Behavior and Physical Health


Let me first start this post with my standard disclaimer:  I AM NOT A VET.  But as a trainer who specializes in fear, aggression, reactivity and separation anxiety, I always ask clients about their dog’s medical history and I’m always scanning for red flags that may require a vet check. Why? Because we know there is a strong connection between physical health and behavior and open communication between the trainer, client and vet benefits the dog’s long term success.

I’ve had clients with all sorts of physical issues that impacted their behavior. These ranged from anal glands being full to allergies to joint pain to GI issues and more. If a dog doesn’t feel well, they will likely act differently, even if it’s subtle. This was part of my personal motivation when I decided to take the Canine Arthritis Management course last year. Helping clients identify pain, knowing what to look for and helping them track data and communicate observations to their vet is critical to their dog’s overall health, and the progress we can make in behavior modification. And personally, living with senior dogs, I wanted to be as educated as possible about pain, arthritis, mitigation and current research on the topic.

Dogs can be very stoic creatures.  Pain or other physical issues can cause behavior changes.  Any sudden behavior change, whether it’s a lapse in housetraining, reactivity, a regression in separation anxiety or anything else new, requires a vet check. I’ve had many clients who had undiagnosed pain, which was causing behavior issues.  When the pain or GI upset gets addressed, the behavior improved.

Why is this important as a trainer? Well, if there’s an undiagnosed medical issue going on, we’re not likely going to resolve the behavioral issue with training alone. And this means the client could be wasting time, money and other resources. A competent, qualified trainer will refer you to a vet when needed or help you know what is important to communicate to the vet.

For example, I recently had a separation anxiety client contact me and after some discussion, I referred her to the vet for a pain consult, based on her age and some history. Sure enough, after a few weeks on a pain meds trial, the separation anxiety resolved. A less qualified trainer may have run this client through an extensive separation anxiety training program, which likely wouldn’t have been successful since the dog was in pain.

Another recent client presented with an increase in reactivity. The dog had a history of previous ACL surgery and referred to a VB for a meds consult, who then recommended a sedated exam and xrays, even though the general vet had dismissed the dog as healthy. Sure enough, after the sedated exam, both knees showed effusion and one of the surgical screws had broken. The client is being managed medically with meds, weight loss and reduced exercise and will be re-evaluated in the coming months. In the meantime, we’ve been able to make significant progress on reactivity and other issues now that the physical issues are being addressed.

Just because your dog isn’t vomiting, doesn’t mean there isn’t some underlying pain or upset tummy. Inconsistent eating habits, being “picky” and hit or miss bowel movements could all be signs of possible GI issues, This is important to training because if we can’t motivate the dog with food or have restrictions on foods, then we may need to revisit our training plan. No motivation, no training.

Dogs don’t need to be obviously limping to be experiencing joint pain. Adrenaline is a powerful drug. I had a dog many years ago, long before I was a trainer, who suffered with a torn ACL for months because I assumed that he was running at the dog park so he couldn’t be injured.  Nope, he had a torn ACL but the excitement and adrenaline release he got at the park overrode his pain. He was still suffering but I didn’t know.  And I felt awful because I could have helped alleviate his pain and suffering much sooner.

When I took my CAM course, a few huge mind-blowing stats were presented about arthritis:

  • Arthritis is a leading cause of elective euthanasia
  • 35% of all dogs suffer silently with arthritis.
  • 80% of dogs over 8 suffer with arthritis.
  • 35% of dogs over the age of 1 suffer with arthritis.
  • Arthritis is the most common musculoskeletal condition seeing in vet practices.
  • Knowing the signs can prevent years of silent suffering and even extend dogs’ lives.
  • Arthritis is not a disease of old dogs. It is regularly diagnosed in dogs under 1 year old.
  • The type of exercise is just as important as the amount.

And another important takeaway was that because arthritis is commonplace, it’s often downplayed as “just” arthritis when properly treating it involves a lot. Yes, dogs will die of something eventually, but it doesn’t have to be unmanaged chronic pain. Managing arthritis is complex but worth it. CAM’s tagline is #yourdogmoreyears. And don’t we all want more years with our loved ones?

What’s involved with diagnosing and managing arthritis? 

  • Gait, movement, posture, & behavior assessment
  • Communication skills
  • Examination & handling skills
  • Diagnostic imaging interpretation
  • Surgical skills
  • Pharmacological understanding & planning
  • Nutrition knowledge
  • Complementary therapy knowledge
  • Rethinking & planning skills
  • End of life care skills

Obviously many of these points are for you to work through with your vet but there are training, communication and management things we can do together to help.

How can a behavior consultant help when your dog is suffering with arthritis?

  • Training handling/stationing skills to help your dog be comfortable with frequent vet visits, testing, treatments and imaging
  • Body language, dog communication and awareness skills to learn when your dog is afraid or uncomfortable
  • Grooming and husbandry skills so nails can be kept short and fur between the pads can be trimmed to help increase traction on floors
  • Environmental changes at home to help the dog get around more comfortably
  • Managing behavioral triggers to reduce unnecessary sudden movements, causing more joint strain and pain
  • Data tracking behavior, behavior changes and trends
  • Collaborating with a vet behaviorist if behavioral medications are warranted
  • Training skills for consent, cooperation or interactions
  • Quality of life, end of life planning and counseling (in some cases)

When Barbo was declining we did a lot for him (multimodal therapy, as it’s called) and changed routines and our household to make things easier for him. But after completing this course, I realized many of these changes really should have happened much earlier than we did them. Know better, do better. That’s always my goal. Keep learning.

And with that, in a few weeks I’ll be starting a new certification program, Companion Animal End-of-Life Doula, which will give me better tools to help those struggling with quality of life and end of life decisions and planning for those choices. Fear and aggression clients are sometimes are faced with rehoming, surrendering or behavioral euthanasia decisions so this program will help give me better skills to counsel those clients. I’m excited to begin this program and then be able to further help dog guardians in a new capacity. More on that to come. Be sure to sign up for my free weekly newsletter so you don’t miss out on big announcements, videos, personal stories, client successes and more!

Contact me and schedule a session if you need help.

Happy training!

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