A Dog's Eye View: How pain can affect behavior

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Laura Tyler

Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.

I take it very seriously when someone calls about a behavior issue with their dog. Through a series of questions and answers, the family and I can begin to put together a plan. One of the most important things to determine is how long the particular behavior has been happening. Sudden onset of behavioral change often is linked to pain or disease. We can’t treat the behavior without eliminating the cause of discomfort and pain.  

My first recommendation is a thorough checkup by your family veterinarian. Ear infections, tooth troubles, arthritis, skin allergies, metabolic imbalance and other internal problems can wreak havoc on a dog’s ability to cope in his environment. Case in point: I will have a hard time writing articles if I have a nasty headache. You can’t see it, but I surely can feel it, and it makes me down right cranky. The first rule of thumb for a behavioral change is to rule out the medical model. Once treatment has ended and the dog is healthy again, we can begin working on the behavior problems.  

Human nature seems to take a wait-and-see attitude because illness or injury is not evident at first. If it has been going on for a while, then we have to see what kind of associations, or triggers, have become attached to that physical pain. How about a short story to illustrate this point?

A very nice family has a 3-year-old golden retriever who has been a delightful dog her entire life. Everybody loves her. She’s great with the two kids, ages 9 and 12. She’s easy on company with a minimal amount of jumping up and little destructive chewing in her history. She’s a happy-go-lucky dog. 

The owners were in the process of remodeling their kitchen. The dog happened to pick up a staple in her fur when she sat on the kitchen floor. The next day, the carpenters were hauling cabinets in the front door. The dog was there, as usual, to greet company. When the door opened, one of the carpenters was walking backward with a cabinet and bumped the door. The door bumped the dog and drove the staple into her hip. She yipped, but everyone thought it was because she had been startled. She connected the initial pain with the person walking through the open door. The next person through that door was barked at, as were subsequent visitors. It got to the point where she growled whenever the doorbell rang.

When I sat down with the family, it became apparent that this sudden onset of behavior was out of character. I recommended a trip to their animal clinic. The veterinarian noticed a spot on her hip where she had been licking a lot. Once he parted the hair he found the staple and the area had become inflamed. Staple removal and a course of antibiotics took care of the injury, and the dog resumed optimal health.

With just a little time and positive reinforcement for proper door greetings, the barking gave way to happy tail wags and joyful doggy greetings. I love a story with a happy ending. 

Stay in touch with your pets; routine grooming and handling will pay many dividends throughout the life of your furry friend. Sudden behavioral changes are telling us something. If your dog or cat suddenly has become withdrawn or cranky, there’s a reasonable expectation that a checkup is in order.

Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with 25 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.

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