Health and Behavior in Older Dogs

Just as in humans, physical problems can change an old dog’s behavior. Learn about some common age-related conditions and how to help your dog cope.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #147

Some of the difficulties we have with our dogs, such as not coming when called, can be fixed by reward-based manners training. Some, such as food-bowl guarding, respond to counterconditioning and other behavior modification techniques. Behavioral medications often help. But some behavior problems are at least partly health problems in disguise. This week, I’ll describe 3 common age-related health troubles that can change a dog’s behavior for the worse.

First off the bat, disclaimers. Many physical problems can affect a dog’s behavior – not just the ones I mention, and not only in older dogs. I’m not a veterinarian, and probably neither are you. Please don’t diagnose your dog on the basis of this episode, but head for an actual veterinarian if you suspect trouble.

Many physical problems can affect a dog’s behavior. If your older dog’s behavior has changed, head for the vet.


Dogs can develop osteoarthritis as people do, from normal wear and tear. Canine arthritis also often arises from dysplasia, an inherited malformation of the joints. (Dysplasia may cause pain at any age, by the way.) However it comes about, arthritis hurts, and pain can have a number of behavioral effects. In addition, since animals often conceal pain, we may be unaware that anything’s up until Dogalini’s hurting pretty badly.

Chronic pain can affect behavior in many ways. It may make your dog irritable, and protective of the painful part. So an older dog who’s always loved kids may snap at Timmy when Timmy trips and falls on his arthritic hip. Or maybe she’s never minded you clipping her nails, but one day she growls when you lift her forefoot -- could be you moved her elbow joint  just so and ouch, a flash of pain.

The pain of arthritis may make Dogalini reluctant to get up and move around. This can give you a quieter life, as shoe stealing drops off to zilch, but if your dog finds it unpleasant to go for walks, she may not get as many toilet opportunities as she needs. (And she may need more toilet breaks at 12 years old than she did at 8 or 5 or 3.) The result? Housetraining breakdown. You may also see housetraining fall apart if pain makes it hard to posture for urination or defecation.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).