and furniture and sometimes urine and faeces left in some part of the house. We discussed all the possibilities such as a change of routine, change of household, changes in the family or change in environment. We also discussed the possibility of a one off frightening event which may have occurred during the owner’s absence but as far as could be ascertained, none of these applied. Mrs Hollings was upset about her belongings but was even more upset for Pippa’s increasing anxiety and stress. She had tried confining Pippa to the kitchen but that had more or less just confined the mess to the kitchen - it did not treat the underlying cause.

As explained before, there can be all kinds of reasons for a dog becoming anxious due to being left alone. Separation anxiety is a well-recognised problem in dogs that are not taught to be alone while they are young or in re-homed dogs which, having lost one pack, are anxious about losing the next.

But what could cause a dog to suddenly become incompetent at being left alone after years of calm and relaxed behaviour in the absence of the owner. The whole subject of age-related behaviour problems in dogs in new to behaviourists. This is very probably because dogs are now living to far greater ages than in the past due to better veterinary care in general. There are even vets who specialise in geriatric medicine for dogs. The interest is also possibly generated by the greater expectations we have of our pets, and the fact that they often become so much a part of our family.

For whatever reasons, age-related behaviour problems are now being considered, particularly when the anxiety is sudden, out of character and the dog is aged. What age is considered “aged” can be a rather tricky question because it is not only effected by the breed of the dog, but is also very individual to each dog. Some giant breeds of dogs such as Great Danes, Irish Wolfhounds and St. Bernards have a tendency to age earlier than other breeds. Malamutes and some types of gundogs also have a tendency to age early. Also, what type of ageing are we talking about? The physical ageing of loss of sight, hearing and motor co-ordination or the ageing of the brain which leads to slow and confused thought processes? Either and both. The loss of the ability to hear, see or walk correctly can very often cause stress both in dogs and humans. Most dogs can adjust to blindness or deafness but it can be stressful to them particularly if it is in conjunction with a loss of familiar thought processes. Sometimes ageing dogs become so confused that they end up behind a familiar piece of furniture unable to find their way out. This is not just failing eyesight, it is a confusion of the brain processes.

Some ageing dogs do best in a kennel crate situation which is filled with the scent of the owner and in which they have less chance of becoming confused and upset. If nothing else, the kennel can become a safe and familiar haven to which the dog can retire when he feels upset. The door to the kennel can be left open and a blanket placed over the “den” for this purpose.

In Pippa’s case, we accommodated some of her needs. Pippa was allowed to sleep in her owner’s bedroom when left alone. She was provided with an article of her owner’s scented clothing on which to sleep. Another article of clothing with the owner’s scent was left on the far side of a closed door so, when she went to check, she could believe Mrs. Hollings was still in the house. There are also some excellent drugs now available through veterinarians which can help to increase the dogs’ ability to concentrate and increase the brains cognitive functions. Used in conjunction with the above behaviour therapy, Pippa was able to go into her old age graciously and enjoy what may have been a difficult time in her life.

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