Thursday, April 16, 2009

Medical or Behavioral?

As a dog trainer and a veterinary assistant, I see both behavioral and medical issues everyday. Sometimes these issues can overlap or get mixed up. Many times owners believe their dog has a behavioral issue, when in reality, there is an underlying medical cause. Below is a list of some common issues that could also be caused by a medical condition. If your dog is displaying any of the following behaviors, or has any behavior problem that has occurred suddenly, please take your dog in for a thorough check up by your veterinarian before trying to address it as a training issue.

Inappropriate house soiling- This is one I see most frequently misunderstood in dogs. I always recommend that any dog with house soiling issues be checked by a veterinarian first, especially if the dog is an adult and has been reliable with house training in the past. There are several medical conditions that could cause house soiling; this site by the ASPCA has a very informative list.

Aggression- Aggression of any kind is a serious problem that needs to be addressed as quickly as possible. There are several medical conditions that should be ruled out first when dealing with aggression. Hypothyroidism is a leading medical cause of aggression and other behavioral changes in canines. Hypothyroidism can be diagnosed by a blood panel and is easy to control through medication. Other possible causes of aggression include hydrocephalus, encephalitis, head trauma, brain tumors, epilepsy and Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome.

Sensitivity or aggression when being handled or touched- These issues may indicate that your dog is in pain somewhere. For instance a dog that snaps when you reach towards his ear may be hiding a bad ear infection. Arthritis is a common cause for older dogs to become suddenly defensive to being touched and handled.

Reluctance to perform behaviors such as sit or down; refusal to jump- These could also be signs of pain or discomfort in your dog. Any dog who is reluctant or slow to sit should be checked for hip dysplasia, a common and debilitating condition, especially in larger breeds. Refusal to jump or perform other similar behaviors could also be a sign of hip problems, as well as back, spine, or leg injuries.

These are just a few of the health problems that can be mistaken for behavior issues. Please have your dog seen by a veterinarian first if you notice any abnormal or unusual behavior.


  1. Interesting. I didn't know that hyperthyroidism was related to aggressive behavior.

    I think about this issue all the time as it relates to horses. So many people punish their horses, when in reality, the horse is only trying to say, I hurt!, I'm in pain!, or I'm uncomfortable!

    In February I read Temple Gradin's book "The Way I See It," which is mainly her advice to parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. It was so interesting to hear her perspective on this issue--so many kids with ASD get punished for behavioral problems with the problem is really related to pain and medical issues. (I wrote some back in Feb. about how kids with ASD are similar to horses with bridling issues:

    Anyways, I see that your blog is brand new. I'm adding it to my RSS feed, and I look forward to reading more of it in the future!


    Mary H.

  2. Thanks for checking out my blog. Your post about the horses is very informative, it's unfortunate to see animals(or children for that matter) being punished for something they can't control.

    Dr. Jean Dodds wrote a great article on thyroid conditions and the link to behavior in dogs. If you are interested you can check it out here:

  3. My poor Freddie. :( I was taught by the dog trainers at classes to 'put him in a sit' every time he got up and lunged at other dogs (just your average over-excitable terrier behaviour I've learnt since). He eventually started biting me and had to be muzzled as I pressed him back into a sit, back into a sit, back into a sit. He started going for me at home if I so much as fidgetted when sitting near him.

    He was diagnosed with HD last September. He must have been in so much pain for all 18 months of this twice weekly training. No wonder he was biting me.

    Those trainers have a lot to answer for! Grr...

    I wish I'd found someone like you when I first got Fred. The classes had worked for my previous dog (a mild mannered muttley) and that's why I went back. I'm more informed now and see a behaviour trainer when we want to do classes of any sort. She takes breed differences into account and knows that one method doesn't fit all!

    I wish I could change things for Fred, but now he's on painkillers and I don't insist on sits he's much more placcid, and I can (sort of) handle him and stroke him without him being scared of being hurt. While still being a terrible terrier of course.

  4. Mina, I'm so sorry to hear about Fred. It's unfortunate that so many trainers still teach the forced sit, especially when there are so many better and safer ways to train. What's even more unfortunate is that most of them will continue to train that way, because as you saw with your other dog, it does work some of the time. Enough that they will chalk up the ones that it doesn't work on as stubborn or "untrainable".

    Good for you for seeking out a more informed trainer. While you may not be able to change what happened in the past for Fred, you are doing the right thing for him now, and for any future dogs you may own. And that's what really matters.