Reading and Communicating as Your Dog Ages

Love Dog

In This Chapter

  • Knowing how old your dog really is
  • Checking for and adapting to age-related changes in hearing and vision
  • Coping with the effects of aging on a dog’s mindCommunicating with Your Dog and Happy Training, Happy Tails).
  • Create landmarks for your dog, keeping daily objects, such as dog bowls and bedding, in the same place. In addition, avoid relocating furniture, TVs, or radios to prevent any disorientation that may result when the dog’s mental map is disrupted.
  • Use carpet runners to create a “road” to familiar rooms.
  • Use different scents to map out locations or forbidden areas. For example, you can use scented oils or powders to cue your dog to avoid ledges or locate important places in a room. When you travel, these same scents can comfort and guide him in an otherwise unknown environment.
  • If your dog is distressed at not being able to find you, wear a familiar scent or clip a small bell to your wrist or belt loop.
  • Return objects to where they belong. Things that are left out are opportunities for collisions that may disorient your dog and lead to anxiety or fearfulness.
  • If your dog is an outdoor pet, don’t plan major landscape projects.
  • If your dog is disoriented, lead him to a favorite anchoring spot, such as a familiar bed, and pet him calmly until he’s settled down.
  • Going up and down stairs is difficult for blind dogs. Install carpeting and chaperone your dog until he feels confident: Hold his midsection gently as you support his weight and/or lead him up each step by luring him with a favorite treat (see Happy Training, Happy Tails).
The most important tool in dealing with a blind dog is the leash. Think of the leash as giving you the ability to hold your dog’s hand. Your dog will feel more secure because he knows where you are. Leashing the dog can be helpful even in the house until he gets adjusted. The dog should certainly be walked on the leash because his owner is now his eyes.
Feeling socially isolated is a problem with blind dogs just as it is with deaf dogs. Most dogs seem reassured if they know where their owners are. A dog that has been free to roam the house may have to be confined at night. Securing your dog next to your bed at night or using a crate is an ideal solution.
Once the dog gets used to the routine and has a mental map of his world, he’ll do fine. Many dogs happily go around their homes and live a happy life despite their blindness. In fact, many do it so well that visitors don’t even notice that the dog is blind.

Remembering the Aging Mind

Your dog’s personality and behavior will change as she grows older, and although some dogs may lose the zest for life, it’s not a necessary or even normal part of dogs growing older.
In today’s society, where dogs are nurtured as never before, they’re, living longer. Better nutrition and medical services ensure that dogs are often making it well into their senior years, and because of that we’re seeing more of the degenerative conditions equated with aging, including arthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even dementia.
Alzheimer’s disease in dogs?
A medical condition known as Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD) causes the same kind of disorientation, physiological brain alteration, confusion, memory loss, and personality changes that humans face with Alzheimer’s disease. CCD is sometimes referred to as old dog syndrome, brain aging, doggie dementia, or senility.
The symptoms of this age-related mental problem are usually quite clear to a dog owner. The dog
  • Stops responding to his name or other known directions
  • Stares blankly into space or at walls
  • May repeat behaviors, such as dragging a toy from room to room, or pacing or wandering aimlessly but using the same route or pattern around tables and chairs
  • May get stuck in corners, or around furniture, needing assistance to get out
  • May sometimes appear lost or confused, even in familiar surroundings, or when put out to relieve himself may seem to forget why he was there
  • May experience changes in social behavior, such as no longer trying to get attention, no longer caring about being petted, or walking away when receiving affection
  • May have changes in sleep patterns, including sleeping more during the day and wandering around at night instead of sleeping
  • May sometimes forget his housetraining, even to the point of having accidents indoors immediately after coming inside
  • May be easily agitated and begin vigorously barking for no apparent reason
Seldom does a dog show all these symptoms, but any dog that shows two or more of them may well be developing CCD.
Solutions for a fading mind
Several behavioral interventions can keep mental decline at bay even as your dog ages.
  • Pattern training and repetition is reassuring to an older dog. Once a dog has established a regular routine, he’ll hold to that pattern through his older years. Familiar directions encourage your dog’s participation in daily activities and give him security and comfort.
Old dogs can still learn, and they love the attention and the opportunity to please you and earn rewards. Though it may take more time and patience, recent research shows that older dogs are eager to learn new routines.
Older dogs have a hard time unlearning learned behavior patterns, such as jumping on guests or not barking at strange noises. Those lessons are better addressed while the mind is still impressionable.
  • Perhaps the most exciting work about the aging mind is the finding that our day-to-day experiences affect the very structure of our brains and may allow us to counteract the effects of age on our brains. Researchers at the University of Toronto studied a group of aging Beagles in order to see how changing the day-to-day experiences of older dogs would affect their minds. Provided with a cognitive enrichment program, the dogs were challenged with learning tasks and puzzles, such as finding hidden food rewards, five to six days a week.
This stimulation went on for a year, at which point each dog was tested for mental awareness and new skill learning capacities. The dogs in this group universally showed better performance in learning and problem solving tasks than did their littermates who had not had these additional experiences.
Dealing with your dog at home is simple. From the earliest days of living with your dog, you should stimulate him by giving him things to learn, problems to solve, and new experiences. However, when your dog grows older, you should make an effort to increase, rather than decrease, your dog’s activities:
  • Provide mental stimulation in as many ways as you can.
  • Play with your dog.
  • Go for short walks, especially in new places.
  • Talk to your dog.
  • Pet your dog and socially interact with her.
  • Try to teach your dog something new each week.
If you’re willing to put up with a bit of controlled destruction, create problems to solve by putting kibbles or treats inside an old towel, rag, or crumpled plastic jug and allow the dog to tear the item apart to get to the food inside. The cardboard rolls that toilet paper and paper towels come on are great for this activity. Put some kibble in them, crumple the ends, and let the old dog tear apart the “toy” to get to the food.
Turning your dog’s meals into searches can also be useful. Divide the dog’s meal into small portions, each in a plastic container, and hide them around the house to keep your dog actively searching for a while. If you can put up with the potential mess, simply toss some nonmessy bits of food around a room or yard and encourage the dog to find them.

by Stanley Coren and Sarah Hodgson

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