Beyond the Gray Muzzle: Managing Behavioral Changes in Senior Dogs

Helen St. Pierre, CPDT-KSA, CDBC, CFDM, OSCT​


March 11, 2024

Senior dogs are often known for their calm and quiet demeanors, lounging around on couches and slowing down to a much more relaxed pace. When we’ve shared our lives with them for many years, experiencing the ups and downs of puppyhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we fall into the lovely rhythm of a known understanding between each other. This can make behavior changes, including aggression, a very stressful occurrence for both humans and canines. Therefore, I’d like to discuss aggression in senior dogs and some of the causes and solutions that can help both canines and humans navigate this sunset of life more peacefully.


As animals age, we can observe a variety of changes occurring, not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. These changes can happen concurrently, or they can occur separately from each other and at different speeds. For example, an elderly dog may begin to lose their hearing over a few months, go blind very quickly in a week, and also experience cognitive decline with increasing sound sensitivity over a period of years during their seniorhood. Because there is no perfect or easy-to-follow timeline, it’s crucial to involve your trusted veterinarian immediately at the beginning of noticing any changes in your dog’s mental or physical state. Begin journaling anything you observe and note the timeline of the changes.


For some seniors, these changes may result in no significant behavioral alterations, but for others, it can absolutely start affecting their tolerance, vulnerability, and things they were once okay with. Suddenly, they are not.


A decrease in tolerance and an increase in vulnerability are significant reasons behind many of my senior dog aggression cases. I explain to many clients that, like a rubber band taken out of the bag brand new, the stretch and bounce back is there at first. However, the older the rubber band gets, the more it’s been used or exposed to the elements, it may not bounce back to its original form anymore, and worse, it may break. I view tolerance in some senior dogs the same way. As youthful dogs with no medical or physical ailments, they were able to tolerate much more. But now, as they have aged and become more incapable of moving out of the way quickly or feel more sensitive to being pushed or jolted, their tolerance has significantly lowered. This means that the parameters and relationship boundaries may need to be shifted or changed to accommodate their new needs. Tolerance for space invasion from younger dogs, kids, or strangers can also dramatically shift.


As senior dogs decline in their physical ability, they can often feel much more vulnerable and on edge. Kids playing roughly nearby, a young dog knocking into them, or strangers petting them in an area they are now sore in, can all result in aggressive displays that may seem out of character but are actually just a lowering of tolerance due to age, ailments, and potentially a feeling of vulnerability.


This lowering of tolerance and increase in vulnerability can also result in an increase in resource guarding, whether space, food, or even treats. It’s not uncommon for aging dogs to suddenly no longer want to share their space on the couch as they did before or move as easily off the bed when you attempt to get in. Their metabolic changes may sometimes mean their feeding regimens are different, and their appetite schedules may shift, leaving food down sometimes but inhaling it quickly at others. Combine this with other dogs, people, or kids in the home who have adjusted and are used to the routines or not realize that things have shifted, outbursts can occur, and conflict can happen.


So what can we do to ease these incidents or help our elderly dogs who are now displaying behaviors that we have never seen before? Luckily, there are some very easy ideas to implement that can reduce stress all around for our beloved senior dogs.


First, create their safe space and reduce their feelings of vulnerability. A case I recently worked on involved a senior dog who had increasingly become aggressive towards the children in the home and had also begun developing arthritis. We realized after our first consultation that the house was filled with hardwood and tiled floors that the dog previously had no problem navigating. But as his physical condition declined, he could no longer move on them as quickly or comfortably, and that increase in his vulnerability decreased his tolerance, leading to him snapping at the children as they walked by. However, once we put large nonslip rugs down all over the house and gave him a quiet space with all his own access to resources (food, water, and an easy way to the bathroom), his tolerance bounced back considerably.


Finding a way to create a “senior spot” in your home is incredibly helpful for feeding times too. Again, because their eating habits may shift or change, older dogs may need more frequent access to their food and at different times than other household dogs. A safe and quiet space for them to have this with no worries of having other dogs, kids, or people invade them can reduce their vulnerability dramatically.


Safe places can be scattered throughout the house as well. A special chair with a ramp or an orthopedic bed that is only for them, with a portable gate that you can place around it when kids or other dogs are playing, allows for inclusion but reduces the potential of them being knocked into or feeling they have to move or guard.


Finally, changing the way you interact with your senior dog may have to change. Petting, hugging, or other physical interactions could now need to be shifted to what works best for your dog and their new comfort, pain, and tolerance levels. These habits can be hard to break, but they can be necessary to help your aging best friend maintain a relationship and trust with you.


For many senior dogs, none of these problems arise. However, most of us are lucky enough to have more than one dog in our lifetimes, so being prepared and having an understanding that these shifts and changes are normal and to be expected for some dogs is imperative. I’ve experienced older dogs rehomed or surrendered to shelters as a result of some of these changes, and the more people understand, the fewer those heartbreaking stories occur. If you’re in need of extra help, make sure you’re working closely with your veterinarian and a behavior professional experienced in senior dogs to help you both during this precious time together.


About the author: