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New Study Shows Importance of Understanding Dog Behavior

A study of pain shows why one should become "fluent in dog"

The importance of knowing your dog as the individual they are

I'm a fan of all people who choose to bring a dog into their homes and hearts taking the time to become amateur ethologists and spending time becoming "fluent in dog." This really isn't asking too much, because when we make this decision we become their caregivers and they assume we have their best interests in mind from "cradle to grave," the cradle begins when we welcome them into our lives.

Learning about dog behavior, even some of the basic rudiments of why they do what they do, is not only fun, but also can be used to know how they're feeling. It's also an excellent way to learn about individual behavioral variability, even among littermates, and to use this information on the individual's behalf. Those who carefully watch, train, and treat dogs for various psychological and medical conditions know that there is no individual being we can accurately call "the dog," and generalizations often fail when an individual's background and personality are ignored (for more discussion please see "My Own Dog Is an Idiot, but She’s a Lovable Idiot" and Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do).

Because of my own interests in "all things dog" and behavior in particular, I was very pleased to learn of a new study by Ana Luisa Lopes Fagundes and her colleagues called "Noise Sensitivities in Dogs: An Exploration of Signs in Dogs with and without Musculoskeletal Pain Using Qualitative Content Analysis." The entire piece is available online as is a brief and adequate easy-to-read summary titled "Dogs with noise sensitivity should be routinely assessed for pain by vets." The latter essay begins, "Dogs which (sic) show fear or anxiety when faced with loud or sudden noises should be routinely assessed for pain by veterinarians, a new study has found." The noises that can trigger behavioral responses such as fear and anxiety range from "fireworks, thunderstorms and aeroplanes, to gunshots, cars and motorbikes."

To study the relationship between noise sensitivity and pain, the researchers examined the clinical records of 20 dogs at the University of Lincoln (UK). The data set was comprised of 10 “clinical cases” of dogs exhibiting neuromuscular pain and 10 “control cases” of dogs who did not show any pain. Both groups were similar in breed and age. It's hypothesized that noises that make dogs startle may cause muscles to tense and this can exacerbate pain. Lead researcher Ana Luisa Lopes Fagundes notes, "The aim of the study was to explore the presenting signs of dogs with generalised noise sensitivity with and without pain in their muscles or joints. We think that dogs with this sort of chronic pain may experience the noise quite differently, because if the noise makes them startle it may cause them to tense their muscles and as consequence they feel pain associated with the noise."

Age of onset of behavioral responses to pain is important to consider. The researchers learned that the average age of onset of noise sensitivity was nearly four years later in the “clinical cases.” They write, "This strong theme of an older age of onset suggests that the pain may develop later in life and that owners seek treatment more readily, perhaps because the appearance of the problem is out of character in the subject." Knowing this means that the humans have a good idea of what is typical behavior for their dog(s), and this means that they have previously watched them carefully.

The researchers also note that one marker of pain is that dogs might generalize noise sensitivity to a wider environment and this might prompt their humans to seek medical attention. In the summary we read, "In both cases, the presenting signs of the dogs' behavioural issue included shaking, trembling and hiding, but those with a diagnosed pain issue also showed a higher level of avoidance when it came to places they had a bad experience with noise - for example attempting to avoid a certain area at a park altogether compared with those without pain." Dogs in pain also avoided other dogs.

Becoming fluent in dog: The importance of knowing your dog and watching them carefully

Clearly, to know what a dog is feeling it is essential to know them as an individual. What's a loud or disturbing noise for one dog might not be for another dog. Among the many dogs with whom I share my home, there was great variation. A couple were truly scared of thunder, whereas some didn't show any response at all. One dog trembled when there were sirens, while others weren't affected at all. I did note that as my canine companion Jethro aged, he became more sensitive to sounds, and I knew that he was suffering from a neuroma near the base of his tail. However, I never thought that his heightened sensitivity to noises might have been related to the pain from which he suffered but didn't display behaviorally. Along these lines the researchers note, "It is also possible that the presence of a musculoskeletal pain focus and sound sensitivity interact to lower reactivity thresholds to related stimuli."

When people take the time to become amateur ethologists and citizen scientists they can acquire skills that can truly benefit the dogs with whom they share their lives. It's a win-win for all, and the current study shows just how important it is to pay careful attention to changes in behavior because they can be reliable indicators of pain that might otherwise go undiagnosed. And the good news, according to the researchers about whose work I'm writing, is, "Prognosis seems to be excellent if the case is properly managed following the identification of the role of pain."

Far too many dogs don't get what they want and need in a human-dominated world (for more discussion please see "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us"). They depend on us to know what they want and what they need, perhaps especially when they're suffering and in pain. We are obliged to do so.


Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2018.

Ana Luisa Lopes Fagundes et al, Noise Sensitivities in Dogs: An Exploration of Signs in Dogs with and without Musculoskeletal Pain Using Qualitative Content Analysis, Frontiers in Veterinary Science (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fvets.2018.00017

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