Dogs Don't "Fake it": How to Tell When Your Dog is in Pain

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If your dog is limping or showing signs of discomfort when moving or being handled, it's likely they are in pain. Unfortunately, sometimes dog owners will decide their dog is "faking" if the behavior is intermittent or only happens in certain situations. However, dogs don't lie about how they are feeling.

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If you witness any indication of pain or discomfort from your dog this is something that should be addressed immediately and taken seriously. Don't dismiss a limp or other symptom of discomfort because your dog seems mostly fine.

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Dogs are honest

If your dog is showing lameness, or other signs of pain or discomfort, they are in pain. Dogs don't fake behavior to get attention, or to get out of doing something — that's a complex behavior reserved for humans. If your dog is showing a symptom of pain, even if it's not consistent, your dog isn't trying to trick you.

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Some owners get confused because their dog will limp when they go for a walk or when doing something they aren't excited about, but then run normally when they are chasing a ball or doing another fun activity. This doesn't mean your dog is lying when they don't want to go for a neighborhood walk — it means that most likely your dog's drive or desire for chasing the ball overrules the physical pain they are experiencing. If this pain is ignored, the underlying injury or cause of pain is likely to become worse.

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Symptoms of pain to watch for

One of the first indicators that your dog isn't feeling well is a change in behavior. Behavior changes, which might include a dog being acting reserved, struggling to settle, or growling or snapping when touched, usually have a cause. Frequently, the cause behind the behavioral change is pain or discomfort. A sudden behavior change necessitates a vet visit. You'll want to eliminate any physical issues before doing anything else.

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Other symptoms of pain to watch for include: disinterest in activities, toys, or games they previously enjoyed; changes in posture or the way they sit, stand or move; struggling to get up or stay on their feet; any kind of limping; whining, crying or vocalizations that seem distressed. Your dog may also hunch their body, shake, or excessively lick an area of their body.

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Every dog is an individual, so if their behavior seems "off" to you, schedule a visit with your vet. You know them best, and it's always a good idea to err on the side of safety.

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Dogs don't fake anxiety

It's not just physical pain that dogs get mistakenly accused of faking. Unfortunately, some dog owners dismiss or undermine their dog's feelings and assume their dog is just being "dramatic."

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However, if your dog is expressing any kind of fear or anxiety about a situation, that isn't something they can fake. Dogs who are afraid are experiencing emotional discomfort and distress.

Symptoms of emotional discomfort or stress to watch for include: cowering; shaking; trying to get away from someone or something; panting; whining; hiding; and trying to escape. Dogs who are fearful may also lunge and bark to try to prevent whatever they are afraid of from getting closer.

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If dogs are fearful, it's important to see, recognize and respect the discomfort they are experiencing. Don't be afraid to comfort your dog when they are frightened or upset. Comforting a pet doesn't reinforce the fearful behavior; it just helps your dog to recognize you are a safe person.

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Don’t punish your dog for being afraid or in pain

If your dog is showing symptoms of stress or emotional discomfort, it's important to take that seriously. Aversive tools or training techniques should never be utilized, especially with dogs who are anxious, worried or in pain.

Some dog owners mistakenly attempt to emotionally "toughen" their dogs up by pushing them into situations they are uncomfortable with. This approach does not help underlying anxiety. Instead, it's much more effective to utilize positive reinforcement training, and work with your dog below their fear threshold whenever possible. A qualified, certified dog trainer can help you do that.

If your dog is experiencing symptoms of fear or anxiety, schedule an appointment with your vet to rule out any underlying medical conditions. If a medical condition is ruled out, schedule an appointment with a qualified dog trainer who utilizes positive reinforcement methodologies. A dog trainer will be able to help assess your dog's behavior and create an individualized training plan to help your dog work through their fears.

What to do if your dog is in pain

If your dog is exhibiting any symptoms of pain or discomfort, it's important to schedule an appointment with your dog's veterinarian as soon as possible. Dogs don't pretend to be physically uncomfortable.

Prior to the vet visit, try to get videos on your phone of the behavior you are witnessing. Email these videos in advance to the vet clinic or bring them with you to the appointment for your vet to review.

Under the stress of being at the vet clinic, some dogs will experience bursts of adrenaline, which can mask symptoms of pain while at the clinic. Having videos of what you are seeing when your dog is home and less stressed can help your vet develop a more accurate diagnosis.

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In summary

Dogs aren't capable of faking behaviors like being uncomfortable or afraid. If your dog is behaving differently or seems uncomfortable, they aren't just trying to get attention or hoping to avoid doing something. Even if it isn't immediately obvious to you what is wrong, it's important to take their discomfort seriously. If your dog is showing symptoms of pain, they should be evaluated by a vet even if those symptoms aren't consistent or only occur during certain activities. Dogs can't tell us how they feel, it's up to dog owners to read a dog's body language to assess health and comfort.

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