The huge dog lunged and snarled threateningly at everything that came close and his owner had a difficult time restraining him. After sizing up the situation, the instructor suggested a visit to the veterinarian before attempting to deal with this dog. It developed that the dog had hip dysplasia, underwent an operation and, after recuperating, returned to class to complete the course without further difficulties. Similar incidents repeat themselves daily, with varying degrees of intensity, in training classes across the country. It is difficult to estimate how often a physical problem is the underlying cause for a training difficulty and the precise form it may take. For an instructor, it is not an easy job to make the correct assessment – is a particular training difficulty behaviorally induced or does it stem from a physical problem? Aggressiveness, when dealing with new dogs, can be especially hard to interpret. Observing the object of the dog’s aggressiveness, however, will often provide a clue whether he needs discipline or help. Pain-induced aggressiveness is far more common than outright viciousness and once the pain is removed, the dog’s aggressiveness will be cured.
Physical problems range from the obvious to the extremely subtle. Severe hip dysplasia can often be seen. Mats, another common cause of training difficulties, can be readily detected. Many is the time when a dog was labeled ‘‘aggressive” even though his behavior stemmed from no more than the discomfort he felt because he was matted. Impacted anal glands can result in a reluctance to sit; arthritis and undetected fractures are not uncommon and can result in training difficulties. The incidence of eye problems is quite high and these have been observed to develop aggressiveness due to insecurity. Ear infections among certain breeds are a constant hazard and can cause all sorts of difficulties. With the increasing development of class programs for young dogs, the impact of teething cannot be overlooked, especially when teaching a puppy to retrieve. These examples are some of the more obvious physical problems which can, and often will, affect the training of the dog. In such cases it would be a mistake to view training difficulties as purely disciplinary questions and approach them accordingly. A trip to the veterinarian may prove a far simpler expedient than the blind conviction that the dog is fit as a fiddle and that a good jerk will cure whatever ails him.
With dogs which have been in training for some time, it is generally easier to detect physical problems, because the owner observes a behavior change. I have a student with an exceptionally successful dog working in Utility. After one class she remarked that the dog seemed inattentive and not as responsive as it normally is. Several days later she called – the dog was running a temperature and was placed on antibiotics to combat a low-grade infection. Not a particularly unusual example, but a telling one for that very reason. Diet, dietary supplementation, and medications are also important factors in their potential impact on the dog’s behavior.