Boston Terrier in front, veterinary professional in blue scrubs using a stethoscope to listen to terrier's chest with words "Chronic Illness: My Journey"

Unleashing Resilience: How My Chronic Illness Journey Elevated My Canine Behavior Expertise

I’ve been struggling with a chronic illness since 2012. I honestly didn’t even know at first that it was chronic. I was just experiencing a lot of different symptoms that made me feel “blah” and there wasn’t a good explanation for it for quite awhile.

I tried changing my diet and exercise and worked with doctors focused on western and eastern medicine.  I would run the gamut of emotions – depressed, irritated, fatigued, happy, distracted – depending on how I felt physically. 

It wasn’t until I finally got an initial diagnosis in 2020 that things started to feel manageable. Yep, 8 years of quizzical looks in emergency rooms and finding new doctors because the one in front of me wasn’t really interested in finding the answer.

But I’m thankful for the experience because it’s made me a better trainer. I can advocate for my canine clients, when that’s what they need the most.

Here are my top four takeaways when working on training or behavior modification with companions that can only communicate with us through their body language and behavioral choices:

1) A regular veterinary check up often isn’t enough to rule out underlying medical causes for behavior issues.

Living this nightmare for myself, I’ve learned that if it’s this difficult to get the answers for a human – finding the answers for a dog is likely even harder.

A quality vet visit requires a pet parent that is dialed in to their pet’s body language and routine, and a veterinarian that has invested in the relationship with a pet parent enough to trust their information as part of the diagnostic process. On top of that, the veterinarian must be interested and educated in how animal behavior works and how it relates to physical health. 

Implicit bias in medical care is real, and it extends to care for our pets. Identifying and prioritizing pain in animals has long been a difficult path for care providers. Breed specific legislation continues to push stereotypes of aggression, potentially impacting the exploration of aggression as a symptom of pain for some dogs. Beyond these challenges, veterinarians are daily confronted with people questioning their recommendations and costs, especially as the economy squeezes harder.  

Even if you have everything you need to get a quality vet visit, you are still at the mercy of the diagnostics because costs add up fast, some diagnostics are more invasive than others, and in the end some illnesses and diseases are diagnosed by ruling everything else out!

2) Aggression and fear should be something veterinarians are actively involved in treating, along with a behavior specialist that can implement safe, humane training and behavior modification.

While the field of veterinary medicine is far better regulated than dog training, there is still a wide variety of experience and knowledge between vets.

I will rather quickly recommend that my clients work with a veterinary behaviorist if a dog has ever injured themselves, another dog, or a person. A veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has pursued additional education specifically in animal behavior (which has historically been limited in general veterinary medicine) and understands in depth the overlap between physical and behavioral symptoms and causes. You can only see a veterinary behaviorist in-person at ONE clinic in Arizona!

It’s also important to note that the dog training industry is unregulated. Not everyone identifying themselves as a trainer should be working with complex behavior cases. 

Stress does have a direct impact on physical health. Fearful, reactive, and aggressive behaviors are often tied to the amount of stress an animal is experiencing and these behaviors are functioning as way to reduce stress and increase safety. Having a veterinary professional addressing the physical health of your dog while also mitigating the amount of stress your dog is feeling can improve outcomes significantly. 

3) Training should be at the dog’s pace.

Dogs are not robots. When a dog doesn’t perform a skill we’ve already successfully worked on in the past, that’s information for me. It’s information that something about situation is different and I need to figure out why before I continue trying to build skills. Could the dog be tired or in pain? Is the environment too challenging? Was I unclear in my instructions?

Dogs can be hesitant to perform skills or other behavior because of how it feels physically. Whenever I work on any skill with dogs, I will always change my strategy if the dog is hesitant to follow my guidance. For example, when I am teaching or asking for a “down” on a hard floor: if the dog stands or offers a sit of laying down more than two times in a row, I will switch to a softer surface like a yoga mat or rug. Very often changing the environment is enough to make the dog comfortable and their participation increases. Since I’m not a veterinarian, I can’t diagnose arthritis or dysplasia, but as a good trainer I can always allow for the possibility that these physical challenges are present and yet to be diagnosed.

4) Lastly, it takes time to heal. Don’t rush it.

My chronic illness is one that ebbs and flows. I can be doing terribly for weeks and then start to feel better again. I have to take each day at a time and pace myself even as I start to improve. Doing too much can send me right back to bed in illness.

Understanding the physical and behavioral health can take time to improve, and avoiding “quick fixes” that someone on the internet recommended, is a must. By letting your dog set the pace in a behavior modification plan, you can ensure a steady and safe path to success. 

I’ve had to work with a therapist in the past to forge through my hesitancy to resume normal activities if they previously caused me pain. I’m guessing this is true for animals that have previously felt pain and made pain associations with specific experiences. It will take guidance and patience to get your dog through these experiences in the future without the fear/anxiety that comes from anticipating pain.

Additionally, not all treatments and recommendations will be the right answer for your dog. But it’s important to make the effort and keep working with qualified professionals to address the physical and behavioral needs of your dog until you find the resolutions that appropriately address it.

In some situations you may only be able to make your dog mostly comfortable with more good days than bad days. That’s honestly what I wish for myself, and most days I’m lucky enough to be living in a comfortable good day.

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