I am not a dog trainer. I am a dog behaviour consultant. What that means is that I look at a dog’s behaviour, try to understand what is causing that behaviour and address the problem at its root. Behavioural problems cannot be trained out of a dog. A dog does not act abnormal out of choice. The most common culprits are health, history or the dog’s environment. While many people are keen to examine the environment and history of the dog, health is often overlooked. But unfortunately, more often than not, health is the issue.
Health is overlooked often because dogs are incredibly stoic. That, combined with their joie de vivre gives them a certain exuberance that seems to mask all signs of pain and discomfort. Often my clients will tell me, ‘But my dog cannot be in pain. Just look at the way he runs’.
What happens in most cases is that during play the dog is shot up with adrenaline. Adrenaline is a powerful hormone that can push living beings to achieve a lot. Look at what humans can do under the influence of adrenaline. We have heard of mothers lifting cars when their children are in danger. We have heard of people running with gaping wounds when they are under threat. Adrenaline, by design, makes us faster, stronger and more resilient to pain. When we play rough and tumble with our dogs, adrenaline is pumped in them and their pain momentarily disappears. They love life so much that they just play through it all. So pain is almost impossible to see in dogs until it becomes debilitating.
But for a keen observer, a dog’s pain is visible. In their behaviour, gait and habits. One needs to learn what to look for and then observe very closely.
If your dog shows sudden behavioural changes, suspect pain. Behavioural changes can include a wide range of things from sudden onset of lethargy to sudden aggression. It could manifest in odd behaviours such as the cocking of the head, disinterest in food, inexplicable whining or howling etc. Any out-of-the-ordinary behaviour needs to be noted, observed and journalled.
Once you do that, start looking. When do you notice the odd behaviour? Is it a little after meal times, a little after play time, just after waking up? A dog that shows behavioural changes around meal times could be experiencing digestive pain or discomfort. A dog that acts odd around rest times or play times might be experiencing skeletal or muscular discomfort.
Learn to watch a dog’s gait. Look for limping, hopping, skipping and kicking. Pacing is a gait in which the dog moves the hind and front leg of the same side together. For instance, the front and hind legs of the right move forward, and then the left hind and front legs move forward.
Pacing frequently indicates pain. A dog that always favours one side to sit on might have hip pain. A dog that has more callousing on one elbow might indicate favouring of one side. A dog that has over-developed front muscles might be over compensating for pain in the hind legs.
Pain is very easy to overlook in a dog. Dogs love life too much to be held back by pain. But over time, it starts affecting their musculature and the behaviour. It might cost the dog and you a lot if left unaddressed. So don’t wait for things to get bad. Develop a keen eye for your dog’s movements. Address pain early. Your dog will thank you for it.