When I first apprenticing to become a dog trainer I was taught to assess a dog in a glance. I was taught to start with the utter basics. We would get to actual behaviors after the initial assessment, because often the most basic details informed the behaviors that we saw. These questions included: What is their sex? Are they sexually mature? Are they intact or altered? Do they have any medical issues?
And it was that medical issues question that I sorta laughed at, because wouldn’t that be blatantly obvious? And the answer is, no, often not so much. Since my time as an apprentice I’ve come to see firstly that most people do not recognize signs of a medical issues as such until the issue is extremely pronounced.
Here’s an example. I regularly run my dogs in racing and lure coursing, which means I am checking to make sure my dogs are sound before every single time they run. I also often do inspection of other dogs at the trial before they run. This means I have learned to see lameness or even a dog slightly favoring a leg extremely. At a glance I can generally tell you exactly which foot they’re limping on and at times I can tell you where in the leg the problem is (shoulder, hock, etc). This is a skill I have honed at racing, coursing, flyball, agility because it is part of running my dogs responsibly. But what I have found is it means I can often catch problems in dog’s that owners don’t see.
We had a Welsh Terrier come in. He was fun to work, driven and energetic. He didn’t want to sit for any duration of time and when he did sit, he sprawled to the side. I know that patella luxation is a common problem in many terrier breeds, so when I talked to the owners I advised the owners to check with their vet to see if their terrier’s patella was luxating when he went to sit. I very regularly see dogs in daycare with a peculiar skipping beat in their back legs – it usually looks like the dog maybe caught something in their paw – and usually this happens in breeds where patella luxation is common. By simply being familiar with the symptoms, I can tell exactly what is wrong physically with the dog that would be very easy to miss if you didn’t know better.
Knowing medical history is also helpful because your trainer can work with you and your dog to find a plan that works for them. I had a young Australian Shepherd that I was working that had been diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. This dog was often panting from pain and would usually go and sleep in the cold garage floor rather than spending time with the family. In the beginning I modified his training to largely skip sitting (which hurt him the most) and even limited Down. I worked a Stand/Stay with him more than anything because that was what hurt him the least. Ultimately, the owner and I chatted and they agreed to postpone his training until he’d undergone treatment and when he finally came back for training he was able to learn much more effectively.
I had a similar experience with a young Vizsla who had injured their shoulder, unbeknownst to the owner. To my eye and to the eye of some of the other trainers, he was visibly lame and he was struggling in his training. He was another example where we suggested the owner see their vet and they pulled the dog from training until he was healed.
In all of those instances, how easy would it have been to write the dog off? Oh, the terrier is just being stubborn. The Aussie is being distractable. The Vizsla is being over excited. But, because we took the time to survey the whole dog, we were able to address the medical concern and then circle back to training.
The hard medical issues for a lot of owners to see are things that are hard to see. They don’t see the sores and hot spots that are caused by matting at the skin. They don’t notice the ear infection other than their dog just seems to scratch their ears a lot. I have seen a lot of vets walk owners through those symptoms and problems. I have walked many owners through them myself. Ultimately, in my experience most people simply don’t understand what a problem actually looks like in many cases.
I think possibly the hardest for people to recognize are the problems that don’t have any physical symptoms, just behavioral ones. For instance, I’ve lost track of the number of dogs that have come to me and ended up having thyroid issues. The one that sticks in my brain is an adolescent Standard Poodle. This poodle was gorgeous. His owners had done everything right – he was from a fantastic breeder who health tests, they’d been through puppy classes, puppy socialization, and play. However this Poodle would periodically turn on his owner and bite him. Typically it was when the dog was frustrated or frightened, but not always. I saw a video they’d taken of the behavior, saw it in action during my consultation, and then experienced myself during a lesson. Low thyroid was my automatic gut reaction because the aggression was so unexplainable and out of character for the dog and sure enough, that is exactly what ended up being the case. Once the dog was on medication we were able to make progress, but until then we’d struggled.
If I see unexplained aggression (out of character, out of proportion rather than an overall insecure or reactive dog) I am always going to suggest that the owner check thyroid values (and I always recommend pushing for a full OFA panel rather than just running T4 values). More often than not in my experience, thyroid ends up being the culprit. I have a friend who worked in a shelter for a long time and she said the same thing – disproportional and unexpected acts of aggression? Check the thyroid. While aggression tends to not be an acknowledged clinic symptom of low thyroid, anecdotally I have seen a large number of trainers and shelter professionals agree with my assessment.
Why bring this up now? Because even knowing everything I know, I still miss things (just like your vet or trainer might, because we’re only human). I have a Bernese Mountain Dog client who was struggling with noise and barrier reactivity and we had been working on the symptoms with limited success. However, recently he had TPLO surgery on his knee and the most recent time that I saw him, his behavior was completely different. This dog hadn’t given any signs of lameness, but the pain had been making him reactive and grumpy. Take away the pain and the dog becomes himself again. I’ve had that happen a number of times lately – a dog under goes a change in temperament (usually from amiable to ornery and reactive) and we later learned that they had been in pain. So this is your public service announcement for the day – if you suddenly see a huge change in your behavior in your dog investigate medical causes.