Updated: Oct 9
it comes to our dogs, understanding their behavior is crucial for their well-being and creating a happy life together. Dogs communicate their emotions and needs through their actions, and sometimes, what we perceive as "problem behavior" could be a result of underlying pain or
discomfort. In fact, recent studies show that as many as 82% of dogs and cats with problem behaviors are suffering with undiagnosed discomfort. (Mills, 2020). Why is it so important to do a thorough assessment before jumping into training, and why is so hard to diagnose pain and discomfort in dogs?
Dogs Suffer in Silence
Dogs are known for their resilience and loyalty. They often hide their pain, making it challenging for owners to detect any underlying issues. This stoic behavior is an evolutionary survival instinct, as showing weakness in the wild could make them vulnerable to predators. Consequently, it is up to us, their human companions, to be vigilant and proactive in identifying potential sources of discomfort.
Pain and Behavior Connection
Pain can manifest in various ways, and its impact on a dog's behavior can be profound. A dog experiencing pain may become agitated, aggressive, withdrawn, or even exhibit destructive tendencies. Problematic behavior may be caused by, or exasperated by, pain and discomfort. As a Dynamic Dog Practitioner, I always start with a thorough assessment of the dogs posture and movement to screen for pain before jumping into training.
Common Obvious Pain-Related Behavior Issues
Several common behavioral problems in dogs can be linked to pain or discomfort:
Aggression: Dogs in pain may lash out defensively, even against their owners, if they feel threatened. This aggression can be misinterpreted as inherent aggression rather than a response to pain.
Excessive Vocalization: Whimpering, barking, or howling may indicate pain or discomfort. These vocalizations serve as a dog's way of communicating distress.
House Soiling: If a previously well-trained dog starts having accidents indoors, it may be due to pain that prevents them from reaching their designated bathroom area in time.
Changes in Appetite: Pain can lead to a loss of appetite or reluctance to eat. This change in eating habits can lead to malnutrition or other health issues
Lethargy: Dogs in pain may become less active, appear lethargic, and avoid physical activities they previously enjoyed.
Limping/lameness: a dog limping or not using one of their limbs at all is an indication of severe discomfort.
These are overt signs and may often indicate something acute. If your dog is exhibiting any of the above symptoms, especially suddenly, you should get to the vet as soon as possible. But as mentioned above, dogs are experts at hiding their pain. Below are less obvious and often overlooked signs that your dog is uncomfortable.
Often overlooked Signs of Discomfort:
Posture and gait adaptations: Posture and gait tell us SO much about our dog. .How they hold their weight, where they position their legs, the shape of their spine and how they move through various activities throughout the day will often give us more information than than anything else. This is why a posture and gait assessment is always the cornerstone of my intake process for dogs with behavioral concerns.
Attention seeking and separation related behaviors: Dogs who constantly seek out their guardians attention and struggle with separation anxiety or other alone time behaviors often get overlooked when it comes to pain rule outs. Dogs may seek out social support to help cope with discomfort. This can be compounding by guardians reinforcing the attention seeking, however it is worth noting here!
Head or body turning away from a familiar person: This is a common sign of avoiding being touched but it is also a way for the dog to help regulate the arousal level of the social interaction. Being in close proximity to someone who is overly excited may feel unpredictable and threatening when a dog is in pain. Dogs may also avoid being picked up or moved, or may show more obvious distance increasing behaviors like walking away.
Coat changes: Any changes in a dogs coat patterns should be noted. Muscle and fascia tension, as well as injury, can result in changes in the coat growth pattern. You might notice interesting growth patterns, or maybe an overall textural change that looks frizzy.
Increased scratching and grooming: Often our mind goes to fleas, ticks or allergies when we see a dog itching. However if a dog is targeting a specific area this may occur as a result of sensory disturbance related to neuropathic pain.
Inability to walk calmly on leash: Dogs who consistently move in a trot may be doing so because that is actually more comfortable and efficient for them. So if you’ve been trying to train your dog to walk calmly on leash with rewards based training and feel like they are really struggling to slow their roll, it may be because it is uncomfortable to do so.
Resource guarding: Guarding behaviors are completely normal for dogs, but it can also be sign of discomfort. Resources in general become more valuable when a dog is in pain, and this can result in an increase in possessiveness. However, comfortable resting areas like beds and sofas are in particular of high value to dogs in pain. They may show increased sensitivity to sharing these spaces, or may actually find the physical sensation of someone getting on and off the couch uncomfortable.
Reluctance to train or plateauing in training: If you find that your dog is becoming reluctant to perform known behaviors like “sit” or “down” this can be a sign that getting in and out of these positions doesn't feel very good. Never assume your dog is being stubborn. Alternatively, when training around behaviors like barking and lunging on leash, pain can cause training to plateau. Often times, reactivity and aggression can serve the function of creating more space between the dog and a trigger. Discomfort in the body can cause a dog to need more space, and if we don't address the underlying problem we may never make the progress we want to see.
Not sleeping through the night, or startling out of sleep: If your dog is often up and down and repositioning themselves throughout the night this may be a sign of pain. At the very least, a lack of good sleep can be a contributing factor to behavioral issues. Adult dogs need an average of 11 hours of sleep per day. Another common behavior from owners with dogs in pain is that they easily startle out of sleep, and may even become aggressive when woken up suddenly.
The Importance of Pain Rule-Outs
To effectively address problem behavior in dogs, it is crucial to rule out pain as a contributing factor. Pain rule-outs involve a thorough examination by a veterinarian to identify any physical ailments or discomfort that might be influencing the dog's behavior. These examinations may include:
a. Physical Examination: A vet will assess the dog's body for signs of injury, discomfort, or illness.
b. X-rays or Imaging: These diagnostic tools can reveal hidden issues such as musculoskeletal problems or internal injuries. Sometimes an MRI or CT Scan will be necessary to diagnose pain.
c. Blood Tests: Blood work can detect underlying health conditions that may not be immediately apparent through a physical exam.
d. A pain medication trial. Usually this will involve trying a low risk pain medication for 7-10 days to see if the dogs symptoms improve.
When dealing with problem behavior in dogs, it is essential to remember that their actions may be a cry for help rather than mere disobedience. Pain rule-outs play a vital role in identifying and addressing the root causes of these issues. By prioritizing our dogs' physical and emotional well-being, we can foster a happier and healthier relationship with our four-legged companions. Always consult with a veterinarian or a certified dog trainer or behavior consultant when facing behavioral challenges to ensure your dog receives the care and attention they need.
Interested in getting an assessment for your own dog? Learn more about Dynamic Dog Assessments here!
Mills, Daniel S., Fergus M. Coutts, et al. “Behavior problems associated with pain and paresthesia.” Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvsm.2023.08.007.
Mills, Daniel S., Isabelle Demontigny-Bédard, et al. “Pain and problem behavior in cats and dogs.” Animals, vol. 10, no. 2, 2020, p. 318, https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10020318.