Treat Medical Conditions First
"As retrievers age, they face a range of related problems that can affect their temperament, companionability, and effectiveness as hunting dogs," says Dr. Elizabeth Shull of Knoxville, Tennessee. "The first thing you should do if you see any changes in your dog's temperament or personality is take him to a veterinarian for an examination. The vet will look for a medical cause for these changes before looking elsewhere." Shull is a board-certified specialist in treating canine behavioral and neurological issues, and she's also a proud Lab owner.
According to Shull, one of the biggest challenges older dogs face is a condition called canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. "Depending on what survey you read, this senility problem may affect 20 to 50 percent of dogs, beginning at seven years of age," she explains. "The older the dog, the greater the risk of developing this disorder, which is comparable to Alzheimer's disease in humans."
Symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome may include confusion, disorientation, pacing, loss of house training, excessive barking, and anxiety at night. "There's a whole constellation of symptoms associated with this disease, and every dog's experience is different," Shull says. "Dogs that develop this syndrome may also become more reclusive or more irritable."
To make matters worse, many retriever owners don't realize that canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome may be the underlying cause of behavioral changes in their dogs. "Owners frequently attribute human behavior to their dogs' problems," Shull explains. "They think their dogs are just becoming disobedient or ill-tempered. What they don't realize is that many times this medical condition may be responsible for the dogs' behavioral changes."
Although there is no cure for canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome, there are several multiple-treatment options for managing the symptoms associated with it. Special diets, medicines, and supplements can help, and so can altering the dog's environment.
Other late-onset medical conditions can also cause changes in a retriever's behavior or personality. Kidney disease can contribute to a loss of house training. Hearing loss can make a dog unresponsive to commands. And pain or discomfort can make a dog irritable. Each of these conditions can be misinterpreted by owners assigning human traits such as laziness, stubbornness, and grumpiness to their dogs.
Moreover, if an exam fails to turn up a medical cause, the problem could be psychological. "An aging dog may develop anxieties—noise phobias, separation worries, increased aggression, and so on," Shull says. "There are basic therapies for treating these problems. Many of these involve gradual training regimens to replace undesirable behaviors with more desirable responses.
"For example, an older dog might become increasingly aggressive about his food bowl. There are therapies to teach the dog that the human hand is providing food, not taking it away. This is done in a gradual, systematic way. We teach the dog owner how to do this; then he, in turn, trains his dog."
Veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists can prescribe medications to reduce reactivity, fear, and impulsivity to help alleviate the dog's anxiety and increase its response to behavioral modification. "When a dog has a behavioral problem, we try to figure out how to stop the triggers that bring on the bad behavior," Shull says. "Then we apply basic therapies to make the behavior more acceptable and desirable.
"One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to think, Oh, my dog is just getting old, and there's nothing I can do about his problem. In fact, there are many things that can be done to help dogs by minimizing and controlling difficulties associated with aging."