by Naomi Heck, M.Ed., CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA
For thousands of years, dogs have been selectively bred to be in tune with our emotions, actions, and words. Because they are like us in so many ways, it is easy to mistakenly attribute human motivations and feelings (like jealousy, spite, and guilt) to their actions. That is called anthropomorphizing, and every dog owner I have come across does it to some extent, including me. Our dogs are beloved family members, as attested by the number of dog toys that I see in clients’ homes and the fact that many of us share our beds with our dogs. I envy pet owners who live in places where dogs are welcome almost anywhere (like Germany, as described by my brother-in-law who was stationed there).
The love we share with our furry kids makes it especially difficult to watch them grow old and feeble. Several years ago I went through this heart-wrenching process for the 5th time with my Labrador Retriever Rosie who died at the age of 14. Now my German Shorthaired Pointer Chase is approaching his 8th birthday in 2 weeks. Where has the time gone? Although he is just entering his golden years, I can’t help but lament how unfair it is that dogs don’t live as long as humans.
I remember the days when Chase’s non-stop energy had me wishing he would get older and settle down. But in the past year, I have noticed definite changes in his behavior that makes me a little sad, such as:
- Increased sensitivity to distant fireworks and thunder. I had made it a point to desensitize him to those noises from puppyhood well into adulthood. Last summer, he showed more fear than usual on the 4th of July and during storms. So our routine when it happens is we run upstairs together with a Thundershirt™ and a bag of beef jerky or cheese. We camp out together in my walk-in closet and he enjoys a relaxing massage. He eventually falls asleep.
- Increased sensitivity to cold. With the current cold spell here, I send Chase outside wearing 2 coats and booties. He stays out longer and seems friskier when wearing his silly outfit
- Sleeping a lot more. He doesn’t follow me around the house as much as he used to because he is just too comfortable being a couch potato. Maybe his bones are getting creaky like mine. I give him joint supplements with his meals and watch for signs of arthritis. So far, so good.
- Occasionally being “clingy”. Sometimes when I am brushing my teeth, he sits next to me, leaning his full weight against my legs. If I don’t brace myself, I lose my balance. This is a fairly recent development. At first I thought he was afraid. But now I think it is his way of telling me he needs to go out. He used to dance around in front of me when he needed to pee, but now he thinks that’s immature (I’m anthropomorphizing, of course).
Older dogs often need to be protected from rambunctious youngsters. When Minnie (my 8 month old rescued mix) and Chase play together, I watch closely for signs that Chase has had enough so I can intervene on his behalf. I really should have gotten a second pup 4 years ago when Chase was more playful.
Aging produces changes in the brain and body that can affect behavior. For example, a dog’s refusal to obey previously well-executed commands may actually be due to discomfort or cognitive changes, not stubbornness. Of course, it could also just be due to insufficient training. Sometimes issues that were not serious enough to be noticed or promptly addressed when the dog was younger can get exacerbated later in life. It is best to investigate further rather than jump to conclusions.
Consult with your veterinarian if you notice behaviors that are out of character for your dog. More serious age-related behavioral changes to watch for in senior dogs include separation anxiety, noise phobia, aggression, house soiling, pacing, changes in sleep patterns and disorientation (like getting stuck in corners or behind furniture). Those are common signs of Canine Cognitive Disorder, similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people.
From what I have read, the average life expectancy of the German Shorthaired Pointer is 12 to 14 years. Longer than some breeds and shorter than others, but nevertheless way too short. The older my Chase gets, the more grateful I am for every moment that we spend together.
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