Old Dogs and New Puppies: How Well Does It Work?

You often hear that bringing home a puppy is good for your old dog.

A new puppy can bring life and energy back to an old, cranky dog. Many owners hope the well behaved old dog will also help teach the new puppy the rules of the household. Both of these reasons for this timing are wonderful—if it works out. But sometimes it doesn’t. When this scenario doesn’t work, it’s torment for all concerned: you, your old dog, and the puppy.

Your Old Dog’s Physical Health

Before bringing home a puppy, in fact before deciding to get a puppy, take a realistic look at your old dog. A puppy is going to be a whirling dervish of energy and your old dog must be able to deal with it. If he doesn’t feel good, he may be grumpy towards the puppy and even mean. When I was thinking about adding a puppy to my family, I took my old dog Bashir in to our veterinarian and had her do a complete physical examination, including blood work. When his veterinarian said he was in extremely good shape and still active on a daily basis (playing, retrieving, long walks, and hikes), I felt that physically he could handle a puppy.

If your old dog has some health challenges, find out if there are treatments to help those issues. Talk to your veterinarian and find out what your dog’s future health will be like as he ages with this issue. Is he going to feel bad? Will he be uncomfortable or in pain? Will he be progressively more inactive? Use this information as you decide whether this might be the right time to get a puppy.

Your Old Dog’s Mental Health

As dogs grow older they can suffer from some mental health issues not unlike people, including dementia. If your dog seems confused, gets lost in his own home or backyard, forgets who your are, or is otherwise unlike himself; talk to your veterinarian prior to deciding to get a puppy. If your old dog is suffering from canine dementia, which is a progressive problem (it will continue to get worse), postpone bringing home a puppy as doing so now would be unfair.

Some older dogs tend to get fearful as they age. Arthritis and hearing loss, in particular, can cause anxiety. After all, the dog doesn’t understand the changes happening to him. If the anxiety can be alleviated, with pain medication for the arthritic dog for example, then a puppy might be okay. However, if the issue causing the anxiety is unknown, postponing the puppy until the old dog has passed away might be the kindest thing to do.

old dog and puppy

©istockphoto/HconQ

Other Things to Consider

The best big brother (or sister) to a puppy is a healthy, active, well socialized, well trained, friendly older dog who has already had some exposure to puppies throughout his life. An older dog such as this can help you raise the puppy, help you teach the puppy, and will be a good role model.

Obviously, not all older dogs have all of these characteristics (although certainly some do) so again, take a realistic look at your old dog. Is he well socialized to other dogs and puppies? Will he be friendly towards your puppy? Or will he be grumpy or perhaps even nasty? An older dog who is not friendly, potentially nasty, or who scares a puppy could affect the puppy’s future relationships with other dogs for the rest of his life.

Does your old dog have some bad habits you’d prefer your potential new puppy not have? If your old dog has housetraining issues, barks way too much, or has other issues, keep in mind that he could potentially be a bad role model that your puppy will emulate. Try to change those undesirable behaviors before bringing home a puppy.

Your choice in a puppy must also be evaluated. If there is going to be a big size difference between the two you’ll have to play referee. A larger puppy, as he grows up, can take advantage of a smaller older dog. A large puppy will bite, bounce, on, chase, and otherwise torment the smaller dog. A smaller puppy will be less torment to most older larger dogs but the larger dog could potentially harm a significantly smaller puppy with even a paw swipe. Just think about potential actions, behaviors, and possibilities before making a decision.

When You Bring Home a Puppy

I was lucky when I brought home Bones, as Bashir had already helped me raise two previous puppies. Those were both when he was younger, of course, but my good old dog knew what was expected of him. In addition, he knew I loved him, he was secure in his relationship with me and I think he looked upon a new puppy as a challenge.

Many older dogs will be upset, jealous, or even angry with a new puppy, especially if the older dog has been an only dog. It’s going to be important to make sure the older dog gets lots (more than normal) of attention to alleviate potential hurt feelings. And don’t wait to see if he’s got hurt feelings; start giving him extra special attention the moment you bring the puppy home.

A good way to do this is to have some special treats or toys and teach him that the puppy equals special treats. Don’t give him treats or petting when the puppy is put away; to your dog that will mean the absence of the puppy equals special treatment. Instead, we want him to think the puppy equals good stuff.

Feel free to interfere if the puppy is tormenting your old dog. If your old dog is trying to nap, eat his dinner, or chew on a toy; remove the puppy or distract him. Once in a while, take the puppy to another room to play with him. Let your old dog have some peace.

If your old dog tries to teach your puppy how to be a good dog, let him as long as his corrections are appropriate. Growls, strong eye contact, and flipping the puppy over on his back are all fine. Sometimes the growls and rumbles will be loud and the puppy’s squeals will sound like he’s being killed. That’s okay. My rule of thumb is that as long as there is no blood and the corrections teach the puppy (and are not constant) then all is well. Gauge your reactions (and whether to step in and interfere) on both your old dog’s actions and the puppy’s reactions.

As Time Goes On

As Bones grew up and Bashir grew older, their relationship changed, but not much. Bones was polite with Bashir and didn’t physically maul him as he did his younger dog friends. Bashir continued to be the older brother who was a good role model. If your puppy is too physical with your old dog, however, step in and save the old guy. Don’t let your puppy be too rough or disrespectful.

Bones was four years old when Bashir died, unexpectedly and quickly. It was tough on both Bones and I. We both grieved for Bashir but I think it was harder for Bones. His role model, mentor, and role model was gone. We leaned on each other, though, and worked through the grief.

Six months after Bashir passed away I brought home a new puppy, Hero, and Bones has been able to apply the lessons he learned from Bashir. Bones is the big brother now and in a way, that keeps Bashir with us.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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