When you think about getting a dog, there are a lot of questions you consider: Can I afford the food, toys, vet bills, training, and other expenses? Am I choosing a breed that fits my lifestyle? Do I have time to commit to meeting its exercise and training needs? Often the questions asked pertain to early stages of life and we often (mistakenly) assume that the older the dog gets, the less it will need. While in some ways an older dog is a lot easier to manage than a younger dog, I am learning with my ~12 year old doberman, Dexter, that old dogs don't need less - their needs just change.
You figure once you get your pup making it through the night without needing a potty break that your sleepless nights are over. Wrong. One of the first changes I started to notice as Dex entered his senior years was that he would pace at night, and sometimes I would wake up to him whining and sometimes even bumping into things and I'd need to turn on the lights to help him find his way to bed. Cataracts are common in older dogs and my vet suggested leaving a bathroom light on or setting up a nightlight to help with this. While it did help, I do find there are nights where he is just restless and has a hard time settling. I have also noticed that if there is a thunderstorm, he now often drools and gets quite anxious despite having never had an issue with storms in the past. I never thought he'd need a thunder-shirt, but now he has one (and looks pretty cute in it).
Most days, Dex is still a big, playful and active puppy but there are days he wakes up very stiff and just wants to sleep on the couch and have space away from the other dogs. I have a front living room for him to go to so he can get away from the other dogs, and he definitely appreciates having his own space to retreat to at times. When I sit down beside him on my laptop answering emails, he will rest his head or paw in my lap to remind me that just because he wants to sit out the hike that day doesn't mean he doesn't need me to spend time with him. Also worth noting is that his mental needs haven't decreased - I may not be asking my arthritic dog to offer sits or lie down on command as much but he still enjoys less physically demanding tasks and things like treat-balls and puzzle toys, still enjoys interactions with other dogs most days, and he still loves to get new toys. The key is judging from day to day what he is up for, expecting his tolerance level for some things to be lower on some days than others, and being creative in finding ways to stimulate his mind. Also being patient and understanding when he does odd things like barking at a wall or just very out of context behaviours in general.
A lot of what I have experienced with Dex is well explained by many accounts of canine cognitive dysfunction, which you can read more about here: http://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/neurological/5-signs-dog-dementia
Perhaps one of the most difficult things for me to accept as a trainer is a regression in his reactivity training. We had made huge gains with him - getting to the point where we could have people come over for pool parties and have him settle within a minute after someone new came or sometimes not reacting at all to now needing to give him more time to learn to trust new people again. No matter what, it is always about setting him up to succeed and setting realistic expectations.
A dog truly is a lifelong commitment and it really breaks my heart to see older dogs in shelters knowing how hard it is on my own dog some days to cope with his changing body even though he has a really supportive and stable environment. I hope this post can encourage people to understand what to expect as their pets age and how to make sure to provide for them in their golden years.
Do you have an older dog? What are some changes you've noticed and ways you've helped your dog to cope?