Managing life when your dog has dementia

Finding a sustainable way of envisioning and managing Earl’s canine cognitive dysfunction


IMG_0006.jpgLast year, I wrote a post for on a mindful approach to stress management in dogs. The basic premise:

Imagine a wall of dials. 

Each represents a source of stress for your dog, and can be turned high or low, depending on the day. One dial might be your dog’s internal state. Another might be the environment. Yet another might be the availability of positive reinforcers. Yet others might be mental stimulation, physical exercise, and pharmacological interventions. These dials can be specific; if your neighbor is remodeling his house, the noise of jackhammers and construction equipment could certainly be a dial turned on highest volume for your dog (and you). If you live in a thunderstorm-prone area, that dial could turn up or down depending on the day and season. 

When too many of the dials are turned up to full volume, your dog may refuse food, display signs of stress and fear, and be unable to learn effectively due to the amount of triggering stimuli coming his way. In dog training, we call this state of being “over threshold.” The goal in any training protocol is to reduce stress so that the dog remains “under threshold.” In other words, the dog remains one hundred percent, no-holds-barred OK in his environment. Under threshold does not mean the dog is mostly fine. Under threshold does not mean the dog is nervous but hanging in there. Under threshold does not mean the dog is triggered but shut down or not reacting. Under threshold means exactly that: the dog is under the threshold at which things start to become uncomfortable and when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in with fight, flight and freeze reactions. Under threshold means no fear.”

When it comes to canine cognitive dysfunction, much of my day-to-day management with Earl fits into this paradigm. While different from training with a fearful dog, Earl’s dementia causes stress. Whether it’s his nighttime pacing, his increased anxiety with different routines and environments, or his confusion, he’s experiencing stress.

Unfortunately, if I set out to make Earl’s environment stress free all the time, I will always fail. Both my husband and I work full-time. While owning my own business allows me some flexibility, I still need to be away from the house to see clients and teach classes. When neither my husband nor I are home, I need to take Earl to daycare (for his separation anxiety). Daycare days are stressful days and exacerbate his symptoms. On days when my husband is home but I am gone all day at work, my long absence exacerbates his symptoms.

I’ve had many moments of isolation and sadness at both my inability to be home 100 percent of the time for Earl and the toll of attempting to pursue life at normal speed while still attending to all Earl’s needs. In short: it’s not possible to keep all of Earl’s “stress dials” on low all the time.

What I can do is manage his environment – his “wall of dials,” in keeping with the metaphor – to keep his stress as low as possible. On days he goes to daycare, I make sure I have puzzle toys and chews at the ready when we come home. Because he paces more often on nights after daycare, I proactively more time in his safe space (in Earl’s case, our bed). I also talk to my veterinarian about his medication regimen to help his body relax.

While not a perfect system, it’s a sustainable way of envisioning and managing Earl’s canine cognitive dysfunction. An all-or-nothing approach will inevitably lead to burnout. And as much as I’d love to put life on hold so the only responsibilities on my schedule each day revolve around Earl, I have bills to pay and a business to maintain.

Living with a dog with canine cognitive dysfunction means continually assessing the wall of dials and adjusting the ones I can so that at any given time, I increase the chances that Earl less stressed and able to to cope with what the environment throws our way.

And it means throwing in some self-care days for both of us when we can: A bubble bath and a good book for me, and a dried duck tendon by the fireplace for Earl.

–  Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at  To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.

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