(MNN.com) -- They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Lately, I'm happy when my 8-year-old pooch Lulu remembers an old one: the ability to hold her potty breaks until we go outside.
If I've learned anything from writing this column, I know that correcting behavior issues can take time. Whether it's aggression, anxiety or even house-training, take measures to address an adult dog's behavior changes before the problem becomes unmanageable.
If your adult dog has been having accidents in the house lately, try these steps:
Schedule a veterinary exam: No, this is not a paid advertisement for the American Veterinary Medical Association. Dogs can't exactly tell you, "My tummy hurts," or "You were gone too long and I couldn't hold it." A thorough veterinary exam can identify conditions that cause dogs to behave differently, including blockages, intestinal issues or even tumors.
"A good bit of the time it has to do with some sort of physical problem," says animal behaviorist Kristen Collins of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA.org). "If it's an older dog, they can have serious issues with house-training. Also, they can forget; it's called cognitive dysfunction."
Many dogs reach their golden years at age 7 or 8, Collins says. Around that time, you can expect to see a reduction in energy level, confusion and — occasionally — house-training issues. (Here are tips to help your dog age gracefully.)
Determine what triggered the change: Behavior issues don't occur in a vacuum, says certified dog behavior consultant Amber Burckhalter, owner of K-9 Coach Bed and Bark in Smyrna, Georgia. Seemingly small changes, such as new food, kids returning to school or a different feeding time can make a huge difference to the dog. Take a moment to figure out when the problem first reared its ugly head. In my case, a new job led to longer hours away from home and a different feeding schedule for Lulu.
"It helps to keep diet and meal times the same," says Chris Redenbach, a certified dog behavior consultant and owner of The Balanced Dog Academy in Tucker, Ga. "If you change the routine, then you can run into problems where they aren't self-regulating anymore because their biorhythms are expecting the same kind of exercise."
Keep emotions in check: Nothing ruins a good night's sleep like being awakened by the pungent aroma of dog poop. At my house, that smell accompanies the tinkling of dog tags as Lulu attempts to slink out of the room at 1 a.m. Who wouldn't get angry when that happens? But Redenbach says anger only reinforces bad behavior, adding fuel to the fire.
"Reacting negatively means she is still getting attention," Redenbach warns. "She understands why you are annoyed, but creating emotionality around it can either reinforce her or create additional anxiety that could cause this to happen more."
Instead, take the dog for a long walk to stimulate bowel movements and avoid rushing them — even if it's 1 a.m. and you are outside in your pajamas. (Did I mention that change takes time? Add patience and a sense of humor to the list as well.)
Go back to basics: Accidents are common for geriatric dogs, says Burckhalter. To address the issue, implement Housebreaking 101. Start by monitoring the dog's food and water intake, and use the crate during down time. Consistency makes a big difference, so be sure to take the dog out at the same time each day, and designate a specific spot for potty breaks.
"Pretend the dog is a puppy or newly adopted dog," adds Collins. "Take the dog out frequently and, when it uses potty in the right place, make sure you are giving the dog rewards. It feels funny to give a reward for what they know how to do, but it's a refresher course."
If you have the space, Collins also recommends designating an indoor area, perhaps separated by a baby gate or X-pen, and covering the space with puppy pads. This will make cleanup less of a hassle. Collins says that many dogs will pick one area to relieve themselves. Over time, you can reduce the number of puppy pads.
Call for reinforcements: Take dogs out more frequently, and monitor crate time. After 10 hours, it may be physically uncomfortable for older dogs to wait for potty breaks, Collins says. It may be necessary to call for reinforcements, such as a friend, neighbor or professional pet sitter to check in on your pet during the day. Your veterinarian can provide referrals, and the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters offers a search tool on its website.
Dr. Marty Becker of Vetstreet.com also offers tips on selecting a professional pet sitter. Be sure to find out whether the sitter is bonded and insured, ask for references and make sure your pet is comfortable around the individual before turning over a set of house keys.
A professional dog walker has helped address Lulu's house-training issues. I also reduced the number of work sessions at the neighborhood coffee house in favor of my home office. I'll keep you posted on our progress.
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