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Detecting subtle signs of pain in dogs

By Emily Scott, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant  |  April 1, 2020

Today, I performed a temperament evaluation on a 2 year old Labrador retriever male named “Buddy”.  The owners had hired me for private training to address poor behaviors around other dogs.   As I watched him in the play yard, interacting with other dogs, I became concerned….VERY concerned.  I was not concerned about his behavior toward the other dogs.  I was concerned about his health.   To a casual on-looker, Buddy looked happy.  He was engaging with other dogs and swimming in the large pool.  However, I saw a problem---it was VERY subtle, but it was there…. “Buddy” was walking oddly.  He had a barely noticeable ‘hitch’ in his gait and his tail was tucked low—almost under his belly.  As I continued to watch him, I noticed he’d jump away when other dogs tried to sniff his rear end.   When he stood still, he would not put full weight on his back left leg.   Lastly, he would not hunch over when he had a bowel movement---he stayed upright as he walked and defecated.  I promptly ended the evaluation and contacted the dog’s owner.  I had only met them one time so they didn’t know me very well.  I told them that while I’m not a vet and don’t claim to be, I have had 25 years of observing dogs and behavior and movement and  I have concerns that Buddy has an undiagnosed health issue in his back end and he is in pain.   They were skeptical at first and told me that Buddy had just been into the vet last week and the vet had given him a clean bill of health.  I informed them that I’m not an ‘alarmist’ and would never call unless I was concerned.  I told them confidently that Buddy IS IN PAIN!  Fortunately, the owners heeded my professional advice and they took Buddy back to the vet.  Buddy was diagnosed with a deep muscle pull in his hip and was put on medication and rest for 2 weeks.   While I was sad that Buddy was in pain, I was relieved he was being treated and on the mend.


Dogs are notoriously stoic when it comes to pain.  Most people recognize obvious signs of pain in dogs:  limping, yelping, vomiting, diarrhea etc.  However, many dogs won’t exhibit overt signs of discomfort until they are in acute pain.  Here are some subtle signs that your dog might not be feeling well:


Any change in behavior:  If a normally peppy, happy dog seems more sullen and lethargic, he may be letting you know he doesn’t feel well.

Stiff gait:  Sudden stiff, slow movements and limited flexibility in any leg may indicate a structural problem.

Tail position: If a dog carries his tail in a low or tucked position rather than his usual upright carriage, this could indicate discomfort.

Head & Ear carriage: Pinched, low set ears  and lowered head may indicate the dog is in discomfort or pain

Dull eyes: A healthy dog has alert, sparkling eyes.  A dog in pain has eyes that are dull and downcast.

Flinches or avoids touch:  A dog who shrinks from or flinches in any way when touched may be in pain

Panting:  rhythmic panting may indicate mild or acute pain.  Particularly if the dog has not been exercising and it is not excessively hot.

Self-isolating:  Dogs in pain may want to isolate themselves in another room or in a quiet corner.

Suppressed appetite:   A robust eater who starts picking at their food or eating slower than usual could indicate a mouth or GI problem.

Sudden, onset aggression:  When a dog suddenly begins showing aggression toward others, it could indicate an underlying medical problem that needs prompt attention.   In my practice, I have worked with a large number of dogs with sudden onset aggression that turned about to be due to a chronic, undiagnosed medical condition.

Dogs cannot tell us when they don’t feel well, it is up to us to be vigilant and attentive to any changes in their behavior or movement.  You never know, you just may save your dog’s life!

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