When Senior Dogs Act Like Grumpy Old Men


My senior dog, Otto, is nearly 13 years old. He often acts like a big grump around any puppies or foster dogs I have here, but honestly, he goes out of his way to snark at them. There are many foster care providers who stop fostering during their dogs’ senior years, because many dogs who were social and willing to guide foster dogs around the house get sore and achey and stressed at the thought of young’uns and clumsy idiots underfoot – and honestly, I thought I would be one of them. Otto does not permit any other dogs to sniff his butt, stand anywhere between him and the door, or accidentally brush up against him while romping the “fun uncle” Woody. I have long anticipated the day when I would start saying no to fostering, to give Otto the space he deserves.

But I recently said yes to fostering a single puppy, because I could not imagine that this puppy would possibly – could possibly – get in Otto’s way. Right this minute, I’m fostering a puppy who was found in a ditch with a broken leg, starving and flea-covered and scared to death. The puppy’s injury appears to be weeks old, if not more than a month old, and severe enough that the veterinarian who saw him said unequivocally that the leg should be amputated. I figured I could keep the not-very ambulatory puppy with me in my office until his surgery date arrived; how could a puppy who can barely get around bother Otto?

In the space of a week, I have witnessed and learned some very interesting things:

  • Even severely injured puppies bounce back quickly when fed properly and given pain medication.
  • Puppies who are about 12 weeks old have REALLY sharp teeth. (My foster puppies are usually adopted by this age.)
  • Otto seems to actually enjoy being bossy and laying down the law. Several times this week, I have seen him get up from a comfortable dog bed, just to hover near the puppy, seemingly in order to have the opportunity to make ugly faces and his big “GrrrRUFF!” noise at the puppy (all the while wagging his tail!).
  • After the third time of being RUFF!ed at and not dying, puppies seem to learn that the old dog is harmless and can be ignored.
  • When the puppy gets particularly bitey and is aimed in Otto’s direction, Woody often inserts himself between his boss (Otto) and his minion (the puppy). He doesn’t get assertive or defensive; he still lowers his posture and wiggles and grovels to Otto like a little puppy himself – but he unmistakably puts himself between the puppy and Otto. I accidentally got a photo of this in action the other day, as I was taking pictures of cans of dog food (for our annual canned dog food review, coming up in the October issue). It’s not a great photo, but it was the first time I had a camera in hand when the behavior happened.
  • The thing about having a puppy here that seems to be the stressful for Otto? When I work with the puppy to teach him something. Otto can’t stand to hear the cues for “Sit” or “Down,” or to hear “Gooood boy!” addressed to someone else. He will come running from the far side of the property to insert himself into any training session that happens, so he can sit and down on cue, panting and wide-eyed and watching the treat bag to make sure he gets his share. He’s like a former child star from a television quiz show who can’t bear for anyone to watch “Jeopardy” without him in the room, and calling out all the answers before anyone else can even read the question.
The puppy was on a collision course for Otto, and Otto was already growling and making his fearsome snarl, warming up to a “RUFF!” But Woody hurried and inserted himself between the two of them, absorbing both the puppy teeth and Otto’s wrath (a second later). Otto looks momentarily disappointed here.

The puppy is having surgery as I write this, and I’m getting out all my exercise pens so I can limit the puppy’s movements and keep out from under Otto’s feet, and refraining from play with Fun Uncle Woody for at least a few days. The plan is for me to keep the pup for about two weeks post surgery, and then, hallelujah, there is a family who wants to adopt him.

And then, really, I don’t plan to foster again for a while… Or should I?


  1. You know I have used the term grumpy old man for my dogs too. But I figured they earned the right to be grumpy (just like we do as people) and should be able to enjoy their older years. We had a 7 year old who was losing his eyesight and then a 10 year old when we brought 2 sisters 9 wks old into the mix. Both dogs really loved them and the joyfulness they brought but were leary for themselves about getting hurt from the high energy (we had several animal communicators talk to them). So because we had not thought about that, we did our best to protect them from all the high energy that might get them hurt (the older dogs). That way everyone could enjoy. In my personal opinion and reading your columns, I think Otto has earned the right to enjoy you not fostering.

  2. I’m struggling with the same decision. I foster for a doberman rescue and my personal dog is now over 12 years old (or at least that is best guess). While he can still be playful at times, it is usually once a day for a short burst. Most of his day is spent napping in various locations with the occasional rousing to bark at an outside noise or in response to a neighborhood dog. I recently fostered a 2 year old female who was partially blind and a) could not pick up on dog social cues and b) tended to “stare” at my dogs face, not that she could really see it. She was constantly going up to my dog and irritating him which would ultimately produce a snark which is a combination head toss and loud ruff. For almost five months, I spent most of my time acting as a referee between the two dogs and I could see the stress building in my own dog while the foster dog just thought it was all fun. She was finally adopted and I have decided to take a break. Now the question is do I just stop until my dog passes (something I don’t even want to think about) or maybe if I should be more selective and only foster older females? I feel your pain, Nancy!

  3. I had the same struggle as my Miniature Schnauzer approached 13 — not all that old for his breed, and he’s in great health, but his attitude had definitely changed toward foster dogs, no matter their age. I have a 2nd Mini, 6 years old, who had also become much less welcoming to foster dogs. I could identify exactly when their attitudes shifted. I had a foster dog similar to yours — he had been abandoned with a broken leg that needed to be amputated. But as that dog healed and during the short time after he was able to play and get around well (the amputation didn’t seem to slow him down at all!), my dogs bonded with him. When he went to his forever home, they missed him terribly. After that, they only barely tolerated other foster dogs. So sadly, I made the decision to stop fostering. My first priority was my much beloved Mini boys. They seem happier now that I can now focus all my attention on them.

  4. One of my own dogs is an elderly Shih Tzu who has heart disease from heartworms. The heartworm treatment was very hard on him and I did not think he would survive so I adopted him (he was one of my foster dogs from 4 1/2 years ago). Morley is a happy and grumpy boy. One of my favorite rescue groups is Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary in Tennessee and I enjoy reading their postings and watching their videos. I choose to continue to foster because I believe that dogs really do love to live in a pack even when things do not do smoothly. I have lots of snuggly places for the dogs to go to when they want to get away from the crowd.

  5. I love the relationships that develop between our animals that have been together for a long time. It’s so beautiful to see the nurturing & care they display – I don’t have multiple dogs, but cats, and even normally ones who are irritated with the others can ‘chill’ when needed to be nice. I remember reading when Otto was a youngster himself!

  6. I loved the video of your pit-mix with the puppy! Pitt’s don’t get enough credit in this world! My daughter’s 8 year old purebred Pit was an angel with my English Lab when she was a bitting little 7 week old pup! And to this day he still is!

    I learn so much from reading about all of your experiences! Thank you so much!

  7. No one can make that decision for you.

    If it were my dog, I’d probably give him a break. I think senior dogs have earned retirement from whatever. When my Ramses got old I didn’t even make him sit or shake for treats. I just gave them to him. At that age, you realize you aren’t going to have them much longer and it’s time to spoil them, pamper them and let them get away with whatever they want.

  8. Over 15 years doing Newf rescue, I’ve learned 2 things about resident oldies and fosters — 1) To a point, it keeps the oldies active and prevents them from getting “too set in their ways”. But there does come a point when they are old enough and infirmed enough that it isn’t fair to expect them to do the work of teaching manners (real and self-defined) to fosters. 2) Most fosters desperately need to interact with dogs who set limits and expect/demand a certain level of politeness. Fosters are almost always weak in the “Dog Skills” department and a senior dog can teach those lessons while humans, no matter how well-meaning, just can’t. As with everything in rescue, it’s a balance.

  9. This speaks to me. We too have a grumpy old lady and a new puppy, and are observing many of the same behaviors. As the puppy outgrows her, I worry that she is getting pushed around…but she doesn’t seem to object. Or maybe I need a Fun Uncle Woody to intervene! I thought she had gone deaf, but she now responds to the clicker (particularly when I am training the puppy) from three rooms away!

  10. My thoughts on old dogs is a lot like old people; we’re tired, we’ve raised our children+-, our memory isn’t what it use to be and just love us and leave us with some peace and quiet. My old boy Boudreaux, a 10 yo Golden would want to go outside frequently, which he needed to because towards the end of life he was drinking lots of water; however, when he would go out, he would just stand there like he couldn’t remember what he went out there for. And, he probably couldn’t.
    Personally I would not bring a puppy into my home with my older dog because it would be like someone bringing a toddler to me to care for. I’m just too old for it, my nerves are shot; I think the same is true for old dogs.

  11. I purposely make sure I have a sanctuary Senior to be my resident grump in my pack because I learned when original old man passed that it was an important position of authority. And my foster puppies are better for it! They learn to respect their elders. And as you point out, the oldies like their position as kings or queens.

    • I have found the same, though I don’t foster any longer. When my yellow Lab, Lark, died at over 14, I fostered 3 mixed breed puppies – large ones even at 13 weeks. My older rescue, Magi, taught them manners without me feeling frightened she would hurt them. I ended up keeping one of the fosters (Paden). When my black Lab, True, died at 15, when we got another Lab puppy the same dominant female let the new puppy, River, know under no uncertain terms what she would accept. I applauded her actions!

  12. This story was dumb. Please do not foster more puppies, as you do not seem to enjoy it, and neither does your main dog.
    Regarding your comment /observation of Otto looking disappointed, look again, to me he looks confused, which is very common in senior dogs.
    Maybe instead of commenting on your senior dog being grumpy,why not give the old guy a break. Ever think he may be confused, feel lost. scared or may have a form of dementia? Also on top of of that his other senses may be waning as well.
    A more caring parent would make their dogs senior years the best, devote more attention and over the top patience and affection on the guy that has been your best friend through good bad indifferent to you for his entire life.
    And believe me, as a dog senior dog owner myself, that could not have been easy. Dogs love us napier of our humanness, which unfortunately at best is IMO far beneath the character of a dog.

  13. Such a cute photo of Woody the peacekeeper in the middle. Since Otto obviously enjoys training (and training treats!), maybe Otto could perform some low impact `tricks’, such as targeting objects with his nose, or discriminating objects by name, or remaining on the mat (his could be tossed to him on the mat), being included in the treat rotation, as opposed to the more physically demanding cues. Or he could stay busy finding his share of treats with a scent mat or busy box that dispensed his share of treats.
    Because my 3 are 6, 11, and 14, I am requesting behaviors from the 6 year old that the 14 year old is excused from. At this point she is just getting her share of the treats for breathing.

  14. What a wonderful read!! I am happy the foster has a home yet it seems he would have slotted into yours well. I have witnessed what I call “the clown at the rodeo” behavior many times with my dogs. I had a yellow Lab puppy that absolutely LOVED my senior yellow Lab mix who was close to 14 at the time. I had the yellow’s half sister, a black, who was 15 months old. I saw her insert herself many times between the puppy and my senior. I also saw her run around to distract the puppy from the senior. We recently got a chocolate Lab puppy. We have two rescues, one who is now 10. The younger rescue would put himself between the puppy and the “mean” girl (though in truth I didn’t mind when Magi corrected the puppy – I knew she wouldn’t bite). River is now 7 months and 66 pounds and they’ve long ago ironed everything out. He and the other rescue, Paden, are great buds. Paden is 73 pounds and Magi 50, so they’re all of a size. We also have 2 Maine Coons who fit in with the whole crew. PS – I ABHOR puppy teeth!!

  15. This article could not be more timely. I also have a 13 yr old grumpy at times old man and I also generally foster puppies. Howie, the grump has always been choosy who he is going to bond with but I also had my helper dog Hanna who was my puppy teacher. Sadly she suddenly passed away 3 weeks ago. I am sure this adds to his change in demeanor but it actually started before she passed. I am lucky that I have an old house with rooms so I’ve always been able to give him his own space where he could have refuge from any puppies he wasn’t a fan of. At this time I am taking a break from fostering to give him time to settle being the only dog, but I do miss having the little stinkers around. For now I am playing it by ear and giving him extra attention.

  16. Our 85 lb young dog ,who we got at 8 weeks,is frightened by our old 14 year old girl dog and our old male cat. Its hysterical to watch him fuss and fling him self about with lots of woofing because e the old girl is laying in front of where he wants to sit.
    She plays with him about ten minutes several times a day. She has been deaf since birth so he just yells in her face as he play bows and she snaps and snarls and leans into him.
    We foster but we have a large backyard where the puppies can hang out. We make sure to get rescues four months and up who can be housed in the big shed and backyard so that she has her space inside.