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Health Issues Can Masquerade as Behavioral Problems

A friend of mine has an adult Pekingese that has always been wonderful with all members of the family. One day when I was visiting, she told me that Jack had bitten her mother. She was understandably concerned and wanted me to work with them and put a behavior modification plan in place.

I began to ask questions to get a clearer idea of what happened. What happened just before the bite? Had he ever shown any discomfort or aggression with her before? Had anything else happened that day? Was he on any new medications? Did he have any health issues going on?

Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, and her mother had not done anything unusual. They described the behavior as “out of the blue.” Sometimes out of the blue means that early warning signals were not recognized, but sometimes an uncharacteristic behavioral response truly does seem to just appear. I felt strongly that there could very well be a health problem or pain that caused Jack to react the way he did. She took him to the vet that week, and sure enough, he was having an issue with his back. He was treated, put on meds, and never had another incident.

A while back, I met with a client with two large dogs that had some behavioral issues including aggression. When we first met to work together, she was showing me how she worked with her dogs. She asked one to sit, and he didn’t, so she corrected him by popping his collar as she had been advised to do by her previous trainer. He still didn’t sit, so she asked him again, and again he didn’t sit. I asked her to walk him around and ask him again, which she did, and again, he didn’t sit when asked. She was told he was being stubborn and disobedient. I asked her if he knew how to lie down on cue, to which she said that he did. I asked her to ask him to lie down, and he flew into a down. I asked her to do it again, and again he enthusiastically threw himself down. It turned out that he had hip dysplasia. He was not sitting, because it was physically painful to do so, not because he was being stubborn or defiant.

I could go on and on with the “behavior” cases that I met with clients about that turned out to be a health issue. For this reason, there were clients that I would recommend a full vet workup before agreeing to meet with them and their dog. If there is an underlying medical issue that is creating behavioral issues, what the dog needs is medical treatment, not behavior modification. Of course, sometimes it could be a combination of behavior issues and a medical condition, but many times the dog is in need of medical care.

The following things would be red flags for me that a vet work up is necessary before training:

• The behavior appeared “out of the blue.”

• The dog is a senior dog or a middle-aged dog.

• The dog has known health issues, such as allergies or tummy problems.

• The behavior is completely out of character for the dog

It is a natural assumption that I, as an animal trainer and behavior consultant, would be looking at the behavior and then jumping right in with a behavior modification plan to start changing that behavior. But that is not going to do the client or the dog any good in the long run. If the dog has a medical issue that needs treatment, that alone could solve the issue if the behavior is a result of the medical condition. Sometimes clients would say that the dog was just at the vet and he is fine, but if I really suspected a medical problem, I would tell them that they need to go back for a more in depth check-up.

The following is a list of medical issues that I have seen present as behavior issues:

• Urinary tract infection presented as housebreaking problem.

• Allergies or itchy skin, which caused growling and defensiveness.

• Pain caused defensive and guarding issues with space and the dog’s own body.

• Vision problems caused defensive behavior and guarding issues.

• Pain caused the dog to not want to be picked up.

• Pain preventing the dog from doing what is being asked of him, like sitting or jumping into the car

There have been so many cases of medical problems presenting as behavior problems that I could go on and on. When looking at a problem behavior in an animal, we need to look at so many things as we decide how to proceed. Looking at the health of the dog is just as important as looking at other pieces of the dog’s life and environment that impact the dog’s behavior and should not be overlooked.

Vicki Ronchette is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, and the owner of Braveheart Dog Training. She offers both dog and bird training. 

Main article photo by: Frans Brewis-CC