Pain, The Invisible Behavior

If you do a Google search for “trigger stacking”, you’ll get many results including other blogs and lots of images.  Most of those images explaining trigger stacking don’t include pain on the scale.  However, if you enter “trigger stacking pain”, you will get results that include pain as the first “trigger”. Pain takes a lot of energy to manage – mentally, physically, and emotionally.   If you’re dealing with pain, you don’t have a lot of patience to deal with everything else.

We can easily understand pain’s position in the trigger stacking hierarchy, but it often is not so easy to suss out pain in your animal. It is sometimes hard to see the problem when the animal generally gets quieter and less active but other behaviors increase.  It’s especially hard to notice when the changes are occurring a little bit day by day, blurring the distinction between new and normal.


My dog, Sophie, is 10 1/2 years old and I know that she has arthritis in her stifles (knees) and decreased range of motion in her hips.  I’ve also noticed over the past several months that her front end seems to be getting bigger while her back half is getting smaller. Having worked for a rehab vet for over four years, I recognized this physical transformation as an indicator that Sophie was shifting all of her locomotion to her front end. Increasingly, her hind legs were just along for the ride.  Her walks were getting shorter and shorter and she didn’t seem to care that she spent most of her time in the house with no exercise.  It was a little odd but I put it down to age and knowing that her stifles weren’t the happiest.

Also over the past year or so, it seemed like she was getting more and more sensitive and reactive to everything.  She’d never been bothered by thunder before, but now was quite nervous and could tell a thunderstorm was coming, even if it was a couple of hours away from us. I could help through a storm with a Thundershirt and comfort, but, in the back of my mind, I was wondering why she was getting more reactive and sensitive.

Sophie has always tended to resource guard me and has been more reactive to men over women. She has always shown a bit of aggression towards the feet of some visitors and my husband and son. The “menfolk” in my family are sometimes not permitted to get between her and me. Despite these proclivities, she had never gone after my feet or my daughter’s feet, until, recently, she did. Sophie also reacted unusually badly to my daughter’s boyfriend on his first ever visit to our home.

With all this history of behavior behind us, the tipping point was when my son came home from a four-month contract job that took him out of state. I was at the kitchen sink and Sophie was at the far end of the island near the stove.  My son entered the kitchen from 12-15 feet away from either of us and Sophie rounded the island to go for his feet! It was at this point that I thought that maybe, just maybe, Sophie’s increased reactivity, aggression, and sensitivity was due to pain.

I took her to another rehab vet I know (my former boss moved out of state).  Sophie received an exam, acupuncture, and cold therapeutic laser treatment. The result, I’m very happy to say, is that Sophie has more energy, is bouncier, more willing to play, go outside and is not anywhere near as reactive as she was. And, I just called for a prescription for Adequan.  I hope it helps her even further.

I’m sorry to say that my original, regular vet told me some months ago, that if Sophie were her dog, she wouldn’t do anything about the creaky knees.  I’m sorry that she said that and I’m sorry that I allowed myself to listen to her.  I knew better.  I really did.  Sorry, Sophie.

While I worked for the rehab vet, we heard so many people say, “She’s not in pain.”  And we would just stare with our mouths open.  “Well, of course he’s in pain, he’s limping.” Just because the animal is not moaning, groaning, whimpering, or crying out all the time does not mean the animal is not in pain.  It only means that it’s hardwired to not make noise.  The noisy, weak animal is the first one to get eaten.  To be clear, in Sophie’s case she was not limping.

      The Humane Hierarchy shows that the first order of business is to deal with the medical,  nutritional, and physical needs first.  We need to make sure that such medical issues aren’t the root cause of the behavior. We need to be observant of our animals and work to recognize the differences in physical affect or behaviors that could be a sign of pain. Without that piece, your triggers could be stacked before you even begin training and you’ll never know it.

Pain, the Invisible Behavior.

About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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3 Responses to Pain, The Invisible Behavior

  1. Janet E. Kester says:

    Thanks, Laurie, this is great. I’ve been thinking similar thoughts (though not as well thought though) (gotta love THAT word combo!) concerning my several aged animals and myself as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anat Shalev says:

    Thank you Laurie for such an important reminder and for writing it down so clearly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks, you guys. I did have help here with the clarity. I tend to write in a “stream of consciousness” way and sometimes I need some copy editing. My friend, Amy, organized my thoughts for me on this one. 🙂


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