Pain and your dog’s behavior

Wendy C. Brooks DVM, DABVP

It’s often said that veterinarians have to be extraordinarily talented doctors because their patients can’t tell them where it hurts. Often a dog doesn’t even reveal that anything hurts. A change in behavior that may seem completely unrelated to pain is sometimes the only indication a dog gives.


The questions your doctor might ask you would be helpful if the dog could answer: Where does it hurt? Does it hurt when you move? Does it hurt when I press on it? How much does it hurt? What kind of pain is it?

You or the veterinarian may be able to elicit some responses from the dog to get indications of what pressure and movement hurts, but even that is difficult. Dogs have an instinct to hide their pain, like wild animals who avoid showing any sign of weakness that could cause them to become targets for death. Nature’s “survival of the fittest” makes hiding pain a good tactic in the wild.

The same tactic can actually threaten a family dog’s survival, though, if it makes the dog behave aggressively. Aggression is often the dog’s attempt to protect the vulnerable area from further pain. The person who is trying to pick up the dog, get the dog to move, or even just pet the dog doesn’t know the dog’s aggression is related to pain.

As with people, the possibilities for pain in a dog are wide-ranging. Dogs frequently get injured and they inherit defects that can cause pain. Infection is a common cause of pain. If you become aware that your dog is in pain, you may only be able to narrow it down to a general part of the body.

A few possibilities are pain in the spine, hip, foot, elbow, shoulder, neck, knee, ear and abdomen. Pain in any of these areas can have a variety of causes. Dogs also get headaches, especially after head injuries.

Everything you can observe about your dog’s behavior has the potential to help the veterinarian with a diagnosis. It’s a good idea to make notes to take to the veterinarian, unless it’s an emergency.

A dog in pain often IS an emergency, or at least requires medical attention by the next day at the latest. You will want to get your dog to the veterinarian as quickly as possible when the dog is in pain. Prompt treatment can save your dog from death or disability.

Treatment early in the course of a problem is often less expensive than waiting until the dog is sicker. Since pain can damage your dog’s safe reactions to humans, intervening to relieve the pain quickly can protect your dog’s temperament from being permanently harmed. Aggression that is repeated enough times will tend to become a habit and then you have a new problem on top of whatever caused the original pain.

Pain Management

Your veterinarian will give you instructions about managing any pain detected in your dog, and it’s important to be sure you understand and follow the instructions. Take notes and ask questions. Your dog’s future temperament may well be riding on this care, along with the dog’s quality of life. Proper follow-up care can also prevent the dog from suffering unnecessary physical damage.

Ask the veterinarian if the dog’s activity needs to be restricted. If so, you need to know what the dog is and isn’t allowed to do. Don’t cop out on restricting activity because you haven’t trained your dog! In the first place, let’s all train our dogs so that we can provide them this essential care when they need it!

If you haven’t done this training in advance, you can still keep your dog restricted. It can be done! You and your dog will develop some good training together in the process, too. Stick to the limitations your veterinarian prescribes, for the length of time prescribed. If the veterinarian wants to re-examine the dog before releasing the dog to increased activity, be sure to bring the dog back for that checkup.

Various treatments may be involved in dealing with your dog’s pain. Some of the things that may be used, alone or in combination, include medication, activity management, surgery, and lifestyle changes (for example, no more jumping down from heights and no more spine-twisting retrieving games). Some form of directed touching or physical therapy may play a role, as may specific nutritional supplements.

It is absolutely essential to understand that your dog’s medical situation is subject to change. Do not assume that the regimen that controlled pain last year or last month or even last week is still working. Any unexplained change in behavior is reason to check with your veterinarian about the status of the dog’s pain problem.

Improving Pain Communication

At times in your dog’s life you’ll have reason to know that something hurts the dog. You can improve your dog’s willingness to let you know about pain by praising the dog for telling you. When you act quickly to relieve the pain, dogs learn it’s a good idea to reveal their pain to humans.

Some dogs show an understanding that the doctor is going to help them feel better. Obviously these are dogs whose families have been faithful getting veterinary help for the dog when needed.

It’s hard to put into words the body language that shows a dog you understand that something hurts, and that you’re going to be careful not to make it hurt again. Most of us will recognize that body language when we see it, and veterinarians are skilled at conveying this message. Some of the techniques involved are gentle touch, careful positioning of the dog’s body, and a smooth tone of voice.

If you watch a skillful dog groomer or veterinarian work, you will see this body language in operation. The dog sees it, too, and learns to trust it. You can learn to handle your dog in this manner. In the process you will greatly enrich your relationship with your dog. One way to learn is to spend time every day in grooming your dog. This process will also help you detect physical problems in early stages when they are most treatable.

Special Help

When defensive behavior has become established in your dog, it’s wise to get the help of a veterinary behavior specialist to work through it. This specialist has knowledge both of how to modify dog behavior (and teach you) and also understands the medical causes of pain. Pain in a dog can be so hidden that non-veterinary dog trainers frequently miss it.

The first thing to check when your dog has a behavior problem is the possibility of pain. Ironically, it is often the last thing people consider, because dogs are so good at hiding it. Help your dog learn that it’s safe to reveal pain. In the process, you open the way for a more loving and trusting relationship and greatly enhanced safety.