Part 2 in our series on senior pets focuses on Canine Cognitive Disorder, a frustrating and sometimes devastating affliction of our older dogs.
She is stiff getting out of bed and stumbles down the hall to grab a drink of water. She’s not quite sure why she got out of bed when it’s still dark out but goes to pee anyway. Forgets where she is for a moment and cries out " Hey, anyone there?!". She hears John's voice saying "Come back to bed!", then realizes where she is and goes back to bed. Is this John's wife who has dementia or his dog Lucy who has Canine Cognitive Disorder? It could be either!
When a dog has CCD, they exhibit changes in the brain both structurally and behaviorally. A protein in the brain called beta-amyloid accumulates and causes plaques to form; a process very similar to human dementia and Alzheimer's disease. When these plaques form, they cause cells in the brain to die. This can result in “empty” spaces in the brain which fill with cerebral spinal fluid. So, what does this mean for a dog's behaviour? Symptoms can include loss of memory and some motor function. Often, they will forget training that occurred earlier in life such as house training. It can be comparable to living with a young puppy again. Some dogs will develop incontinence with urine or bowel movements as well.
Think of these old dogs as reverting to the puppy stage again. If we change our expectations of them, it can improve life with our senior companions. Be patient with possible “accidents” on the floor and be prepared for getting up in the middle of the night again just like when Rover was a puppy. Also be aware that your senior dog may start to roam if they get disorientated so having Rover close by you is also important. The senses like vision and hearing also may be deteriorating so your doggo may need help getting around, especially at night, and just having someone closer by in general sometimes for reassurance. She may also need you to be next to her when using the stairs.
A predictable routine, proper exercise and cognitive stimulation can also help slow the progression of CCD. Exposing dogs to new smells is an excellent way to stimulate their brain as it can allow them to learn more effectively.
Dogs with CCD can get disoriented and wander off, eliminate on the floor, and vocalize like puppies would. If we can start to see dogs with CCD as puppies again, I think we would have more patience and understanding as we do with puppies.
So, Lucy's owner John treats her with the understanding he does his wife who has a similar set of behaviours. With knowledge comes understanding and patience which is exactly what Lucy needs right now.
Our dogs are more integrated in our lives than ever before. They have moved into our homes, vehicles and sometimes even work places. More and more places are becoming “dog-friendly”, meaning many people are taking their furry friends to public places. With our dogs being exposed to more things, people and pets than ever before, we are noticing a higher incidence of reactivity among our canine companions. Much like people with social anxiety, a reactive dog’s brain is on HIGH ALERT at all times. So, you may ask, what does reactivity look like? Reactive dogs tend to speak before they think… we’ve all known a person like this right? The dogs are labeled as "jerks", or "bad dogs", but theres much more to it than that. They overreact by barking or lunging at whatever stimuli is “setting them off”. Their triggers can range from different noises to people or other animals (strangers or friends and family). They can also startle easily when they hear a loud or unexpected noise. They are essentially on edge and are more tense than other dogs.
For example, Dr. Sophia Yin's Learn to Earn program is a wonderful way to have your dog focus on you and let you do all the decision making. More detailed information is in her book, Perfect Puppy(it applies to dogs of any age). Adequate exercise is important to manage anxiety. Having a routine, especially in regards to exercise and play, will also help with managing anxiety. An important thing to remember is when you use punishment in any way, your dog will either subdue the emotional reaction and it will be worse in the future or it will increase aggressive behaviour, anxiety or reactivity. Reactivity is an over-exaggerated emotional response and punishing that will just create fear-stress and anxiety to build whether you see it or not.
Making sure the dog doesn’t reach its reaction threshold is extremely important for success. If a dog is allowed to practice a reactive behaviour, it becomes more difficult to change that behaviour.
For example, the most common trigger is another dog. Having a Gentle Leader will make this training exercise much easier. When you encounter another dog while walking on leash, begin give rewards continuously (food is the easiest reward in this situation) as soon as you notice the dog. If your dog stops focusing on you, have them sit with their back to the approaching dog and continue to give rewards. You must be fast paced with the rewards so you remain more interesting than the other dog. If your dog continues to lose focus on you, you will need to create more distance between your dog and the approaching dog by moving off the path. Ideally, your dog will only pay attention to you and ignore the other dog all together. You must do this every time you encounter your reactive dog’s trigger. Over time, he or she will learn to associate the strange dog with a reward.
Conditioning you dog to change its behaviour takes a lot of time and patience, but in the long run is well worth the effort. Once you address the dog's underlying anxiety, you and your furry companion can begin to work together towards a full life of experiences. If you have a reactive dog, speak to your veterinarian for tips or medications that may be helpful to your training process.
Dr. Juanita Ashton, BSc, DVM, ACDBC-IAABC is a certified Canine Behavioural Consultant, and one of the owners of the Elmsdale Animal Hospital