The family was rightfully concerned. Their normally gentle, tolerant, loving dog had suddenly snapped at their toddler, and they weren’t sure what to do. We began the consult suggesting a veterinary exam to rule out physical issues, and then continued to discuss good supervision, management, and training protocols for helping ensure that the dog/baby household remained safe for everyone. As we were leaving, the owner reached to point to the area on the dog’s shoulder that the toddler had touched before the snap. The dog winced and moved away in pain. The owner was stunned, having never seen that behavior before, and it was clear that the veterinary exam was definitely in order.
A wide variety of medical issues can masquerade as behavioral problems, and dogs often do a great job of stoically not revealing signs of their discomfort. But injuries, pain, illness, sensory loss, urinary tract infections, ear infections, thyroid imbalances, neurological problems – all these and more might first manifest as behavior problems. If we aren’t looking for them, we might mistakenly be solely focusing on a training plan while our dog’s medical needs, which are underlying the behavior, go undetected.
Recently we’ve experienced this in our own household, as we’ve tried to put together the puzzle of our most recent adoption, Tempo, and his sometimes concerning behavior. Over the past year since we have owned him, Tempo would occasionally exhibit behaviors that we didn’t fully understand. Sometimes they looked like extreme fear – shaking, hiding, cowering, lowered body posture, refusal to eat. We joked that he saw dead people, because we couldn’t find any other trigger whatsoever, and he normally is quite confident and adventurous. Other times he exhibited seemingly random aggression towards us, which was quite a contrast to the usually affectionate, social guy that he is. The more we trained and worked with him, and tried to identify patterns and triggers, the more we were convinced there was a medical issue underlying all of this, but were stumped as to what it was.
A couple weeks ago, Tempo was tentatively diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD). I hadn’t identified his issues as necessarily being gastrointestinal because he rarely has diarrhea. After consulting with our vet though, we realized he did show many of the other symptoms – anorexia, depression, times of increased stomach noises, body postures indicating abdominal discomfort, signs of nausea, etc. Since that diagnosis, it has become overwhelmingly clear that his behavior problems are directly linked to his IBD flare-ups.
So, how do we know when to pursue a medical explanation? Of course, this should always be the first question you ask with any behavior or training issue – is my dog physically healthy and comfortable? Sometimes the connection is clear and the answer is easily sought – for example, with a housetrained dog who suddenly starts urinating in the house, checking for a UTI would be a reasonable first step and could be easily determined by a urinalysis. But in cases such as Tempo’s, where it isn’t as obvious, what clues tipped us off that something more was going on?:
1) The behavior problems were a drastic change in his usual pattern. Not that Tempo is an easy dog by any means, but he is a happy, sweet, playful, cuddly guy who loves us and normally enjoys being held and snuggling. And then sometimes we would sit down with him, just like every other time, and he’d turn into a snarling little beast.
2) The behavior problems were not linked to any identifiable environmental trigger that we could see. (And we tried – I was even trying to figure out if there was an odor that precipitated them.) Every morning for two weeks he could wake up and happily and eagerly wait for breakfast, and then one morning he would be sitting wide-eyed and shaking and unwilling to eat anything that was offered him and would go hide under the couch.
3) The behavior problems were not changing as expected to scientifically-sound behavior modification protocols. In his other training areas, Tempo was doing well – his on-leash reactivity was lessening, his basic obedience was improving, but nothing seemed to be able to influence, prevent, or predict, his worst meltdowns.
4) (Sometimes): Presence of physical symptoms – limping, ear infections, urinary tract infections – some of these can be clear. However, Tempo’s symptoms were more subtle, and it wasn’t until a particularly bad flare-up of GI problems got us talking with our vet about his broader history of weird issues that we fully realized the connection.
So, if the connection isn’t entirely clear, how can you piece it together?
Keep a log!! It doesn’t have to be overly elaborate, but find a way to document when behavior incidents are happening, and anything else that you suspect might be relevant (if they did strenuous exercise that day, what they ate, how well they ate, stomach upset, etc.). We hung a regular wall calendar up with some colored markers below it, and just implemented a colored “exclamation point” system. Different colors corresponded with different behavioral or physical symptoms (for example, red meant a barking/growling episode). On days that he exhibited any of these things, we would mark the day with an exclamation point of the appropriate color. In doing this, the pattern became clear that snarling and ugliness were directly corresponding to not eating and stomach upset.
Talk to your vet. Maybe it seems weird to you, and maybe you think it doesn’t make sense, but let them know what is going on. I felt like Tempo’s symptoms were all a very strange assortment that didn’t fit any pattern, but my vet was able to identify it all as sounding like IBD, and as she told me about other patients’ experiences, the similarities were striking.
And remember you know your dog best, and if your gut is telling you something is wrong, trust it. It took me a while wondering if Tempo’s issues were GI or pain related, or neurologic, or something else entirely, but I always just felt that something deeper was going on with him physically and that he needed more than just training.
So, is behavior modification still necessary? Yes, quite likely, some management and training can still help you through this as the medical problem is also addressed. We are still trying to figure out what combination of diet and meds will keep Tempo’s tummy stable, so he has good days and bad days right now. If he seems to be having a bad day and turns his nose up at breakfast, then I know to respect his space because I know he probably doesn’t feel like cuddling when he has a stomach ache either. If he wants to hide under the couch for a while, we don’t disturb him. And when he is out and about, I am reinforcing him for remaining pleasant, while also demonstrating that no one is going to do anything he doesn’t like when his belly hurts.
And, because medical issues can masquerade as behavior problems, even more reason to be using positive, force-free training methods. Tempo’s behaviors, while undesirable, were just communication, letting us know he was feeling sick and didn’t particularly want a lot of handling and petting at those times (when he feels good, by contrast, he is a permanent lap fixture). How unfair would it have been to get mad at him, to punish him, and to make him feel worse when he was already in a vulnerable state? We often wonder how long he was misunderstood, and if his undetected medical issue and the related behavior wasn’t what landed him in the shelter in the first place.
How about you – have you ever discovered a behavior was related to a medical issue with your dog? What did you do?
Angela and Lowell, your friendly Harmony Dog Trainers!