How to Tell If Your Dog's Issue is Medical or Behavioral...
Unfortunately, our dogs cannot talk to us, so when a problem arises we must investigate to find out what is wrong. As humans, we often overlook that a problem behavior can be medical and often jump straight to assuming it is behavioral. Usually, our human assumption is that the dog is doing a “bad” behavior. As a Registered Veterinary Technician, I am always considering if the reason for an unwanted behavior is medical.
Sometimes differentiating if a problem is medical or behavioral can be tricky. Here are a few things I initially consider.
Is the behavior a new behavior?
For example , if a dog has been reliably housebroken then begins to have accidents in the house, I will wonder if the dog has developed a bladder infection. Or if a dog that used to love to be pet everywhere, begins to growl when someone touches his back, I will ask if the dog has had any recent injuries to their back.
How old is the dog?
If the dog is over 8 years old and is displaying “strange” behaviors, the dog may be developing cognitive disorders.
Has the dog experienced any traumas or frightening events?
Dogs can develop Post Traumatic Stress and can express strange behaviors due to anxiety or fear. In some cases, the problem is so severe that the dog will need to be put on anxiety medications to overcome their fear. After we were evacuated during a fire, my Jack Russell was afraid to go through doorways. I have no idea why, but with treats and praise, she overcame it. Some Post Traumatic Stress problems are not that easy to solve.
Does the dog seem to want to do the behavior but is hesitant?
For example, if a dog has had a solid “sit” and suddenly is hesitant to sit, the dog could be experiencing pain when he sits. I have also seen dogs change the way they sit if a back leg or lower back is uncomfortable. If you notice that your dog is moving different or acting differently when they do a behavior, a medical problem may be the underlying issue.
Anytime I suspect that a behavior problem could be medical, I require my clients to see a vet before we meet to try to “fix” the behavior. If a dog has a bladder infection, kidney infection or is diabetic, no behavior modification program is going to “fix” the dog and stop the accidents from happening. One of the main symptoms of those three medical problems is increased urination. If the dog must urinate and does not have access to the appropriate potty area, an accident will happen.
Behavior problems can be very frustrating for the humans but when we make sure that the dog is healthy before trying to modify the behavior, the entire process is easier. We owe it to our dogs to look at the whole picture and not focus solely on the problem.
Shannon has been a pet lover all her life and a dog trainer for over 20 years. She has spent her life observing, caring for and training animals of all kinds. She has worked in the Bird Department at Marine World Africa USA, and worked as a handler and trainer for an African Serval Cat at Safari West, a private zoo in Santa Rosa, California. She has participated in behavior studies including observations of bald eagles and addax antelope through the San Francisco Zoo and Safari West. Her education includes a Biology Degree, specializing in Zoology from Sonoma State.
She is a "Registered Veterinary Technician," a "Certified Professional Dog Trainer" (Knowledge Assessed), a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a member of the "Association of Pet Dog Trainers" and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Shannon is currently serving as President for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. Shannon's dog training philosophy revolves around force-free, positive reinforcement, however, her ultimate goal is for healthy happy relationship between pets and their people. Diet, exercise, environment and training all play a significant role in achieving this goal. Shannon is currently the owner of Ventura Pet Wellness and Dog Training Center in Ventura, CA where she works with anxious and fearful dogs privately as well as teaching agility classes (Venturapetwellness.com). Shannon has also started a training website called Truly Force Free Animal Training.