Finding the Cause of Your Dog’s Bad Behavior
Behavior problems in dogs are very common; it would be unusual to find even one dog that doesn’t do something that annoys its owner. However, dog owners learn to live with minor annoyances — it’s just part of living with a dog. But some behavior problems can be more than dog owners are willing to live with, and in these instances, stopping the behavior could mean the difference between keeping the dog as a member of the family or not.
Identifying why a dog does what it does is vital to stopping or controlling a behavior problem. For example, most canine behavior experts understand that dogs jump up on people to greet them face-to-face. If you watch a puppy or young dog greet an older dog, the puppy will come up under the older dog’s face and lick the older dog’s muzzle. Puppies and young dogs, when given a chance, will do the same thing to people. When dogs are taught to sit and hold that position before they are petted, they can no longer jump up. When they learn they get petted while sitting, they no longer need to jump up, and that behavior problem is eliminated.
However, it can be challenging to identify the cause of all behavior problems because not all are associated with normal canine behaviors.
What Health Problems Can Cause Behavior Problems?
Many behavioral experts feel that a physical problem may cause about 20 percent of problem behaviors. For example, most people know that epilepsy can cause seizures, but not all seizures are convulsions. A seizure may show up as twitching, a blank look in the eyes, or a frozen appearance. These signs may look like the dog is ignoring you or taking an aggressive posture. Epilepsy can also cause changes in the dog’s emotions, showing up as fearfulness or aggression, sometimes even uncontrollable rage.
Some other physical problems can also cause behavior problems:
- A loss of vision (especially a sudden loss) can cause either fearful or aggressive behavior.
- A hearing loss can cause startle reflexes, sometimes aggressively.
- Arthritis can cause pain, leading to frustration and aggression.
- A brain tumor or other problems in the brain can lead to severe behavioral changes.
- A bladder or urinary tract infection can lead to a loss of housetraining skills.
How Do You Manage Health-Related Behavior Problems?
When behavioral changes occur, especially when they happen without any apparent cause, dog owners should first consult with their veterinarian before talking to their dog trainer or behaviorist. When talking to the vet, be very specific about the dog’s behavior. Mention anything you see, no matter how tiny it seems. Sometimes those little things you noticed, when put together, make a much clearer picture of what is going on with the dog.
Once the health problem is identified, the veterinarian can guide you to what happens next. Depending upon the situation, your vet may recommend medical treatment only; or may recommend medical treatment first, followed by assistance from your trainer or behaviorist. You may want to put your veterinarian and trainer or behaviorist in touch with one another to discuss the dog to agree on what should be done.
Health Caused Aggression in Dogs
A dog’s bite may be worse than its bark — especially if the dog isn’t feeling well. A new study has determined that dogs brought to a veterinary behavior clinic for biting children most often didn’t have a previous biting history. The research, conducted by a team of experts from the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that about half of the 111 dogs in the study had preexisting medical conditions that may have triggered the lash out.
These Medical ailments that triggered lashing out included hip dysplasia (and the associated arthritic pain), compromised vision, itchiness, and ear pain, says one of the study’s authors, Ilana R. Reisner, DVM, Ph.D., DACVB, a Professor of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Reisner cautions that the association between bad behavior and illness in half of the dogs in the study doesn’t imply that medical problems were the cause of the bad behavior. Some dogs are aggressive, and that needs to be treated as a behavioral issue. But veterinary experts say it’s quite common for dogs that have never shown any aggressive traits to snap, bite and show other agitation signs when they are ill, particularly when they have chronic conditions.
Since your pet can’t speak, here’s how you can read the signs that something is physically wrong with your dog before it, too, may snap.
Signs That Your Dog Is Ill
Most people can recognize when a canine is sick to its stomach because it may leave behind telltale visible evidence, but other ailments are much harder to detect. In addition to physical symptoms, you should look out for behavioral signs. There are two main categories of behavior that can signal red flags:
The most common indicator that a dog isn’t feeling well is not aggression — it’s depression or lethargy, says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association and a Professor at Texas A&M University. “The most common changes would be where the dog becomes less active, doesn’t want to eat or eats less, tends to sleep more, and tends to interact with the family less,” Dr. Beaver says. “This is a common sign associated with fever, although it can be the result of other things, too, such as an upset stomach.”
Another behavior that can be an indicator of a pet ailment is unusual aggression. In this sense, dogs have a lot in common with humans. “If I have a headache, I get grumpy. My fuse is shorter,” Dr. Beaver says. “We don’t know that dogs have headaches per se, but if they have chronic pain, such as arthritis, or if they have an ear infection, they hurt. It eats at them. Their fuse is shorter, too.” Little things that would not have bothered your dog in the past suddenly become transgressions that merit a growl or even a snap. This is particularly of concern if children are in the household. Many children tend to want to hug, pick up or be physical with the family pet. A growl or nip may be the dog saying, “Leave me alone,” says Dr. Beaver. But you should read these warning signs and take action before the interaction gets that far — or worse.
Steps To Prevent Health-Related Behavior Problems
Many dogs would never bite, snap or growl at humans, Dr. Beaver says. Like numerous other behaviors, it depends on the individual dog, its inherent temperament, and even the pet’s background. If the dog was rescued from an abusive situation, you might not know whether the pup will respond aggressively to pain. Here are some steps you can take to prevent a situation from ever getting that far.
Yearly Veterinary Exams
These are a must to keep tabs on your pet’s possible physical ailments. Dogs that come down with many diseases, such as cancer, liver problems, eye disease, etc., don’t show obvious physical signs until the disease is quite advanced. Beaver recommends that you ask your veterinarian to do a complete physical exam, including blood tests, on your pet each year.
Treat Ailments Sooner Rather than Later
If you see outward signs of sickness in your pup –scratching more than usual, a red “hotspot” on their body, or limping or crying when it jumps into the car — it’s essential to have those symptoms treated as soon as possible. Ailments such as joint pain, ear infections, or dental pain “can increase irritability,” Dr. Reisner says.
Never Leave Small Children Alone with Pets
Pet owners need always to supervise whenever youngsters and pets are together. “Little kids don’t mean to hurt, but they don’t think. They may do things that scare or hurt the dog,” Dr. Beaver says. Petting from a child may feel like slapping for the dog. And kids screaming and yelling may even frighten a dog. “Even the most loving, trusting dog in certain situations can react,” Dr. Beaver says.
Dogs Should Always Have a Quiet Place to Go
Your home should have a place where the dog can go to escape noise, children, and other potential annoyances — but especially when it’s ill. This space may be created by putting up a dog gate or placing a dog bed in a quiet area of the basement. Make the quiet place warm, cozy, and easily accessible for a sick pup. Dogs with arthritis may be uncomfortable lying down outside or on a cold floor. Similarly, walking up and down stairs to get to their escape place might be difficult.
Reisner says that her research on children who dogs bite holds some important messages for dog owners — and parents, in particular. Illness can increase the risk of aggressive behavior in dogs, even those with no predisposition to aggression. “When they’re not feeling well, they need to be treated with some extra caution,” she says. “Leave a dog alone if it’s setting itself apart or moves away to the other side of the room. Don’t let a child interact with the dog. And, if the child is too young to listen to those guidelines, put up a gate.” Both dog and child may not appreciate the temporary solution, but they’ll be better off because of it.