Sindhoor Pangal studied with the legendary Norwegian trainer Turid Rugass, President of Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE) and best known for her book and DVD counterpart Calming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You. Rugass has been studying dog social behavior for more than 30 years and has written and lectured on the subject worldwide.
Turid has a tendency to repeat some things to us over and over again. One of them is “Pain always influences behavior”. Sounds pretty obvious. But it took me all these years of work to really understand this simple idea, and I keep marveling at the impact it has on my job. The last of my epiphanies occurred less than a few weeks ago when I was giving Romeo 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.]
Romeo is one of a group of dogs that I work with that have left the puzzle unsolved. He walks very quickly, doesn’t slow down to sniff, and has some frenzied behaviors at home that can easily be identified as “hyperactivity-related behaviors”. We used all of the tools in our tool belt and still couldn’t get it to calm down. He’s not the first dog with this particular type of problem and all of these cases have remained open cases on my file.
Then, about five years ago, I briefly met Julia Robertson, who was teaching us how to look for signs of musculoskeletal disorders. After that, I felt like most of the Romeo-type discomforts. I found it hard to believe that so many dogs could feel uncomfortable, and I didn’t have enough confidence in my own observation skills. Other than that, I just couldn’t manage to convince others that this might be associated with discomfort, as these dogs didn’t look exactly like they were in pain. They did not hobble or yell, and had no trouble moving. They were hyperactive and walked most of the time. Therefore, it was impossible for pet parents to believe that their dog was feeling uncomfortable.
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However, the hyperactivity in these dogs is pretty easy to explain and can actually be the result of the pain itself. Pain, especially chronic pain, is known to increase hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline also has an analgesic property that can also be addictive for a dog in pain, thus encouraging a dog to engage in activities that increase these hormones. Increasing levels of these hormones lead to a condition known as hyperactivity (inability to calm down) – which makes the dog hyperactive!
However, the idea is hard to digest. We’re just not used to seeing hyperactive dog pain. The owners rule out the hyperactivity, since the dog is only “particularly happy”. And I didn’t have the skills to get her to see that hyperactivity and happiness weren’t the same thing.
Then about three years ago I started studying to be a myotherapist.
It was then that I gained confidence and knew that I couldn’t imagine the connection between discomfort and hyperactivity. It was around this time that some of the early cases where I suspected musculoskeletal problems returned with a diagnosis of Huntington’s disease, arthritis, patellar subluxation, and so on. Apparently, if they ever do, these diseases take time to show up on X-rays. So now I was in a place where I knew that the hyperactivity was, to some extent, associated with discomfort. But it still didn’t explain why Romeo didn’t sniff on his walks.
It is known that adrenaline makes it difficult for individuals to focus on things. Dogs also have difficulty concentrating. That could be an explanation. But I know it wasn’t. A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be a few hundred thousand to a few million times. If the numbers don’t make sense, consider the following: A dog sniffing at another dog’s poop can most likely find out the following details about the dog that left him:
• Is the dog unwell?
• Is the dog hot?
• What the dog ate.
• the dog’s sex?
• Maybe the dog’s age?
• Which direction did the dog come from?
• In which direction did the dog go?
• And when did all of this happen? (Yes, that sounds a lot like dogs can smell time!)
With all that said, I just can’t understand when a dog doesn’t get involved in one of the most enriching experiences of their life and the highlight of their day. In some cases the behavior was naturally trained by the dog and it is sad when this happens. That was not the case with Romeo. In some cases it is an actual psychological state, such as learned helplessness, depression, anxiety, etc. But not with Romeo. He hadn’t lost the desire to know about his world. On the contrary, he has a puppy-like zeal. But he’s just not interested in leading his nose, which makes no sense at all, as the nose is by far the most powerful sense organ in a dog (I can’t capitalize that enough to tell how far. Check out those Book links at the end of the article.)
Treatment of pain with myotherapy
However, knowing that Romeo definitely had musculoskeletal problems, we started myotherapy treatments immediately after graduating. During the treatment, he made me aware of a point on his lumbar vertebra. I took his cue and worked on it. His reaction told me that this area bothered him the most. With that in mind, I examined the before and after video. I couldn’t see much at first. 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 made me aware of what he was doing as he slowed down and I noticed that he was sniffing a lot more. He explored more and there was also a flexion in his lumbar vertebra. Bingo!
This was the final piece of the puzzle; suddenly everything becomes clear. He doesn’t sniff because he couldn’t. Sniffing is incredibly calming and this is why my clients are encouraged to take part in sniffing expeditions. But poor Romeo couldn’t sniff. This meant he was walking fast, getting excited, pulled, which increased the adrenaline (excitement produces adrenaline). Adrenaline masks pain. This made it easy for Romeo to engage in movements that made the problem worse, and we had spiraled instead of calming down.
What can I do for Romeo now after we know? I’m not sure yet, but it’s a starting point. His mother has to work with a team of multiple health professionals who are attacking the problem from different angles. Getting a diagnosis, necessary medical procedures, anti-inflammatory foods, building the right muscles, and relaxing can all help improve his or her wellbeing. When he was feeling better, he could start sniffing again, which will calm him down and eliminate his hyperactivity and associated behaviors.
Of course we can do a lot for our dogs today, but knowledge is the first step. For this reason, Turid insists that a behavioral counselor needs to learn how to see pain / discomfort / discomfort in dogs.
Let me leave one final example that highlights the need for animal behavior professionals to know how to look up wellness indicators.
Are food-borne reactivity and health problems linked?
I often see cases of foodborne reactivity in dogs. Sure, this is sometimes a behavioral problem that may be related to a previous trauma or other reason. However, there are several health problems that can also lead to this behavior and most of them go undetected. Consider the following:
• If a dog has a malabsorbent disease such as EPI, pancreatitis, IBS, or IBD, it is likely that it will be constantly hungry and will react frequently to food. There aren’t too many other external symptoms aside from bulky poop in some cases.
• A dog with a broken hyoid bone [the bone that supports the base of the tongue as well as the pharynx and larynx] can cause pain when eating or drinking and therefore generally react to food. 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 many reactivity-related behaviors. The disease is difficult to catch at an early stage and most laboratory tests cannot confirm it until nearly 70 percent of the gland is destroyed. The gland is a soft organ that sits in the neck, is exposed to collar damage and can therefore often be the “hidden explanation”.
• A musculoskeletal problem in the various muscles and joints (shoulders, neck, hips, elbows, hamstrings, adductors, etc.) can make it difficult to bend down and cause fear of eating or drinking.
These are just a few of the problems that could explain this. There are many more, including ear problems, food sensitivities, autoimmune diseases, vision problems, etc. Almost all of these problems are likely to come first as a behavior problem. Therefore, it is imperative that we know how we see it and send the dog off to the right professional for the right solution.
Turid is right when she says, “Pain always affects behavior,” and I am slowly learning the full scope of that rather profound statement when it comes to the world of animal behavior.