Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Watching dogs staring at the wall often leaves dog owners baffled. What's up with these dogs just sitting there, intently staring at the wall as if watching paint dry? What’s going on between those fuzzy little ears? Can dogs be daydreaming? Contemplating if the old crayon marks are considered high art? Or maybe they’re sensing the paranormal? Or is it something more ominous going on?
Before you start dreaming up all kinds of apocalyptic scenarios, it helps to take a look at what might be so fascinating about a blank space. First off, let's consider a dog's senses so as to better perceive the world from Rover's perspective.
Those Powerful Dog Senses
Just like us, dogs are equipped with five main senses. However, many of their senses are far more developed than ours.
For instance, take their powerful noses. Dogs are known for detecting drugs, explosives, and even minute particles of sugar dissolved in Olympic-sized swimming pools. There's no doubt about the fact that dogs have a superior sense of smell compared to ours.
Then we have those sensitive and fascinating dog ears. Dogs can detect noises at a distance much better than us. Marc Bekoff, in the book Canine Confidential, Why Dogs Do What They Do, explains that what a human can hear at 20 feet, a dog can hear at roughly 80 feet.
And let's not forget about a dog's eyes. Sure, we humans can detect colors much better than dogs and are better seeing things up close, but dog eyes win when it comes to dim lights. Dogs are capable of seeing in light that is five times dimmer than what we humans can see. This stems back to a dog's history as crepuscular hunters. A dog's ancestors indeed fed on critters that were most active during crepuscular times, that is, at dusk and dawn.
With more acute senses, it shouldn't surprise us if dogs are more capable of detecting things we humans can hardly notice. After all, dogs were employed as faithful guardians for hundreds of years for a good reason!
Do Dogs DayDream?
You may be wondering at some point whether dogs could be daydreaming when they're staring intently at the wall.
Many years ago, studying a dog's brain using advanced technology was out of the question, but nowadays, complimentary of dedicated scientists, we are offered the luxury of digging deeper into those doggy brains.
Courtesy of brain scans performed on dogs trained to sit still in an MRI machine, we can now look at dog brains when fully awake (and no longer sedated as it happened in the past). This gives us insight like never before, allowing us to learn more about their cognitive functions.
Yet we do not have any studies tackling specifically whether dogs are capable of daydreaming or not. Based on what we know though, it seems that dogs are mostly focused on the present and are not capable of fantasizing to the extent of accessing their past memories or thoughts of the future or imagining things that may never happen at all, as it happens in humans when daydreaming.
7 Reasons Dogs Stare at Walls
With this information on hand, before you go calling in the ghost busters because your dog is staring at the wall, let's first rule out some more down-to-earth possibilities. Because some of the causes can be medical, please report to your vet to play it safe. Below are seven possible reasons why dogs stare at walls.
1) The Walls Have Pests
One reason your furry friends might be gazing so intently at the wall or even the ceiling is that they may be hearing the presence of pests that the human ear isn’t as finely tuned to pick up.
It may very well be that your home has some unwanted freeloading tenants and your pup is trying to let you know that they need to be evicted post haste.
If you notice your pup continuing to stare at the same spot on the wall or ceiling, have a listen for yourself. You might just pick up the tiny scurry of mice or other unwanted creatures sharing your living space.
And while you are at it, take a closer look too. Perhaps there's a small fly or bug crawling on the wall and your dog is simply staring at it!
If your fur baby has detected such pests, make sure to get an appropriate exterminator out to take care of whatever might be hanging around in a safe manner (even if that means you and your furry friend need to take a short vacation to a hotel where they’ll have tons of new fun scents to explore).
2) Asking About Her Age
How old is your dog? While it's impolite to ask about a woman’s age, it may be important to consider age as your fur child grows older. Sometimes, just like with their human counterparts, dogs can suffer from cognitive dysfunction similar to Alzheimer’s Disease.
A dog gazing off into space or a dog staring at a wall could be one of many symptoms signaling a decline in your pup’s mental facilities. The technical term is "canine cognitive dysfunction," although some folks like to call it "Sundowners' Syndrome."
Other signs of cognitive decline include restlessness at night, longer naps during the day, getting stuck in corners, failure to recognize familiar faces and withdrawing from normal activities that your pup once enjoyed.
While these symptoms sound scary, the sooner your pup gets to the vet and gets a check-up, the better. If your vet can catch this condition early, there is a strong possibility of slowing down its progression. A drug known as selegiline (Anipryl) has been approved for use in the clinical indication of cognitive dysfunction in dogs.
3) An Electrical Storm in the Brain
There may be some other medical concerns if your dog is staring off into space. If you notice your dog exhibiting odd behavior like staring at the ceiling or snapping at things that aren’t there, they might be having a neurological issue going on. In particular, what's known as a ‘focal seizure.”
Not all seizures involve violent shaking and foaming at the mouth (just like humans can appear to have seizures by going “spacy”). And focal seizures are just that, seizures where only one part of the brain is involved.
If you suspect this could be the culprit, try to distract your pup while one of these episodes is happening. If you are successful, it may likely not be a seizure. If you can’t, it may be time to contact the vet for a neurological assessment.
Grab your phone the next time your pup is spacing out and record a video to show your vet to help them give a clearer diagnosis. A video is worth 10,000 words.
If your dog's staring-at-the-wall behavior turns out to truly be a seizure, your vet may recommend some tests and may put your dog on anti-seizure medications if it happens often enough.
The classic diagnostic test is to see if the patient can be distracted from the behaviour. If they cannot, or if it is very difficult to do so, then it is almost certainly partial seizure.
— Dr. Peter, veterinarian
4) Seeing Things That Aren't There
The list of possible medical problems causing dogs to stare at walls doesn't end here. There are several conditions that may cause behavior changes in dogs.
For instance, staring can be a sign of a dog developing eye problems. A dog who is losing eyesight may stare at nothing. SARD stands for sudden acquired retinal degeneration and is an eye condition known for causing blindness within 30 days and sometimes even within a few days.
Dr. Rhea Morgan, a board-certified veterinarian specializing in eye problems, in the book Small Animal Practice Client Handouts, describes SARD as causing dogs to bump into objects, act disoriented, startle easily and stare into space. The dog's pupils may also be dilated and dogs may blink less.
Sometimes, dogs with floaters in the eyes may act as if seeing things that aren't there. With eye floaters, what happens is that, the inside of the jelly-like area of the dog's eyeball may develop pieces of debris floating around triggering dogs to see spots in front of them.
The presence of an eye ulcer may also create odd behaviors since the ulcers act like a spot in the dog's field of vision making the dog think he sees something that isn't there. Dogs with eye ulcers are often squinting, rubbing their eyes and pawing at them. They are very painful.
A vet visit to rule out eye problems is important, and in some cases, a visit to an eye specialist may be warranted.
5) A Matter of Metabolic Problems
It goes without saying that staring at walls can be caused as well by other medical conditions such as metabolic disorders and therefore require an in-depth veterinary assessment.
For example, standing and staring can be a sign that a dog has low blood sugar, or it can be indicative of toxins building up in the dog's body as it can happen with liver or kidney disease.
Even anemia and low oxygen supply to the brain from heart disease or high blood pressure can play a role. Not to mention, hormone imbalances as it can happen with dogs suffering from Addison's disease, Cushing's disease, or hypothyroidism.
Have your dog undergo a thorough physical exam. Your vet may require a urinalysis and some blood tests to check for values. Your dog's heart and lungs and blood pressure may be checked out too.
6) They Just Can't Help It
Sometimes dogs with intense personalities can get fixated on the weirdest things. If you haven’t noticed by now, dogs and humans are a lot alike both socially and medically.
Just like humans can suffer from compulsion-driven disorders like OCD, dogs, too, can be afflicted with similar maladies. Some dogs may develop compulsive tics like chasing their tails, licking themselves or yes, staring off into space. As always, consult your vet if this is a possibility.
If your dog is fixated with the wall, again, record the behavior and show it to the vet. This can help with diagnosis. Consider that there are meds for obsessive behaviors in dogs to be used along with behavior modification should that be the diagnosis.
7) Idle Paws Are a Bored Dog's Workshop
Your pup may not necessarily be exhibiting a compulsion if they are in fact bored and under-stimulated.
Like children, dogs will do all sorts of things to get your attention, even if it’s what one might consider negative attention. "Idle paws are a bored dog's workshop."
So, be mindful of how you react when your pup is staring off into space. If you’re engaging with them every time it happens, you could be reinforcing the behavior.
It goes without saying that you should first rule out medical problems considering that there may be many other causes for wall-staring behaviors in dogs. Give your dog the benefit of doubt, especially if this is a new behavior he has never manifested before.
See your vet to exclude medical problems. Once they are ruled out, you can try engaging more with your pup when they aren’t zoning out. Give their brains stimulation and their bodies exercise and they'll be more content in the off-hours, which means less weird behavior for you to manage later.
- Author's own experience as a former vet assistant, dog trainer and behavior consultant.
- "Small Animal Practice Client Handouts" by Rhea V. Morgan
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 20, 2020:
indeed dogs staring at the wall due to bugs and critters is mentioned as number one under "the walls have pests."
peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 06, 2020:
I thought doggies stare at the blank walls because they saw a fly or bug on it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 24, 2020:
Heidi, interesting how your friend's blind dog is staring at the wall and trying to pick up info using his other senses. Most of our dogs too were starting at walls and ceilings when there were critters. My female would even emit a disgusted whining sound when she would spot a bug.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 24, 2020:
Peggy, it's so sad when they develop cognitive decline. Staring at space and staring at walls, is indeed a common sign of canine Alzheimer's.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 20, 2020:
I am sure I left a comment here for some reason I don't see it. Interesting to know that. Your hubs are useful and informative about dogs. I had not given it a thought of why dogs do this you informed me in detail,
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 18, 2020:
Funny you mention this weird trait. Mostly with our pups it's the pest control function. But there's a gal I follow on social who has a few doxies. The one is blind and just stares at the wall. Chances are he's still picking up something with his other senses.
Thanks for more insight into our furry friends!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 18, 2020:
One of my mother's older dogs started doing that and was suffering from cognitive decline. He also had to be hand-fed as he also seemingly forgot how to eat from his dish. He no longer knew when it was time to go outside to relieve himself. Before going on a vacation trip, she had him euthanized. It would have been too hard for him to be cared for by others. Sadly, our pets can get many of the same syndromes or diseases that we get.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 17, 2020:
I do not have a dog at this time, unfortunately, but I found this article to be very interesting. I know it is sometimes hard to figure out why a dog or a cat does any particular thin, but I love them both.
Robie Benve from Ohio on May 17, 2020:
Very interesting. I've never seen a dog staring into a wall, but I've seen artists posting videos of their dog staring at artwork for very long time. I always thought "their senses must be more sensitive than ours, who knows what they see? "
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 17, 2020:
Interesting of why dogs stare into walls. One can change to do different to make a dog feel assertive. Nice one and as always lots to think of when with dogs.
What Does it Mean When a Dog Stares Into a Corner?
Why Is My Dog Licking Her Cage?
There's no question that dogs do some strange things. Most of them, though questionable or even gross to us humans -- coprophagia and sniffing butts come readily to mind -- are perfectly natural for canines. However, if your dog stares into a corner or at a wall, it can be cause for concern, particularly if she's elderly. Such staring is a hallmark symptom of canine cognitive dysfunction. Make an appointment with your vet.
What to Do if Your Dog Sees a Ghost
I reached out to Nicole Guillaume, psychic medium and tarot card reader of Guiding Echoes, to see what advice she’d have to offer…
Seeing a ghost can be just as terrifying for a dog as it can be for a human. Sometimes, the ghost might be someone your dog recognizes, or it could be a new energy that he is not familiar with.
How you respond to the ghost should be determined by how your dog is behaving towards it.
A few years ago, there was a ghost roaming my home. I was the first one to see him, and then my dogs began to see him too. This ghost was a lovely energy, and the dogs loved him. He seemed to enjoy their company too!
If the ghost in your home doesn't present a threat, and if the dogs seem to enjoy him, then let him stick around. Sometimes our dogs enjoy the presence of their unearthly friends. However, if having a ghost in your home bothers you, you can ask it to leave. Most ghosts (the friendly ones) don't mean you any harm, and they will move on if you ask them too.
However, if your dog begins to bark, growl, snarl or tries to hide from something invisible, then it is clear that you have a potentially dangerous entity in your home.
If this is the case, it is best to sage your home and ask a priest to do a house cleansing. If this doesn't work, you can look into different alternatives. (You can view my article “How To Get Rid Of Ghosts” for more information on this topic.)
Nicolle Guillaume, Guiding Echoes
You can order a sage kit online at Amazon.com the following are the top products available at this time:
If your dog sees something in your home that terrifies him, then you may want to:
- Let him outside in the backyard. This allows him to have his space and gets him away from the scary energy.
- Take him for a walk. A breath of fresh air and a leisurely stroll throughout the neighborhood might help to lift his spirits.
- Cuddle with him and give him treats. Reassure your dog that everything is okay and that he is safe with you. Let him know that he can depend on you to protect him.
- Rehome him. I know this seems extreme, but if you are living in a haunted home in which you have chosen to stay, then that is a choice that may not be suitable for your dog.
Animals are extremely sensitive to energy. They can detect it easily than we can, and they can absorb it in stronger doses. If your dog is stressed out by the spirits in your home, then it is a good idea to find him a new safe home. One where he doesn't have to worry about things that go bump in the night.
Behavior Problems in Older Dogs
The Effects of Aging
As they age, our dogs often suffer a decline in functioning. Their memory, their ability to learn, their awareness and their senses of sight and hearing can all deteriorate. Aging can also change their social relationships with you and other pets in your home. Understanding the changes your dog is undergoing can help you compassionately and effectively deal with behavior problems that may arise in your dog’s senior years.
Be sure to report all changes you see to your dog’s veterinarian. Don’t assume that your dog is “just getting old” and nothing can be done to help him. Many changes in behavior can be signs of treatable medical disorders (please see Ruling Out Specific Medical Problems, below), and there are a variety of therapies that can comfort your dog and manage his symptoms, including any pain he might be experiencing.
In addition to seeking professional help from your veterinarian and an animal behavior expert (such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, CAAB or ACAAB) for the age-related behavior issues covered in this article, a key contributing factor to keeping your older dog healthy is to continue to play with him, exercise him and train him throughout his life. You will likely need to adapt play and exercise to his slower movements, reduced energy level, declining eyesight and hearing, and any medical conditions he may have. Talk to a Certified Professional Dog Trainer in your area (CPDT) for fun ways to teach your old dog new tricks. Patiently keeping in mind his slower learning curve, you can have fun sharpening up rusty behaviors he once learned and teaching him some new behaviors and tricks. A CPDT can also help you change your verbal cues to hand signals if your dog has lost his hearing and help you adjust your training for any physical impairments your dog may have developed. There are many ways to keep your older dog’s life interesting and stimulating that don’t require vigorous physical effort. Just as with humans, dogs need to use their brains and bodies to maintain their mental and physical fitness. As the saying goes, use it or lose it!
Checklist for Cognitive Dysfunction
Following is a list of possible changes and symptoms in your senior dog that could indicate cognitive dysfunction.
- Gets lost in familiar locations
- Goes to the wrong side of the door (where the hinge is)
- Gets stuck and can’t navigate around or over obstacles
- Less interested in petting, interactions, greeting people or other dogs, etc.
- Needs constant contact, becomes overdependent and clingy
Activity—Increased or Repetitive
- Stares, fixates on or snaps at objects
- Paces or wanders about aimlessly
- Licks you, family members or objects a lot
- Vocalizes more
- Eats more food or eats more quickly
- Explores less and responds less to things going on around him
- Grooms himself less
- Eats less
- Seems restless or agitated
- Is anxious about being separated from family members
- Behaves more irritably in general
Sleep-Wake Cycles/Reversed Day-Night Schedule
- Sleeps restlessly, awakens at night
- Sleeps more during the day
Learning and Memory—House Soiling
- Eliminates indoors in random locations or in view of you or family members
- Eliminates indoors after returning from outside
- Eliminates in sleeping areas (for example, in his crate or on the couch or floor)
- Uses body language less (body postures and signals associated with feelings)
- Develops incontinence (accidental release of bladder)
Learning and Memory—Work, Tasks, Cues
- Demonstrates an impaired ability to work or perform tasks
- Sometimes seems unable to recognize familiar people and pets
- Shows decreased responsiveness to known cues for obedience, tricks, sports and games
- Seems unable or slower to learn new tasks or cues
Ruling Out Other Causes for Your Dog’s Behavior
If your dog shows any of the symptoms or changes listed above, your first step is to take him to his veterinarian to determine whether there is a specific medical cause for his behavior. Any medical or degenerative illness that causes pain, discomfort or decreased mobility—such as arthritis, dental disease, hypothyroidism, cancer, impaired sight or hearing, urinary tract disease or Cushing’s disease—can lead to increased sensitivity and irritability, increased anxiety about being touched or approached, increased aggression (since your dog may choose to threaten and bite rather than move away), decreased responsiveness to your voice, reduced ability to adapt to change and reduced ability to get to usual elimination areas.
If medical problems are ruled out, and if primary behavior problems unrelated to aging are ruled out (for example, problems that started years before your dog began aging or those that started in response to recent changes in his environment or family), then these behavioral signs are presumed to be due to the effects of aging on the brain and are diagnosed as “cognitive dysfunction syndrome.”
Treatment of Cognitive Dysfunction
The primary signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome can be summarized with the acronym CRASH, which stands for:
- Responsiveness/recognition decreases
- Activity changes
- Sleep-wake cycle disturbances
- House training lapses
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome can be treated by your dog’s veterinarian with the drug selegiline hydrochloride (brand name Anipryl®). There are a number of other medications and supplements that you and your vet may consider as well. It’s most effective to combine drug therapy with behavioral treatment that’s based on the specific problems your dog is having.
Specific Geriatric Behavior Problems and Their Behavioral Treatment
Anxiety—Including Separation Anxiety
Some common concerns reported by guardians of aging dogs are increased sensitivity and irritability, increased fear of unfamiliar pets and people (sometimes accompanied by aggression), decreased tolerance of touch and restraint, increased following and desire for contact, and increased anxiety when left alone. Noise sensitivity from hearing loss can also make some dogs more anxious and vocal. Your own frustration and distress over your dog’s behavior can add to your dog’s anxiety as well.
If house soiling has become a problem, some guardians opt to crate their dogs when they’re not home. Unfortunately, confining a senior dog to a crate can raise his anxiety level if he’s never been crated or is no longer accustomed to it. To make things worse, if he can’t get comfortable in the crate, or if he can’t control his bowels or bladder, he’ll be even more anxious and may attempt to escape. In these cases, it may be the confinement, not the guardian’s departure, that causes anxiety.
If it’s the guardian’s departure and absence that causes a dog’s anxiety, it’s called separation anxiety. The cardinal indicators of separation anxiety are:
- Predeparture anxiety: pacing, panting, salivating, hiding, trembling or depression as you prepare to leave
- House soiling (or soiling the crate), destructiveness or vocalizing that occur soon after you leave the house
- Destructiveness directed at exit points, like windows and doors, and house soiling while you’re gone
- Refusal to eat when left alone (even if you leave your dog food, treats or a food-stuffed toy, he doesn’t eat at all when you’re gone, but does after you return)
The most important factor in diagnosing these behaviors as separation anxiety is that they occur only during your absence. If these behaviors occur while you or your family members are home, other issues may be causing them instead. For example, if your dog soils in the house both when you're gone and when you're home, you probably have a house training problem. The same is true of destructiveness. If destructive chewing happens when you're home, it's a training issue, not separation anxiety.
A distinct feature of geriatric (late-onset) separation anxiety is that it can manifest as nighttime anxiety, almost as if your dog views your sleeping as a form of separation. Your dog may keep you awake by pacing, panting and pawing at you, and demanding attention. This type of separation anxiety may indicate undiagnosed disease, and it can be relieved by treating the disease or, at minimum, relieving your dog’s pain or discomfort. A thorough examination by your dog’s veterinarian is crucial to determine whether there’s a medical basis for your dog’s anxiety.
Treatment for separation anxiety involves controlling any underlying medical problems and using a behavioral treatment called desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC). Identifying and changing any of your own responses that might be aggravating your dog’s behavior is also helpful. In conjunction with behavioral treatment, pheromones and drugs can be used to reduce anxiety and improve your dog’s cognitive function. Please see our article, Separation Anxiety, for more detailed information on this disorder and its treatment.
Your senior dog’s vocalizing can become a problem if he does it too often or at inappropriate times, like when you’re sleeping. Anxious vocalizing is usually a plaintive howl or excessive whining. If your dog does it only when you’re gone, it could indicate separation anxiety. If he does it when you’re home, then you’ll need the help of a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist to determine what’s causing your dog to vocalize so much.
Loss of hearing, cognitive dysfunction, central nervous system disorders and medical conditions can all contribute to your dog’s excessive vocalization. He might whine or howl if he feels the urge to eliminate more, if he’s overeating and wants you to give him more food, or if he’s in pain. If your dog has become more fearful and anxious, he might begin vocalizing at things that scare or stress him, like noises or visitors. Showing your own frustration or punishing your dog for vocalizing can also increase his anxiety and aggravate the problem.
Once any underlying medical problem and cognitive dysfunction are treated, behavioral treatment involves identifying and modifying any of your own responses that might be reinforcing or aggravating your dog’s behavior. For some dogs, training them to be quiet on cue and rewarding quiet behavior is effective. For other dogs, nonshock bark-control collars, such as the citronella collar, may be needed. Drug therapy may also help if your dog’s vocalizations are motivated by anxiety. Please see our article, Howling, for more information on the various causes and treatments for excessive vocalizing.
Restlessness/Waking at Night
Dogs who sleep more during the day can become more restless and active at night. Some dogs start overreacting to things they once ignored, like the garage door opening or the newspaper being delivered. Keeping a record can help you identify what triggers your dog’s nighttime activity.
Sensory changes, such as eyesight or hearing loss, can affect your dog’s depth of sleep. His sleep-wake cycles may be affected by cognitive dysfunction or other types of central nervous system disorders. Ask your dog’s veterinarian to do a complete examination to look for medical problems that could cause restlessness, discomfort or an increased need to eliminate. Any medical problems should be treated first, and then, if necessary, you can gently retrain your dog to reestablish normal sleeping and waking hours. Try increasing his daytime and evening activity by giving him frequent walks, playing his favorite games, practicing obedience or tricks, and giving him food-puzzle toys and bones to chew. You can also ask his veterinarian about combining your retraining with drugs to induce sleep or, alternatively, drugs to keep your dog more active during the day.
As with all the behavior problems covered here, any number of medical problems can contribute to house soiling, including sensory decline, neuromuscular conditions that affect your dog’s mobility, brain tumors, cognitive dysfunction, endocrine system disorders, and any disorder that increases your dog’s frequency of elimination or decreases his bladder or bowel control.
If your dog soils in the house only when you’re gone and shows other signs of separation anxiety (please see above, Anxiety—Including Separation Anxiety), then he may be suffering from this disorder. Please see our article, Separation Anxiety, for detailed information on this problem and its treatment.
Since they’re often less adaptable to change, some older dogs might begin soiling in the house if there’s a change in their schedule, environment or household. Once your dog has used an indoor location to eliminate when you’re gone, that area can become established as a preferred spot, even if you’ve cleaned it thoroughly. It’s often necessary to have a complete behavior history taken by a qualified professional, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB) or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), to determine the reason for your dog’s house soiling and design effective treatment. To find one of these experts in your area, please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help.
Once your dog’s medical issues have been identified and treated—for example, after his anxiety has been eased, his pain reduced or his incontinence controlled through medication—then you’ll need to reestablish proper house training with the same methods you used when he was a puppy. These methods include close supervision indoors, confinement in a crate or other small area away from previously soiled sites when you can’t closely supervise, and a regular, frequent schedule of trips outdoors with tasty rewards for outdoor elimination. You may need to adjust your schedule to accommodate your dog’s need for more frequent elimination in his senior years. If you can’t, consider hiring a dog walker or providing your dog with a place indoors to eliminate, such as newspapers, a dog litter box or potty pads.
Just as with other behavior problems of senior dogs, the underlying cause of destructive behavior needs to be determined in order to provide effective treatment. Some destructive behaviors reported in senior dogs are pica (ingesting inedible objects) licking, sucking or chewing body parts, household objects or family members and scratching and digging. Each of these may have a different cause, so a thorough medical evaluation combined with a behavioral history is necessary to determine a cause or causes for your dog’s behavior. For example, cognitive dysfunction might be considered in dogs with licking, chewing or pica. Treatment of underlying medical problems and cognitive dysfunction may resolve some problems but not others. If your dog is suffering from anxiety, phobia or fear of particular things (people, situations, objects, thunder, etc.), these issues need to be treated. Please see Fears and Phobias below for more information. Modifying your home and your dog’s environment can be helpful as well. Prevent access to sites where your dog’s destructiveness has occurred or might occur, and provide him with new, interesting toys to chew (or bones, rawhides, bully sticks, food-stuffed toys, etc.).
Fears and Phobias
Sensory decline, cognitive dysfunction and anxiety can all contribute to fears and phobias. The first step in treatment is to control underlying medical problems and cognitive dysfunction. Older dogs can suffer from fears and phobias of noise and thunderstorms and, less commonly, of going outdoors, entering certain rooms or walking on certain types of surfaces. Dog guardians’ own understandably frustrated reaction to their dogs’ behavior can also aggravate the problem—especially punishment is used. Try keeping your dog away from whatever triggers his fears or phobia, or masking the noise with background music. With the guidance of a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB), you can also use behavioral treatment to change your dog’s emotional response to things that frighten or upset him and, as a result, change his behavior. (Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate a CAAB or ACAAB in your area.) See your veterinarian about possible drug or pheromone therapy for panic and anxiety, which can also help ease your dog’s fears and anxiety.
Compulsive and Stereotypic Behaviors
Compulsive and stereotypic behavior problems encompass a wide variety of behaviors with many possible causes. They’re defined as ritualized, repetitive behaviors that have no apparent goal or function. Examples include stereotypic licking or overgrooming that results in self-injury (“hot spots,” for example), spinning or tail chasing, pacing and jumping, air biting or fly snapping, staring at shadows or walls, flank sucking and pica (eating inedible objects, like rocks). Some medical conditions, including cognitive dysfunction, can contribute to or cause these behaviors. Compulsive disorders often arise from situations of conflict or anxiety. Things or situations that make your dog feel conflicted, stressed or anxious can lead him to engage in displacement behaviors, which can then become compulsive over time. (Displacement behaviors are those that occur outside of their normal context when dogs are frustrated, conflicted or stressed. An example is a dog who stops suddenly to groom himself while en route to his guardian who has just called him. He may be unsure of whether he’s going to be punished, so he expresses his anxiety by grooming, lip licking, yawning or sniffing the ground.) Drug therapy is usually necessary to resolve compulsive disorders. But if you can identify the source of conflict early on and reduce or eliminate it (such as conflict between your pets or inconsistent or delayed punishment from you), behavioral drug therapy may not be necessary.
A multitude of factors can contribute to an increase in a dog’s aggressive behavior. Medical conditions that affect your dog’s appetite, mobility, cognition, senses or hormones can lead to increased aggression, as can conditions that cause him pain or irritability. Aggression to family members can occur following changes in the family makeup, such as marriage or divorce, death or birth. Aggression to other pets can occur when a new pet is introduced to the family, as a younger dog matures or as an older dog becomes weaker or less assertive. Increased aggression toward unfamiliar people and animals can arise from your dog’s increasing anxiety and sensitivity as he ages.
Aggression can’t be effectively treated until a diagnosis has been made and the cause has been determined. Please see our article, Finding Professional Behavior Help, to locate a qualified animal behavior expert in your area, such as a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB or ACAAB) or a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (Dip ACVB). If you can’t find a behaviorist, you can seek help from a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), but be sure the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience in treating aggression, since this expertise is not required for CPDT certification.
One of these professionals can evaluate the situation and help you treat your dog’s aggression. Treatment—whether drug therapy, behavior therapy or making changes in your dog’s environment—will depend on the specific type of aggression and its cause or triggers. For example, treatment for fear-based aggression involves desensitization and counterconditioning (DSCC), as well as training to improve your control over your dog. Avoiding or preventing the triggers of your dog’s aggression may be the best option in these cases. Head halters can give you more control over your dog and increase everyone’s safety. Please see our article, Aggression in Dogs, for more information.
1Landsberg, G., Hunthausen. W., & Ackerman, L. (2003). Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. Saunders: New York.
What to Do if My Dog Keeps Growling at Nothing?
First, consider taking this as useful information rather than a bad behavior.
A dog growl is it’s way of reaching out to you.
Something is obviously bothering him, and he is choosing to communicate this to you.
You should try to figure out the reason behind this behavior as opposed to just punishing him.
Here are a few ways you can deal with the issue:
Don’t Test Your canine companion’s Patience
If your pup is upset with something that you or someone else is doing, make it stop at once. Don’t push your pooch over his tolerance threshold.
Often the growl is a warning that your pet is reaching his bite threshold. Therefore it’s better to leave him alone until he relaxes.
Observe Why Your Furry Friend is Upset
Analyze what may have upset your canine buddy. Is he bothered because he senses another animal or when you take something away from him?
When you know the cause of this behavior you can deal with it better.
Provide Necessary Medication
If these sounds have been found out to be due to a health condition, get your pet the medical help he needs.
Get Your Pet into a Training Program
Sometimes the aggressive behavior cannot be dealt with on your own, which is why you can stop your dog from being annoying by engaging him in a training program that makes him calmer with training exercises.
Stress and fear can cause aggression in your pooch. Observe what bothers your pet in your environment and surroundings then try to remove those items to reduce his stress triggers.