Old Dog Startles When Sleeping

We got an email from the owner of a 14 year old Beagle who wrote, “Buddy is 14 years old now and he is deaf.   He sleeps a lot and I have to wake  to tell him it’s time to go for a walk or eat. He sleeps soundly and I have to gently shake him to wake him up. He gets very startled and I don’t like scaring him. When he’s awake, he also can’t hear me and doesn’t even know I’m calling him. What should I do?”
Here’s what we said:
Older dogs with deafness or blindness can live happy lives when we are willing to make some small adjustments to help them.



When Buddy is awake, if he can’t hear you calling him, try using a flashlight or laser pointer to get his attention. With a few short training sessions where you pair the light with a food treat, Buddy dog will soon learn to look at or come to you when he sees the spot of light.

With the problem of Buddy startling when you shake him to wake him up, here are some things you can try:

1. When you touch Buddy, don’t apply a lot of pressure as though you are going to shake him out of a sleep. Instead, very lightly touch the tips of his hair or gently blow on his face or front paw. The idea here is to present a sensation that is so light he’s initially not sure if he felt something. You’ll see him move a little bit but not startle.

2. Repeat the touch and he’ll wake up.

3. Be consistent and touch Buddy in the same place on his body (e.g., shoulder, front leg) each time you wake him. He’ll soon learn when he feels your touch that it is you calling him to go outside.

4.  Finally, be aware that older dogs spend a lot of time sleeping. You may want to adjust the outside/eating schedule. You might have to wake him for trips outside so bed wetting doesn’t become a problem, but for exercise walks and play sessions, you could accommodate this sweet older dog’s catnaps.
Citizen Canine readers, do you have any tips for older dogs who are deaf?
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AKC Canine Good Citizen Director, Author of the AKC's official CGC book, "CITIZEN CANINE"
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7 Responses to Old Dog Startles When Sleeping

  1. My ‘old Lady Dog’ was 18, and deaf as a post – diminished sight, but not blind; and with hard-wood floors I could awaken her with a ‘stomp’ on the floor. Used the porch light to ‘call’ her in at night by flicking it on/off a couple of times — I would think touching w/ the corner of a hand towel would accomplish a very ‘light’ touch to awaken him – rather than perhaps risking an untoward response to a hand that was too close. Just drag the corner of the towel over his shoulder/side.
    don’t think I’d blow in his face.

    • Great tips–the flicking light to call her in and the stomp.

      Re: blow in face, depending on how the person did that, you are probably right. Close to the face could startle the dog and cause a bite-pretty far back with a light blow would be ok–not a burst of air like blowing out a candle.

  2. Candace says:

    To “gently” awaken him…I’d try either rubbing something tasty on my hand and letting him smell it (like us waking up to the smell of coffee or bacon cooking) or holding a treat near his nose until he wakes up. Use “that” type of treat only when you want to get his attention. He’ll know to come to you when he smells it. You might also combine the smell with a rhythmic vibration (so you have 2 methods of getting his attention). Hold the treat near his nose and tap an empty water bottle near his feet at the same time (3 taps, or tap tap pause tap, or whatever you’ll likely remember). The bottle should vibrate enough for him to sense it and can be used on the ground to get his attention when he’s out of smell range. Eventually either method should work.

    • Susanne says:

      I love this! We use something similar with dogs who hyper startle upon waking. If the dog startles so severely that it snaps or bites we place a smelly treat on the end of a dull chop stick and place it in front of the dogs nose, while tapping on the ground with the other hand. The smell rouses the dog more slowly and in a happier state of mind and the chop stick keeps fingers and hands out of the way in case the dog does startle and snap or bite when he wakes up. Once he is awake he can perform any chosen behavior to earn his reinforcement.

      • Good ideas…will have to try smell with a dog who is sleeping. The bottle and vibration is a good idea.

        And you’re agreeing with Candace on the smell once they are slightly awake.

    • Jan Floyd says:

      I read the original post this morning on my phone and knew I wanted to reply with the “smell” strategy. Just didn’t have my laptop handy until now! A dog’s sense of smell is so far superior to any other senses that it makes great sense to use a special scent that the dog loves. For my dogs, it would be the smelliest liver treats I can find!!! Presenting the treat close to the dog’s nose on a chopstick, tongue depressor, or the like will keep fingers safe. Pairing the treat with a stomp/tap on the floor or other vibration will probably speed the response time. Soon the dog should awaken easily and happily.

  3. My preferred method is several loud claps to alert my dog to wake. The motion of clapping moves the air and is an abrupt change in the ambient sound. I use the clapping (percussion) sound for a general alert whenever I need to get my dog’s attention when at a distance. Once she looks at me, I follow up with further instruction using body language and signing, most often with a “come” command.

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