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Do Medical Conditions Influence Dog Behaviour?

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Ain't misbehaving...

Some months ago Sarah Gardner, an experienced agility competitor, posted a survey on Agilitynet FB to gather data for her undergraduate dissertation: ‘To what extent do medical conditions influence the behaviour of the domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris)?’ The research project itself was completed in April 2015 and she attended a conference at the University of Lincoln, presenting her research in May 2015. Sarah has written this summary of her findings.

Canine behaviour is an incredibly complex function influenced by a whole range of factors. Behaviour is dynamic and a normally loving and friendly dog may on occasions exhibit seemingly out of context behaviours that can shock owners. So often we hear people say 'they did it for no reason' but frequently that is not the case. There will be some form of driver for any given behaviour. 

As humans, we all know that we can all be happy and interactive one day yet maybe another day our back hurts or we have a cold and we are less tolerant of  interacting with people around us. Others may perceive us as grumpy. This 'sparked' an idea, exactly how do dogs respond behaviourally to a medical condition? Are the behaviours ‘set in stone’ (neurological) or exhibited dependant on the dogs threshold?

As this is an undergraduate project, I had to keep my research idea relatively simple, before we can understand the true relationship between a medical condition and behaviour we need to find correlations between a condition and ‘specific’ behaviours, indicating there may be a relationship.

The survey
This project itself attracted a lot of attention. During data collection 1,270 people showed an interest and 943 people completed the survey. The majority of dog owners listed their dog as crossbreeds (228, 24%)  while 105 other breeds made up the balance of dogs represented in this study. Of the 943 participants, 874 owners had stated their dog had a treated or on-going medical condition.

Medical conditions with large numbers of dogs were analysed. Ten of these conditions provided at least one correlation with an abnormal or unwanted behaviour. For instance:-

  • Chronic scratching significantly correlated with destruction of household items and self-mutilation

  • Heart disease significantly correlated with aggression towards unfamiliar dogs

  • Bladder disease significantly correlated with house soiling, both when the owner was and wasn’t present

  • Hip and spine problems significantly correlated with appearing withdrawn and elbow problems correlated with reluctance to walk

All behaviours, apart from heart disease and aggression, are fairly 'expected.' We can explain that chronic scratching is uncomfortable and dogs may over-groom or chew on painful areas or use things within their environment as 'scratching posts,'’ creating seemingly destructive behaviour. We could possibly explain the correlation of heart disease and aggression towards unfamiliar dogs by suggesting heart conditions can be uncomfortable, painful and stressful for the dog and dogs tend to be more dog reactive than human reactive. Further research needs to be conducted to fully understand this.

The importance of understanding the relationship between medical conditions and behaviours
This extends further than just gaining a deeper understanding. Veterinarians and canine professionals can be more observant and aware of behaviours that can indicate a medical condition while rehoming centres can educate owners of dogs with known medical conditions of potential/expected behaviours, thus ensuring dogs are placed in suitable and capable homes.

Other animals can also benefit from research into the field of medical-behaviour. I recently read about a case of a horse with 'severe aggression issues' that was euthanised because of its behaviour. Upon post mortem examination, it was found the horse had a painful abscess in its gums and was ruled the most probable cause for the aggressive behaviour. Cases such as this can be prevented if professionals had a thorough understanding of how animals respond to medical conditions.

This project indicates that there is yet a lot more research to be conducted in this field before conclusions can be fully drawn. Conditions that correlate to specific behaviours need to undergo further testing to conclude whether the condition is the main influence of the behaviour or if another factor, such as context (e.g. being at the vets) is a bigger influence. Behaviours can also be learnt so even after treatment dogs may still exhibit the unwanted behaviour. In such cases owners and professionals should work in conjunction to resolve the problem.

Over the next year data from this project is hopefully going to undergo further analysis with the hopes that it will provide even better information on the relationship between medical conditions and canine behaviour. If anyone has any questions or just wants to talk about this research, feel free to email me (sarahgardner2894@gmail.com) or talk to me at any shows you see me at.

 Also I’d just like to add a thank you to Helen Zulch (dissertation supervisor, canine behaviour consultant) as well as the Agilitynet team for allowing me to post my questionnaire and everyone who took the time to complete the questionnaire.

Sarah with Kizzy, Koko and DexterAbout the author...
Sarah Gardner has always had a dog in her life. Her first experience of agility was when she was about six with her family's second Border Collie, Holly (now aged 15.)

By the age of 11, she had two of ‘her own’ dogs: Meg, a German Spitz who won her up to Grade 6 (Unfortunately I lost her last year) and Dexter, WSD who eventually. after many hours of frustration and tears,  won into Grade 4 with his first clear round. Since then he’s been more consistent but has now retired to anysize.

Sarah also owns a ‘dog in a million’, her Japanese Spitz x collie, Koko. She started competing with Koko as she was starting university so progression has been slow. They're currently in Grade 4 and is looking forward to being able to focus on training and competing with him more over the summer.

She also has Meg and Koko's daughter, Kizzy who is just starting her training... 3 years late! Now that Sarah's finished university, hopefully she’ll be competing in Small with her next year.

At home we also have four other dogs besides Holly, Dexter, Koko and Kizzy. Her brother owns a rescue WSD, Blue (Grade 5) and a rescue WCS, Jack who is Grade 3 in agility and also enjoys shooting season. Her dad owns two border collies, a red and white named Flynn who competes at Grade 5 and a blue and white named Jessie who is yet to start training properly –she’s just enjoying being a naughty puppy for the time being!

Sarah is now focussing on becoming a fully qualified canine behaviourist and trainer and intend on conducting more research projects in the future.

She is moving back home so will be living in Stamford, near Peterborough.

The link below shows the poster used in the conference.



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