My dog is now 19 years old and on his last legs; completely deaf, nearly entirely blind (cataracts so bad you can see them) and occasional unsteadiness when walking, neither I nor his vet have noticed signs that he's in pain so I don't want to have him put down yet, but still he acts scared of me: not looking at me (which makes getting his attention difficult) and sometimes even shaking when I approach him. I understand this is because he thinks I may eat him like a pack would when he gets to this stage but it's quite distressing for me, he's always been a "lap dog" and never been abused so I don't know why he feels this way, is there anything I can do to convince him he's still safe with me and make him more comfortable?
It can be heartbreaking to feel like you're scaring your own pet.
Maybe wait until he comes looking for you? If you can read what signs indicate that he's looking for you.
Keep everything as routine as possible. Don't move any food or water bowls, that way he will know where to find them and you don't need to take him to them. Either keep feeding him at the same time/s each day or leave kibble out for him at all times, so he knows he can come and snack.
Dogs do well with smell. When you do approach him, try and crouch down (not so easy for everyone as they get older) and put the back of your hand slowly towards his face, but low. Keep it under his chin level, so it's not as threatening. This will give him time to sniff your hand and minimise any chance of him harming you if he bites in fear, as it's a more flat surface place.
I'd avoid wearing strong perfumes or aftershaves around him (unless they're worn all the time), as it will mask who you are to him and make him more frightened.
Keep everything as constant for him as it has been the past year or so, so it is familiar as his senses fail him.
If he's already been allowed on furniture. Another thing is to introduce ramps or steps to help him get up onto furniture he may not be able to jump onto, so that he doesn't have to be picked up as often. That way he can then hop onto a lounge chair you're sitting on, on hop onto the bed and have a cuddle. If he hasn't been allowed, it would be another stress doing this, although you mention he's been a lap dog. There's ways of creating steps and ramps that would be safer for a sight impaired dog to use, we don't want him falling off the side.
If he's not suffering, there's no reason to put him to sleep.
Dogs rely very much on their sense of smell and sound. Imagine for a moment that your dog has completely lost these faculties and can no longer comprehend who is approaching him. Maybe he is still learning to adjust to these losses?
It’s perhaps also worth mentioning that dogs don’t “think” the same way humans do.
I agree with some of the other comments... your dog may be shaking with excitement at your approach. Fear would manifest other behaviours such as growling, barking and/or showing his teeth in a snarl. Does your dog demonstrate any other behaviour apart from shaking?
I don’t believe your dog would expect to be eaten by you especially when you’ve spent so many years taking good care of him.
What I can confirm, after many years of experience with dogs, is that they develop an intuitive capability to understand, at some level, the physical, emotional and mental states of their “pack” humans.
If you’re feeling anxious for your dog, he will know this and, maybe at his age, will respond with anxiety?
Suggestions from me include:
- identify which of your dog’s senses still function and use those to alert your dog to your presence (e.g. touch/vibration- tapping gently on the floor as you approach, smell - take his favourite treat to him in your hands);
- as difficult as it may be, attempt to enjoy the time you have left together - rather than feel sadness at what is lost, feel happiness for what still remains - this may alleviate anxiety for both you and your dog.
Hope this helps. Any questions feel free to ask.
First, let's concentrate on the symptoms. You dog is looking away from you and sometimes shivering when you approach him.
You interpret this behavior as fear, but there are other possible explanations. Cesar's Way list as possible reasons for shivering:
Have you ever experienced a dog tremble or shiver in the middle of a game of fetch or while offering affection? It may look odd, but it’s nothing to worry about. Shaking when excited is completely normal and healthy for dogs — it just a way of lowering that excess energy.
Sickness or pain
Often, dogs will shake or shiver if they are in pain or suffering from some kind of sickness — just like we might tremble due to a cold or fever. Canine illnesses associated with trembling include distemper, generalized tremor syndrome (GTS), kidney disease, Addison’s disease, poisoning, nausea, seizures, and inflammatory brain diseases.
Just like people, dogs can get stressed out and become anxious. Also just like people, there are many reasons why this may happen: riding in a car, beeping alarms, fireworks, trips to the vet, and so on. Worse, different stressors can develop over time based on negative experiences. When faced with these stressors, many dogs may tremble or shake, and some even engage in bad behaviors such as chewing on furniture.
As your dog gets older, you may notice that he develops tremors in his legs. While a certain amount of age-induced shaking is to be expected, don’t simply assume that everything is proceeding normally. Shaking in senior dogs can also be a sign of pain, particularly joint pain and discomfort.
You should keep an eye on your dog; does he only shiver if someone approaches him or also when he's alone or when he's walking or standing up?
Shivering when he's alone might be caused by feeling cold, a sickness or generally being in pain. An arched back (much like cats do) is another sign of pain, mostly in the chest cavity, digestive tract or kidneys.
Shivering when standing up or walking is a rather clear sign of pain in the spine, hips, legs or joints.
Shivering when approached might be excitement, anxiousness, fear or pain from moving a certain way.
If it's actually fear, it might be increased by his overall state.
- Due to his deafness he cannot hear your voice and cannot derive your mood from it. Dogs are very good at reading our intentions from our voice, but your dog doesn't get those clues anymore.
- His cataracts make him see shadows instead of sharp forms, So he doesn't recognize you from your look and cannot read your body language. To him it might look like a dark shadow approaching and he doesn't know what that shadows intentions are. I've witnessed a recently blinded dog become angstly-aggressive towards anyone but her owner because she couldn't read body language any more.
- Just like humans, dogs and other animals can get dementia. He might honestly have forgotten you (at least partially) and getting to know you again is difficult because his senses fail him.
To alleviate his fear, you should
- Always let him sniff you before touching him, like others already wrote in their answers.
- Sit down next to him to appear as small as possible. Don't tower over him.
- Try offering him a little treat every time you approach him. It should be something good smelling like a small piece of sausage or cheese.
- Don't pet him on the top of his head. Many dogs feel intimidated by something touching them in this vulnerable place where they cannot see it. Instead stroke from his cheeks sideways to his neck. From there you can continue upwards to scratch behind his ears.
- Don't put any weight on him while petting him, you might hurt his joints.
- If he growls when you touch a specific area (like his hips) it's a clear sign that he's hurting there. Avoid touching such areas at all.