Ouch! When pain is behind your dog’s behaviour problem

Blog post about detecting pain in dogs. January 2016
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References at the end of the post

About author: certified dog trainer in The Hague


Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Ear infection turns angel dog into devil hound

About a year ago, Milti’s owner called me in a panic. Milti, her young terrier, had always been really sociable and cuddly. But a few weeks before, he snarled and snapped in the air when she was petting him. She thought no more of it, but it started happening more and more. It reached the stage when she was careful to even approach him if he was in his basket; not to mention that putting his harness had turned into an all-out war. After a few weeks of trying the usual punishment-based methods, she was at her wit’s ends. She called me: “Did I raise him wrong ? Is he turning into a vicious dog? Is there anything you can do?”

Poorly boy

This dog is clearly uncomfortable

As soon as I heard the aggression had popped up suddenly, I suspected something physical might be underneath it all. I asked a few questions about the history of the aggression, and I did a couple of stimulus-response tests to zoom in on the problem area. Inkling confirmed: Milti did not want anyone to come near his ears.

His owner was skeptical, though. She lived with the dog and knew him more than anyone. If any one would have picked up on the pain, it would have been her. Besides, she said, he’d not been whining or touching his ears or anything. But I insisted she went to the vet’s. Two days later, she called, ecstatic: the vet had found a nasty ear infection.

I showed her some zoo handling techniques to get Milti to collaborate with the ear drop treatment without confrontation, and once the pain had cleared, worked on making him comfortable with his harness again.

Today, Milti is back to being his old love bug self again.

Spotting pain in your dog

“How could she have missed an ear infection!?” I hear you ask. Quite easily, actually. Everyone knows the obvious signs like whining or limping but most of the time it’s more subtle, particularly for internal or chronic pain or in the early stages of the problem.

We use a mix of clinical experience and formal indicators to spot pain in dogs. In my clinical experience, the frequent signs are:

  1. He does not distribute his weight evenly between all four paws, as if avoiding to lean on one fully.
  2. He pants for no apparent reason. This can, by the way, be a sign of severe pain (or stress, but that’s another story).
  3. His shoulders are slouched. He walks like a depressed dog, like he is carrying all the problems of the world on his frail shoulders.
  4. He moves more carefully than usual: stiff and slow. As if he was walking on eggs. He can still run and be his crazy self, mind, but it takes more encouragement, and he seems worse afterwards.
  5. He occasionally struggles to stand up. Now people spot that, but assume it’s normal (particularly for older dogs). The thing is, age is no reason to leave the pain untreated.
  6. He tenses up or even snaps or growls when you touch him on one particular spot.
  7. He avoids kids fooling around although he used to be the light and soul of the party. He seem to avoid situations where he could get shoved or pushed.
  8. He is not as excited to go on a walk anymore, or to have a game of fetch, as if using unnecessary movements sparingly.

For formal behavioural indicators of pain, I use the Colorado canine acute pain scale. This can be useful to bring to your vet’s to explain why you want to have a pain examination.

Colorado Vet Uni Pain Scale

I think my dog is in pain. Now what?

It’s plain wrong to let your dog suffer for starters but aside from that, pain or discomfort make them grumpy, less tolerant, more unpredictable. We call it ‘lowered aggression threshold’. This can spell 

So if you have the slightest inkling that your dog might be in pain, have it checked out at your vet’s earlier rather than later…. The vets will be grateful for your early action, believe me… When it comes to pain aggression, prevention is better than cure.

 a personal disaster along the lines of: “He bit me in the face out of the blue” or worse, he did this to your kid. Rough players, kids, and serial huggers are at particular risk of being at the receiving end of an ‘out-of-the-blue’ pain aggression attack. I don’t need to tell you how devastating that worst case scenario is: a trip to the emergency room for you, a broken bond with the dog, and (too often unjustifiably) euthanasia for the dog.

Pain aggression doesn’t need to go that far to be taken seriously, though. Here’s another reason I like to tackle it immediately: it can develop into ‘learnt’ aggression. When aggression has ’emancipated itself’ from its original cause (the pain) and appears out of habit. Dogs with chronic pain, for example, can have learnt to be defensive of the space around them even when they are not in pain. Waiting until the aggression is no longer clearly traceable to pain makes a diagnosis and treatment trickier for the veterinarian and the behaviourist.

So if you have the slightest inkling that your dog might be in pain, have it checked out at your vet’s earlier rather than later. Be as precise as possible (keep a diary with dates, signs, antecedents, duration) to help them in their diagnosis. The vets will be grateful for your early action, believe me. They, like me, wish people didn’t wait so long to come see them. Once the pain has been cleared, clear up any remaining aggression with your behaviourist.

When it comes to pain aggression, prevention is better than cure.

Further reading

The Animal Welfare Hub has put together a series of excellent on-line tutorials about dogs and pain. If you are a behaviour therapist, or another dog professional, I strongly advise you follow these:

I also keep information on dogs and pain on a Pinterest board I curate.

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