Senior dogs can be so rewarding, yet as every owner knows, they can also be a source of heartache and worry. Late-onset separation anxiety is a particular concern to owners of older dogs.
So how do you know if your aging dog has developed separation anxiety, and what can you do about it?
As dogs age, we assume their behavior problems will dissipate, which is often the case. Dogs seem calmer as they age. Problems, like jumping up and not coming when called, can go away. And you discover the ‘great’ dog you knew was always hiding underneath.
But once dogs become seniors, a new set of challenges can present themselves.
We expect medical problems in older dogs. Yet, we’re often blindsided by changes in their behavior.
This is particularly true with separation anxiety. Dogs who never had issues being alone can develop a fear of being isolated from their family.
The reasons dogs develop separation anxiety in their later years can include:
- Loss of sight or hearing can be a trigger, presumably because the dog feels compromised by its reduced sensory ability.
- Older dogs can become less resilient to change. And they can find changes in the household very challenging.
- Medical conditions can also bring on anxiety, as can the increasing number of vet appointments that many older dogs face.
What you may not know is that many older dogs present with what seems to be separation anxiety, but is, in fact, a form of doggie dementia. We call the condition canine cognitive dysfunction or CCD.
CCD symptoms that can easily be confused with separation anxiety include:
- Increased agitation and anxiety
- Slip-ups in housetraining in a previously housetrained dog
- Increased barking/vocalization
Is this new or not?
If you believe your older dog has separation anxiety, the critical question is “When did their separation anxiety start?”
If symptoms started recently, i.e. your dog hasn’t had this for most or all his life, your first step is to talk to your vet.
I'd like for everyone to have visited their vet before they start separation anxiety training. With senior dogs, it’s especially important to speak to your vet. You need your vet to confirm your dog has separation anxiety and not some other medical condition.
If everything else is ruled out (CCD in particular), then you can proceed with training.
Never too late to train
You can teach an old dog new tricks. More importantly, separation anxiety training isn’t taxing or grueling. It can be used on older dogs without fear of causing more issues.
But this training isn’t quick. It’s vital to lower your expectations of what might be possible.
Many of the owners I work with, who have senior dogs, will prioritize what they want out of training. This is a great approach, because it’s hard to set a timeline for training with any dog, let alone a senior one.
Meanwhile, as you wait for training (hard work) to work, you can find ways to have someone watch your distressed dog. It would be nice to think that he doesn’t have to be frightened and alone in his later years.
The great thing about senior dogs is that often they are very easy to have around. You might be surprised by how many people would be happy to have your dog for an hour or two.
You can definitely get your senior over his fear of being alone. As with an anxious dog of any age, the change will take some time. It will also take a great deal of patience on your part.
But, think about how rewarding it will be to help your older pup be anxiety-free in his later years. You might not be doing anything else that is quite so important for your dog as helping him feel comfortable and safe in his home while you are away.
What challenges do you face with your senior dog? Do share below.