I’m pretty sure every dog owner knows what I mean when I say a dog is getting cranky. Maybe you have two dogs and one is acting snarkier towards the other than usual. Or, the dog who normally lets you brush and groom her seems to have suddenly decided that you should keep your hands to yourself. What’s up with this change in behavior? Why is your normally sweet-natured dog suddenly acting like a cousin to Cujo?
It’s not all that different than with we humans. When I’m feeling sick or am in pain, I’m not my usual perky, happy self. Dealing with a serious headache or other physical issues can make me irritable, resulting in me snapping at my husband in a way that I normally don’t. Rather than assuming that a dog who is acting out of sorts is being “bad” or is reverting to old patterns of behavior that you’ve worked hard to correct, pause for a moment to consider that he might not be feeling well. I’ve wondered for years about dogs getting headaches, and still haven’t found much research on the topic. But vets believe it happens, and so do I. How would having a bad headache not affect your dog’s behavior? A dog who air snaps at a hand coming down over his head might not have ever liked it—many don’t—but if it’s something that doesn’t normally bother him, the dog might well be experiencing a headache. Or, what about a dog who’s arthritic and has pain in their back end? I’ve had training clients ask why their dog was suddenly snappish when other dogs wanted to play, whereas they were previously happy to join in the fun. In almost all of those cases, the dog’s change in attitude could be traced to being in pain.
Although considering pain as an underlying cause is always important, it becomes crucial when dealing with sudden onset aggression. So many dogs have lost their homes because their owners just didn’t realize the dog hadn’t suddenly morphed into an unpredictable beast who couldn’t be trusted, but was simply acting out because they were hurting. A dog who previously tolerated touch on their hindquarters but now issues a warning growl may be acting protectively because the area is tender. Dogs can even have bones out of alignment that are pressing on nerves. (And yes, there are canine chiropractors!) I don’t blame those dogs; when I’m experiencing misalignment issues and nerve pain, I want to bite someone! Again, if a dog shows sudden onset aggression, the first course of action is to get a thorough vet exam. Even if a dog isn’t displaying flat out aggression, but only what we would term “cranky” behavior, give the dog the benefit of the doubt and consider whether there might be an underlying physiological cause such as not have gotten enough sleep or rest, not having eaten, experiencing pain, or suffering from an illness. ___________________________________________
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