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?
“The power to control one’s own outcomes is essential to behavioral health, and the degree to which a behavior reduction procedure preserves learner control is essential to developing a standard of humane, effective practice.” - Susan Friedman
About a year ago, we adopted a plucky six-year-old Jack Russell Terrier from the shelter. Tempo had been surrendered to the shelter by his previous family. In their notes, they stated he was crate-trained. It also appeared that they used crating as punishment, and that he spent the majority of his time either outside in the yard or, when inside, crated.
Not surprisingly, when Tempo came to us he would indeed tolerate going to his crate, but he didn’t love it. We camp, travel, and go to dog events frequently with our dogs, so accepting a crate as a comfortable place to chill out is fairly important. Plus, as much as I love snuggling in bed with a dog, I am too light of a sleeper to realistically have dogs loose in the bedroom at night and expect to get a restful night’s sleep, as I would be awake every time they stirred. So, our dogs spend their nights either crated in our bedroom, or loose in the living room, as our eldest dog Jade prefers.
For the first several months, Tempo had a nice JRT-sized crate, and we worked diligently to get him to like it more than he did. We played crate games, worked on counter-conditioning protocols, gave him his meals and high value treats and chews in it, but he was still resistant to going in and would cry at night.
In the fall, we tried him out in a “big dog” crate, and for several months he was much happier. He would run into the crate at night, settle down immediately, and patiently wait in the morning for us to get up and moving before letting him out. All was well until one day it wasn’t. Around mid-January, Tempo decided that he didn’t like his fancy big crate anymore either.
OK, we’re dog trainers and crate training isn’t a big deal, right? Right?
A couple months of more games, more shaping, more counter-conditioning, more high value rewards, DAP diffusers, new beds, new blankets, new relaxation essential oils, new sweaters to keep him even warmer at night, curling up next to his crate in an attempt to comfort him, and eventually shameless pleading and luring – and at the end of it we had a sad little JRT who at night would slowly, pathetically plod to his crate, hesitate at the door, then slink his way in and sit there looking pathetic. He stopped even eating his special rewards that he would find in there.
We have absolutely no idea what caused this complete change of heart regarding his crate, by the way. There was no event we could identify, and nothing we could imagine was causing him discomfort. All I can say is he is a weird dog, who forms strong opinions, and I’m pretty sure he sees dead people sometimes. (In all seriousness, we do wonder if he has some medical issue underlying some of his peculiarities, but so far no tests or examinations have found anything. So all we can do is work with the behavior – which is what we are supposed to be the professionals at anyway!)
Finally in mid-March, coincidentally the day before ClickerExpo Detroit started, none of us got any sleep. Tempo slunk to his crate as usual that night, but as we tried to drift off to sleep, we noticed that he was not settling down, but was sitting upright, pressed against the door of his crate, looking completely miserable and dejected. He whimpered occasionally, but mostly suffered in silence. We in turn were broken-hearted seeing him so unhappy for reasons we could not figure out or understand. This was not working. He sat there staring – we tossed and turned feeling awful that our dog was so inexplicably uncomfortable.
In the morning, he was at least happy to jump into the van and ride in his travel kennel to ClickerExpo – so at least he had not generalized this stress to all crates. Loaded up on caffeine, we enjoyed day one of the amazing talks, all the time considering how to apply them to our current biggest training challenge at home. Inspiration came in Irith Bloom’s “Power of Choice” seminar, which reminded us how important learner control is to the outcome of a behavioral intervention. Tempo had no control in his sleeping arrangements. While we did not physically force him into his crate at night, he still clearly felt coerced by the routine, and it was becoming a nightly source of stress and anxiety for all of us. Were we really “force-free” trainers, if he really had no option? Physical force is not the only form of coercion, and although our intentions were good and intended to be positive, they were clearly not reinforcing. After all, only the learner can decide what is truly a reinforcer and what is a punisher, no matter what our intents or hopes are.
Tempo is reliable in the house. We knew he wouldn’t eat the sofa cushions or raid the refrigerator. So that night we gave Tempo a choice. After coming in from his final run of the night, he had the option to go to his crate as usual, or to the living room to spend the night on the couch with Jade. Not surprisingly, he chose the couch.
Honestly, at first this felt a lot like giving up. It felt like we were giving a fancy justification to our decision to cave in to our tenacious terrier. But the reality was that the crate had become a huge source of stress. Lowell and I were stressed, Tempo was stressed, no one was sleeping well, and no one was happy with one another. We could either focus on a single behavior issue, or try to find a mutually agreeable alternative – one that would lower everyone’s stress and anxiety. It was clear that as long as Tempo HAD to go to his crate, his overall opinion of it was not going to change. What was important to us was that we could still crate him for car rides and travel, and he still loved his travel crate and had always settled fine in it while camping, so that was promising. We decided we would empower him to make a different decision at night – albeit one that was still acceptable to us – and to see how it went. We figured if nothing else, at least we might get a decent night’s sleep again. If there was fallout from our new strategy, at least maybe I could face it well-rested.
The first few nights, Tempo glared at us a bit from the couch as he settled in, still not entirely trusting that we weren’t going to send him to his apparently haunted crate. But then some interesting things happened. Other behavior problems started to decrease. He became more compliant when asked to do other things that weren’t exactly his favorite – like getting off a warm couch to go outside in the rain for a final evening bathroom break. He started play-bowing at us several times a day, then tearing around, grabbing a toy, and running to us so we could help him “kill” it. His focus and attention on walks improved. He seemed to be wagging his nubbin more. He just seemed happier. And so were we.
And if you can believe it, allowing a dog to have a choice over something (even a Jack Russell terrier) somehow did NOT result in him overthrowing the entire household, stealing our credit cards, locking us out of the house, and kicking us off the furniture. All it did was help him regain his trust in us, knowing we weren’t going to impose something on him that he hated anymore.
What was important here wasn’t really that he be crated at night. What mattered was that everyone could be comfortable, happy, cooperative, and safe in the house. If Tempo wasn’t reliable to be left in the living room unattended, then I would have looked for other options – a baby gate in the hallway, an exercise pen in kitchen, etc. We’d search for something that met our needs, while respecting his needs and preferences as well. We control so much of what happens in our dogs’ lives – what and when they eat, where they live, when they go to the bathroom, how they get to play and exercise, who they get to socialize with – why wouldn’t they want some matter of choice in some aspects of life? Especially, as seemed to be the case with Tempo and his crate, there was also a fundamental issue of not feeling safe or comfortable in there, as clearly it is inhabited by the bogeyman (or so he would claim).
And then there was more. He began pausing at the door to the bedroom hallway in the evening and looking toward his crate. Then this week as the rest of the dogs were rushing to their crates in preparation for their evening meals, Tempo ran into his crate as well, and waited patiently there for dinner to be served. Last night as I was crating the other dogs for the night, he stood in front of the door to his crate waiting for it to open before we invited him into the living room instead. Seeing that the stress associated with the crate was already decreased, we began some brief sessions of crate games and counter conditioning again. He’s charging happily into it. If we asked him now to go to his crate for the night, I believe he would do so willingly, not begrudgingly. And if/when circumstances require him to spend the evening there again, we’ll ask him to do so then. But not before, unless he decides otherwise. It’s his choice.
Angela and Lowell, your friendly Harmony Dog Trainers!