I’m Living with a Sundowner Dog

By Carla MacInnis Rockwell


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Mr. Digby, my 14 year old Australian Silky Terrier housemate is a ‘sundowner dog’; in clinical terms, he suffers from canine cognitive disorder though episodes of confusion are infrequent at this point. He could be disoriented for just minutes or for a few hours (more than 2) at a time. He’s more likely to become confused as darkness settles on the day — not unlike what happens to elderly humans.

Behavior changes occurring just before dark is called Sundowner's Syndrome or sundowning.Dogs, as well as seniors with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia may be more agitated and confused. I find that to be the case with my senior canine companion who is noticeably disoriented as the sun goes down. His demeanor adjusts when the lights are turned up —he becomes more animated and aware. As to the elderly loved one, light up their lives to improve their mood. As well, a little night music may lessen the impact of agitation.

Well illuminated spaces so that the individual can safely move about minimize the impact of Sundowner’s Syndrome; keep walking/travelling routes clear — from kitchen to dining room to living room to bedroom, and so on. Non-slip flooring and limited or no use of scatter rugs is very helpful.

Those affected may also "shadow" their caregivers, following them around and doing everything they do, asking questions over and over or interrupt conversations with someone else. Sometimes there is a loss of full language abilities and abstract thoughts may become especially difficult to comprehend. Very often, an elderly person can be settled with the offer of a familiar finger food — a successful way of redirecting fixated or fixating behaviour.

Mr. Digby’s shadowing doesn’t seem particularly purposeful until I pause at  his ‘food cupboard’. If I stop there for even a moment, he’s perked up and alert to the possibility that a treat is forthcoming. It usually is. Once he’s partaken, he seems satisfied that that’s all there is and makes his way to one of his many sleeping spots, but not before a bit of play time. He still has a great interest in his toys.

Sundowning causes a variety of behaviors, such as confusion, anxiety, aggression or ignoring directions. It can also lead to pacing or wandering. To be clear, it’s not a disease, but a group of symptoms that occur at a specific time of the day that may affect people with dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. Not by nature an ill-tempered dog, Mr. Digby’s history of previous abuse contributes to revisiting past hurts. Humans will often squash down traumas in order to cope with the present; the same is true for dogs and other animals. They do remember but positive life experiences post-abuse turns things around until dementia moments grab them. Interacting, both with humans and with aging pets in a calm, even voice is most helpful.

Some medical professionals believe that the syndrome is an accumulation of all of the sensory stimulation from the day that becomes overwhelming and causes stress. Others speculate that it is caused by hormonal imbalances that occur at night. Another theory suggests that the onset of symptoms at night is simply due to fatigue, and others believe it has to do with the anxiety caused by the inability to see as well in the dark.

In many respects, with regard to patterns of behaviour, dementia in my dog is not unlike that in a human. He’s more alert after a nap. Up and about for several hours through the day, he tends to go to his basket when I take a break to watch a movie, though he’s always keen to intrude on my meals. In vet terms, he’s considered geriatric and like his human counterparts he does well when his routine isn’t disrupted or altered. Sometimes, changes are necessary, so it’s important to ease the transition.

Although you may not be able to stop it completely, you can take steps to help manage this challenging time of day so you both sleep better and are less tired during the day. Keep the elder’s medical care team apprised of what is being done to cope with Sundowner’s Syndrome. What you have found helps in your situation may help another family experiencing similar issues.

Maintaining a routine tends to alleviate sundowning anxiety. Putting on pajamas can be helpful triggers that the day is winding down — follow with a bedtime snack. Going to bed with hunger pangs interferes with the relaxation required for sleep.

After his evening constitutional, Mr. Digby has a biscuit and is escorted to the bedroom to slumber on his blanket on top of my bed. I turn on the television so he has a sense of ‘someone’ in the room, so he’s less likely to get up and wander. I’m then able to leave him on his own to enjoy a movie in the tv room without interruption.

Life is good.

Carla MacInnis Rockwell is a freelance writer and disability rights advocate living outside Fredericton, NB with her aging Australian silky terrier and a rambunctious Maltese. She can be reached via email at carmacrockwell@xplornet.ca

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