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Covers positive reinforcement dog training strategies and tips. Jeff strongly believes that positive reinforcement training is the only option and he is a vocal critic of other methods. You can also find product and book reviews and clicker training tips.

Your dog is acting weird? It might be a physical problem

I received two calls this week that that reminded me about the importance of making sure a dog is physically healthy before I recommend training strategies. One call was in regards to a 3-year old dog that recently started whining uncontrollably whenever his person was out of the room or out of the home. He also had a few housetraining regressions and his guardian found a few accidents when he got home.

Since it has been more than a year since he was taken to the vet, I recommended that he gets a full vet checkup to rule out physical issues including a urinary tract infection. My instinct tells me that this potential client will call me back telling me that the anxiety is still present. I think that the dog in question might have separation anxiety and also boredom due to the brutal Chicago winter we have had. It is quite difficult to provide enough exercise for a dog when the weather is below zero and there is a lot of ice and snow on the ground. 

Another call was from a client that hired me after discussing her dog's health history and initially ruling out obvious health issues. Her dog recently started showing signs of aggression towards guests in the home as well as on walks on leash. He is a 3-year-old Pitbull mix and he used to be comfortable with everyone. The first nipping incident was in December and there have been a couple more nips and growling at guests since then. I think that these incidents are due to anxiety and reactivity that has increased over time until it showed up as aggression. The dog did not seriously injure anyone and showed signs of anxiety before each incident. He is also reactive to the doorbell and one incident happened during a dinner party after ten people arrived, each ringing the bell and getting the dog worked up each time.

A dog's vet history is always discussed whenever there is a sudden change in behavior, including aggression. One reason that a dog might become aggressive is if he has had an injury, skin infection, hip discomfort, arthritis, or other physical pain including dental issues. For instance, if a dog has hip dysplasia and has pain when someone pets him, he might growl or bite someone if they come over to pet him because he doesn't want to be hurt again. Another common issue if if a dog has a serious trauma such as getting hit by a car. When that dog is moved after the incident to get treatment, there are bound to be episodes of pain due to the handling and the injury. Later, that dog will remember the pattern of handling and pain and might tell someone to back off by growling or biting instead of risk getting hurt again.

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When Do I Recommend a Call to the Vet?

Possible Urinary Tract Infection

If an older dog that was previously housetrained starts to have accidents in the house it might mean the dog has a urinary tract infection. It might also mean separation anxiety or stress due to a move or change in someone's work schedule.

Signs of a urinary tract infection include:

  • Frequent urination when you are home and out of the house (if the accidents only happen when you are out of the house, it might be separation anxiety)
  • Your dog tries to urinate and no urine comes out
  • Blood in the urine
  • Foul smelling urine
  • Tender lower abdomen
  • Fever
  • Lethargy

Possible Injury, Arthritis or Other Physical Issue

Dogs can show aggression or changes in behavior from many different physical issues. I have seen barking issues, aggression, depression or dogs that "just don't seem right" and are unfairly labeled as stubborn or willful during training. Recent events that might lead to a change in behavior include:

  • Allergy or other skin condition
  • Injury related to car accident or dog fight
  • Older dog showing signs of arthritis or hip dysplasia
  • Dental issues including an impacted tooth or infection
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