Dog Behavior Is Affected by Pain

By Sindhoor Pangal, October 2019, Updated January 2021

Photo by Alejandro on Unsplash

Sindhoor Pangal studied with legendary Norwegian trainer Turid Rugass, president of  Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE) and best known for her book and its DVD counterpart, Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You. Rugass has studied canine social behavior for more than 30 years, and written and lectured on the subject throughout the world.

Turid has a tendency to repeat a few things over and over to us. One of them is “pain always affects behaviour”. Sounds fairly obvious. But it has taken me all these years of work to really understand this simple idea, and I continue to marvel at its implications in my job. The latest of my epiphanies happened less than a few weeks ago when I gave Romeo a myotherapy treatment. [This is a form of physical therapy used to treat or prevent soft tissue pain and restricted joint movement caused by muscle or myofascial dysfunction.]

Pain-Related Hyperactivity?

Romeo is among a set of dogs I work with where the mystery remains unresolved. He walks really fast, does not slow down to sniff and has some frenzied behaviours at home that can be easily recognised as ‘hyperactivity related behaviours’. We used all the tools in our tool belt and yet could not get him to calm down. He is not the first dog with this specific type of issue and all these cases have remained open cases in my files.

Then about five years ago, I briefly met Julia Robertson, who taught us how to look for signs of musculoskeletal discomfort. After that, I felt like I was seeing discomfort in most of Romeo-type cases. I found it hard to believe that so many dogs could be experiencing discomfort and I did not have enough confidence in my own observation skills. That apart, I just could not manage to convince anyone else that this might be discomfort related, because these dogs were not exactly looking like they were in pain. They were not limping or yelping or struggling to move. They were hyperactive and running most of the time. So, pet parents found it impossible to believe that their dog was experiencing discomfort.


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However, hyperactivity in these dogs is actually quite easy to explain and can in fact be the result of the pain itself. Pain, chronic pain in particular, is known to increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline also has a pain numbing property that can also get addictive for a dog in pain and so could encourage a dog to engage in activities that increase these hormones. Perpetually elevated levels of these hormones results in a condition called hyperactivity (the inability to calm down) – thus making the dog hyperactive!

The idea, however, is hard to digest. We are just not used to seeing pain in the form of a hyperactive dog. Owners brush off the hyperactivity as the dog just being “extra happy”. And I did not have the skills to get them to see that that hyperactivity and happiness were not the same.

Then, about three years ago, I started studying to be a myotherapist. 

That’s when I gained confidence and knew that I was not imagining this discomfort-hyperactivity connect. Around then was also when some of the early cases I had suspected of musculoskeletal discomfort were returning with diagnosis of HD, arthritis, patellar subluxation, etc. Apparently, these diseases take time to show up on X-rays, if they ever do. So, now I was in a place where I knew that somehow the hyperactivity was, to some extent, linked to discomfort. But it still did not explain why Romeo was not sniffing on his walks.

Adrenaline is known to make it difficult for individuals to concentrate on things. Dogs too have trouble concentrating. That could be one explanation. But I know that was not it. A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be somewhere between a few hundred thousand times to a few million times better than ours. If the numbers don’t make sense, consider this: a dog sniffing another dog’s poop is most likely able to determine the following details about the dog that left it:

• Is the dog unwell?
• Is the dog on heat?
• What the dog ate.
• Gender of the dog?
• Perhaps age of the dog?
• Which direction did the dog come from?
• Which direction did the dog go?
• And when did all of this happen! (Yep, that sounds a lot like dogs can smell time!)

Given all of this, I just cannot understand when a dog does not engage in what might be one of the most enriching experiences of his life and the highlight of his day. Of course, in some cases, the behaviour has been trained out of the dog, and it’s sad when that happens. But that was not the case with Romeo. In some cases, it’s an actual psychological condition, like learned helplessness, depression, anxiety, etc. But not with Romeo. He had not lost the desire to know about his world. On the contrary, he has a puppy-like eagerness. But he’s just not interested in leading with his nose, which makes no sense at all, given that the nose is a dog’s strongest sense organ by FAR (I cannot capitalise that enough to say by how far. Check out the book links at the end of the article.)


Treating Pain with Myotherapy

However, since I knew that Romeo definitely had a musculoskeletal discomfort, we started myotherapy treatments as soon as I graduated. During the treatment, he drew my attention to a point on his lumbar vertebra. I took his cue and worked on it. His reaction told me that this area had been bothering him the most. With that knowledge, I examined the before and after video. At first, I could not see much. But I sought my husband’s help, and he noticed that the pace at which he was walking was significantly different. He had slowed down. That drew my attention to what he was doing when he slowed down and I noticed he was sniffing a lot more. He was exploring more and there was also a flexion in his lumbar vertebra. Bingo!

This was the last piece of the puzzle; suddenly, it all becomes clear. He is not sniffing because he could not do so. Sniffing is incredibly calming and that’s why my clients are encouraged to go on sniffing expeditions. But poor Romeo could not sniff. This meant he was walking fast, getting excited, pulling, all of which increases adrenaline (excitement produces adrenaline). Adrenaline masks pain. So, it became easy for Romeo to engage in movements that made the issue worse and we had been thus going down a spiral, instead of calming down.

Now that we know, what can I do for Romeo? I am not sure yet, but it’s a starting point. His mommy will have to work with a team of several health care professionals attacking the problem from different fronts. A diagnosis, necessary medical interventions, anti-inflammatory foods, building the right muscles and relaxing the tension could help improve his sense of wellbeing. If he felt better, he might start sniffing again, which will calm him down, which will get rid of his hyerpactivity and the related behaviours.

Clearly, today, there is a lot we can do for our dogs, but knowing is the first step. This is why Turid insists that a behaviour consultant must learn how to see pain/discomfort/malaise in dogs.

Let me leave you with one final example that highlights the need for animal behaviour experts to know how to look for wellness indicators.

Are Food-Related Reactivity and Health Problems Linked?

I often see cases of food-related reactivity in dogs. Sure, this is sometimes a behavioural issue, perhaps related to past trauma or some other reason. However, there are several health issues, that can also result in this behaviour, and more often than not, remain undetected. Consider the following:

• If a dog has a malabsorption disease like EPI, Pancreatitis, IBS, IBD, he is likely to be hungry all the time, and often reactive around food. There are not too many other external symptoms, barring voluminous poop in some cases.
• A dog with a fractured hyoid bone [the bone that supports the base of the tongue as well as the pharynx and larynx] can experience pain when eating or drinking and so could be reactive around food in general. New studies show a high correlation between dogs pulling on collars and broken hyoid bones. This bone is almost never X-rayed.
• Hypothyroidism can explain a lot of reactivity-related behaviours. The disease is hard to catch at early stages and most lab tests are only able to confirm it after the gland is close to 70 percent destroyed. The gland is a soft organ that sits in the neck, exposed to collar damage and so can often be the “hidden explanation”.
• A musculo-skeletal issue in the several muscles and joints (shoulders, neck, hips, elbows, hamstrings, adductors, etc.) can make it difficult to bend down and could thus cause anxiety around eating or drinking.

These are only some of the issues that could explain it. There are many more, including ear issues, food sensitivities, autoimmune diseases, vision trouble, etc. Almost all of these are likely to first present as a behavioural problem and so it’s imperative that we know how to see it and send the dog off to the right professional for the right solution.

Turid is correct when she says, “Pain always affects behaviour”, and I am slowly learning the full extent of this rather profound statement when it comes to the world of animal behaviour.

Sindhoor Pangal is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist and educator in Bangalore, India. The country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE), she also studies “streeties,” India’s free ranging dogs.