My friend Jane Jackson has graciously agreed to share her story about her wandering senior dog Beetle and how she kept him safe at night. These are her words.

“I have a Jack Russell Terrier who will be 16 the day after Christmas.  In the last year, he had started to pace and wander at night and eliminate in the house. I had never crate trained him beyond the early puppy stage although I had tried a couple times. He hated confinement (this was before I had trained at the Karen Pryor Academy, so I didn’t know how to help him feel better about it). My husband was really tired of cleaning up the house or the alternative when he got up in the morning (he got up long before I did) though, so something had to be done. I put a wire crate in my bedroom, right next to my bed, put Beetle’s favorite blankets in it and when I went to bed, I put him in it with a treat or two and then dangled my hand through the wire in an effort to help him feel comfortable as I tried to go to sleep. Before long, I could feel and hear him start to shake, pant, and then whine, and so I opened the crate door. He walked a couple steps and pooped on the floor. That obviously wasn’t going to work. 

A brown and white terrier sleeps in his bed inside an exercise pen that prevents wandering
Beetle, cozy in his bed in his ex-pen, with night light nearby

Next I thought I’d try an ex-pen setup as I had seen another trainer do for her elderly beagles. I was afraid he’d howl and panic being confined but I gave it a try hoping he wouldn’t soil his bed. I put the ex-pen around his favorite bed in his favorite corner and made it about the size of two crates, putting pee pads on the bare floor. I waited until he was asleep and then closed it up. I turned a night light on right next to it, crossed my fingers and went to bed. Lo and behold, he was sleeping peacefully in the morning and the pee pads were clean and dry. The same thing happened the next night, and the next and so on. In the approximately nine months since we’ve been doing this, I’d say he has peed on the pads maybe once a month. I’ve never heard a peep from him (our bedroom is close enough I would) and my husband says Beetle is sound asleep when he gets up in the morning. He opens the pen so that when Beetle does wake up, he can get out on his own.

It is astonishing to me that this works and I can justify it in various human ways but I just wanted to share it in case someone else has a dog who can’t tolerate a crate and assumes that an ex pen won’t work. 

I got this particular ex-pen because it is plastic and I didn’t want a wire one scratching up our wooden floors. The thing I dislike about it is that it is REALLY loud when you move the panels. They don’t slide open and closed, but POP, POP, POP. I find it annoying but it scares the bananas out of Beetle. I open it all up during the day (as seen in the photo below) so I have to remind myself to get it set up for nighttime before he drifts off. I do always sit with him (the dining room table is right next to this) until he goes to sleep. I don’t know if it’s necessary but I prefer it to feeling like I’m locking him up and leaving. 

A brown and white terrier is in his bed inside an open exercise pen
The open pen during the day

My human best guess is that being confined reassured him rather than panicked him because it limited his options. Rather than wandering around the dark house looking for me or a way out, getting more and more anxious, he just went back to sleep. I didn’t use a webcam so I don’t know how much he paced in there but nothing was disturbed and as I said, I never heard a peep even though he was always one to squeak or howl if he got locked somewhere behind a closed door by accident.”

This is Eileen writing again. What works for individual dogs really varies. But Jane and I wanted to share this method because it’s worth a try for others who are dealing with night wandering and incontinence issues in their dogs. Beetle doesn’t normally like being confined, but he felt safe and comfortable in the ex-pen setup. Some of the rest of you may be so lucky with your dogs as well!

Jane Jackson is certified by the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training & Behavior (KPA CTP), is a Certified Level 2 TAGteacher, and a member of Alexandra Kurland’s coaching guild.

You can contact her and read more of her work at The Dog Chapter

23 Responses

  1. While the exact approach will vary somewhat between dogs, this might also suggest the advantage of starting to work on this for an older dog, even before he really needs it. That would allow you to work out the method, and the dog to become very comfortable with the area and routine.

  2. Thank you Jane.. I’ve been able to do a similar thing as my house is only 2 rooms… so I keep him in the room with me and he seems to do ok instead of being in the living areal…Maybe I’ll try to make a small area just for my dog in the corner where he likes to sit.

  3. I also had to use an ex pen for my gal who passed at 16 a couple of years ago. she did a lot of restless pacing, and couldnt make it up the stairs any longer. I penned her in the kitchen, used various non skid mats for the floor to prevent slipping (she had a bent paw and her hips were getting weaker and non skid socks wouldnt stay on). she slept and paced at night, (and probably in the day when i was out), but if she was free she would get stuck in tiny spaces, such as behind the bookcase with a paw caught in the radiator as an example. the other thing the pen prevented was her problem of stopping in front of the other dogs and ppearing to stare; NOT good for her safety! my other female was really nervous of this, though jessie was losing vision and hearing and unable to pick up on social cues. That could have ended badly! i think i could have done a lot of cc’ing for this for my other dogs, but didnt know about it at the time. How other pets feel or react to changes in an aging dog are important to be aware of.

  4. now thats an awsome story i lost my oscar 24 years ago miss him terrably and he was 18 years old, and i got 2 kittens onee of em were murdered he had a companion called sox he used to hate cats but they were like twins nd died together i moved house and they moved with me he sved my life more than once wish i had that geat idea but he went before it got bad

  5. I currently have a foster dog who was starved. As a result he has severe neurological issues (making walking difficult and balancing nearly impossible) and is essentially incontinent. I use a play pen for him as well. He loves laying in a laundry basket so he has that in his area with lots of comfy covers inside. On the ground, I put sheets meant for children who wet the bed (like $15 on amazon) and put a sheet over that. Catches and absorbs everything and saves a lot of money on pee pads!

  6. I used this type of setup with my elderly poodle. I might add that a big plastic tablecloth or a tarp under the whole area adds another layer of protection for the floor. Bless you for taking such good care of an old dog.

  7. I use an x-pen for many things. When getting a new dog and not yet earned free range of the house, when a delivery person or technician comes in the house to do some work. If I need to go in and out of the house numerous times, etc. And when I need to leave the house for a good length of time. I also put their crate in the x-pen along with safe toys.

  8. When a dog is legally blind and legally deaf, they DO need to be confined in a safe place for them when you are not around to watch out for them.

  9. Bless you for loving him during these difficult for him times; so many owners drop them off at shelters as soon as they start needing some changes to their routine simply because it’s not convenient. I’m not shaming those who actually do not have a way of accommodating their senior or disabled pet. It’s awesome that you tried different ways until you could help him feel secure.

  10. We aren’t getting our sleep bc our 14+ Yorkie is constantly walking and bumping into things. She doesn’t really know us anymore. When I come home she doesn’t wag her tail and come see me. She can’t walk along on a leash anymore. We have to carry her outside to potty and back inside. But she still has accidents. We have to keep her on a leash inside bc she won’t stop moving. I’ve been awake since 2:40 now bc she woke me up moving. Two hours later she’s finally still but I have to get up for work in another hour. I hate to say this but I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s been going on about a year.

    1. I’m sorry, Terri. There are a number of us here who have been through that. Have you talked to your vet about medication (not necessarily for dementia, but something gentle to settle her down at night?). Your dog is so lucky you have given her such love and care. I hope you can have an easier time of it.

      1. I called today and found they offer a geriatric check up. I expect we will go do that. What kind of life is it when we have to medicate her to go to sleep at night. Today I had resigned myself that it’s time to let her go and then tonight she licked my hand. I can’t do it yet now. It wouldn’t seem right. But this getting up every night is miserable. And I can’t just let her go outside alone cuz she can’t. I have to go with and carry her in. It’s cold and I want to sleep! It’s a sad situation.last night I smelled a skunk out there and was afraid! Besides, my hubs disagrees w me that it’s time. He’s in a little bit of denial bc he loves dogs more than people!

  11. I use this system for Frosty as well. I also have it set up with fresh water, toys, his bed and some treats during the day and he goes to it (he can’t find the door so I lift him in) when he wants to ignore the activity going on around him. It seems to allow him to manage the amount of stimulation he gets which has helped to keep him from getting anxious.

    1. Catherine, that sounds like a great system. I continue to be amazed at the ways we can help these dogs. Thanks for sharing.

  12. Hi I have a 16 year old jack Russell dog every night she wakes up at 3.30 in a morning or at night she wakes up at 3.00 pasting up and down in my bed room in the end I get up take her down for food and bring her back upstairs and she sleeps again for a while and gets back up again at 4.40-5.00 in the mornings just don’t know what to do with her anymore she has accidents sometimes in the house when I take her for a walk in a morning just round the block she is ever so slow in walking like dose not want to go and wants to sleep in the day then around dinner time take her for another walk she is okay a bit faster but not much then at 7 take her for another walk on the evening she knows she is getting her biscuits at that time she walks a little fast round the block just need advice on what to do with her

    1. Dear Karen,
      Oh my goodness, that must be tough. Nighttime wakefulness is one of the hardest symptoms for the whole family to deal with.

      I know I’m late in answering and I apologize for that. Have you talked to your vet about a gentle sedative for her? I think you are doing well to still get her some exercise with her walks, but sometimes that isn’t enough to get them to settle down for the night. That pacing is a part of the disease.

      Take care and I hope you can get some rest!

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