Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie


When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

17 responses to “Is it really disobedience?

  1. What an awesome post!!!

    My Oliver loved to show in Open. He loved going to the shows, loved the jumps and dumbell work. The first weekend out, he got two legs. Then he started to break his long sit, and would move to either a sit or a stand without leaving his spot in line. Turned out that the injury that ended his agility training had caused arthritis and sitting in one position for even 3 minutes was too uncomfortable for him. Our vet was wonderful about diagnosing the problem since we had a previous history to work with.

    I got my BC when she was 11 months old. We had her for over a year, and she was still not housebroken. She would periodically go lame in the rear. We treated for Lyme desease with only limited improvment. We did x-rays to check for structural issues and found none. We used acupuncture and massage for months with only short term improvements immediately after treatment. I finally insisted that the vet do a full blood panel. The vet told me that the limp was from a “soft-tissue injury” and that blood work was a waste of money. She was WRONG. It turned out that my dog had a kidney issue (possibly from the lyme infection) and chronic urinary crystals. The rear end pain was referred kidney pain, not an injury. With prescription food, her blood levels went back into the normal range, her pain went away, and she was suddenly housetrained.

    If you think there is something wrong or that your dog is in pain, keep pushing!

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  3. Laura and Amadeus

    I’m not sure if we were the “puppy-sit”-er mentioned, but we did notice this. Now that we have confirmed a hip problem, I can be more aware of his limits and we have started a more deliberate exercise program to strengthen the muscles in his hips and core. Now that I know that he has a tendency to get lazy when he gets sore, I know that it isn’t laziness or being contrary and can either ask for behaviors that don’t hurt (if we’re out in public and need to have acceptable behavior) or stop working for a while. I am still practicing knowing how much is too much (especially since fatigue from other activities can make working hard), but being able to read his “disobedience” for what it is helps me be a better trainer and owner.

  4. I think back about my Shetland Sheepdog and there were the signs of an illness that first manifested itself with arthritic like conditions even though she was a very young dog. I pulled her from trials when she just didn’t seem “right” and sadly she had to be put down at the age of 5 as her condition worsened and I’m very grateful that we had a relationship that enabled me to understand why she couldn’t play that day; it just hurt :-(

  5. I preach this non-stop to both my competition students as well as to my pet people. IME, almost every sudden onset behavior change has a physical root.

    Dog folk have a really unfortunate tendency to call any deviation from what they want in behavior **stubborn**… Many years back, the AKC Gazette had an article about a syndrome in Tibetan Terriers which was nearly identical to something occurring in children. One of the major similarities was early onset blindness. They quoted a successful agility competitor whose dog had started hitting jumps. She said “I just thought he was being stubborn.”

    As in, what? “I’ll show YOU beeyotch! I’m going to start running into jumps so you’ll know how in charge I am.” ?????

    Dog was going blind. sigh.

    Thanks for an awesome post…

  6. I have not had an issue with my dogs’ health and obedience training but your post reminded me of many people I’ve known who were so driven to gain titles at any cost. You see from the sidelines that things are not right but the owner would refuse to acknowledge same. Right now our Honey is recovering from her 2nd cruciat ligament op on one leg, so just getting to the point of taking both our dogs to the beach for a run again is around 3 months off. Makes one appreciate the times when they are healthy. Good post – Joy

  7. Conformation of the dog matters too. I found early on that if I asked my Fly to come into the “ideal” front position, it caused her to sneeze. If I allowed her to sit just 4 inches further out, no more sneezing. Since she clearly did not like to sit close, and sneezing would sometimes cause her to pop out of the sit, I chose to teach her that front was 4 inches away from ideal. Not that uncomfort due to sinus drainage leading to sneezing is the same as pain, but I don’t want my dog to be uncomfortable for any reason if it’s something I have any control over. And where I ask my dog to position themselves in relation to me is totally something under my control. Maybe some points off in obedience, but I’ll take points off if it allows my dog to remain happy and comfortable!

  8. Great post! My wise agility instructor suggested I have my then-8-year-old dog Blue checked for several possible physical issues when she started avoiding the dog walk in class. After the canine chiropractor adjusted her jaw and neck, Blue was happy to run the dog walk again. She had had her teeth cleaned and that threw her out of alinement and made her cautious.

  9. My service dog started to drop into downs and sits much slower or wouldn’t do them at all when asked. Her recalls and leash walking was also suffering. I troubleshooted my own training for errors and decided that nothing was apparent so we decided to get her looked at by the vet. They said nothing was wrong…

    It took several vet visits, my insistence that something IS off, finally a specialist visit and MRI to find out that there was indeed a very painful back condition causing her “disobedience”.

    I’m VERY glad she felt it was safe to let me know something was wrong and that I listened to her instead of correcting her for it. The absence of force in my training also prevented me from causing her further injury. I owe her no less.

  10. Excellent post and thank you for addressing dog-human communication. Several years ago, Harry came into the house with a cough. It didn’t seem bad. He got up on the couch, I sat on my chair looking at him. His eyes said it all. To the vet we went. His platelet level was 2. He was drowning in blood that no longer clotted. They tried sedating him to help the bleeding stop but later in the night, my vet, who knew I worked night shifts, found me by phone at the hospital; Harry had woken up, was terrified because he couldn’t breathe. We sent him to heaven, of course. He came to me from GA after an ex-husband threatened to kill all his former wife’s dogs. On arrival, Harry was one of the ugliest dogs I’d ever seen, for only a few hours. He was a Skin Horse of a dog and I miss him to this day.

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  15. I love your article! As I read this to to my boss while we drive down the road on the way to a Vet hospital in Pennsylvania, he listened eagerly. He became very animated because this is what we do! We quantify lameness with our GAIT4Dog products and are huge advocates of early detection. He asked me to send you a message so we might introduce ourselves. Please check out our website and feel free to contact us at your convenience. We’d love to get to know you and more about what you do.
    Dr. Victoria Light

  16. My small dog Floris was eight years old when he gradually started walking more and more slow, especially on evening rounds. He’d had surgery on his knees with one often still giving him trouble and with his slow pace he looked like he was being more careful with it. I took him to the vet on a Friday and she checked out his knee, felt some wire that could cause him pain and we scheduled an appointment for the next week.

    The next day he had a major heart attack, made it through only barely and three months later I had to let him go. His heart turned out to be so massive that it partly closed his windpipe, his blood was going every which way because of leaking valves and THAT was causing his lack of tempo, which in turn did make him feel his knee more. With less ‘direction’ from me or just a thorough examination on the Friday we could have started meds before and he would have been more comfortable. I didn’t know small dogs often have heart trouble – as I learned later – but the vet should have listened to his heart just to rule it out!

    Now, whenever my other dog goes to the vet I have them check his pulse and listen, just to keep up to date on how he’s doing….

  17. ThePayferPack

    Reblogged this on Payfer Pack and commented:
    Fabulous advice to keep in mind when working with any animal!

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