Is Your Dog In Pain? Some Ways to Tell

This excellent piece, below, written by Debbie Colbourn of Moments for Excellence (with a little editing by me), gives really good advice about the some of the ways to spot that your dog may be in pain. While there may also be other indicators, this list contains suggestions about possible indicators we may not realize may mean pain.

Remember, too, that if your dog exhibits a sudden change in behaviour - begins lunging and barking when they never did before, for example, or is refusing to get off their bed - then I highly suggest that you get them checked over by your vet. Often, when dogs feel discomfort from an internal physiological change, or if they have become painful, they will display a noticeable change in behaviour. So, if you find yourself saying something like “He never barked at visitors before!”, and the changed behaviour continues, please do take your pet to the vet, and let the vet know what is going on. Issues caught early are often issues most quickly resolved…

When in doubt, check with your vet!

1. Your dog isn't doing something that they do freely and naturally every day. 

My English Cocker Spaniels do a vertical bounce on their hind legs at the counter at dinner time. If one isn't doing that I know there is an issue. One of my Gordon Setters, it was talking - if he didn't talk I knew something was wrong. This isn't science, its real life diagnosis. 

2. Your dog's eating habits change. 

Instead of diving into their dinner they stand back and look at it, almost needing to be encouraged. Ever have a toothache or a tummy ache? Dinner is not high on the priority. And for a dog with a really really tight back? Nope, no dinner either.

3. Your dog isn't keeping up with you on your walks. 

When Diaz turned 11 her walks became her and me only walks, not walks with the other 3 younger dogs. She couldn't keep up. She was still active and happy as a senior but her body was tighter.

4. Your dog refuses to get off his bed. 

Or is slower to get up. I had a deaf 12 year old Gordon Setter with arthritis and because he was deaf, he found very tight places to sleep - to stay protected. One morning he couldn't get up - even after I was able to slide him out his space, thinking this is the end for him. He could not stand. And he was ready to bite. He hurt. And he was telling me it. Does that mean that the day before he wasn't uncomfortable? No, but this is something to think about.

5. Your dog starts having a challenge getting into and out of the car. 

For me this is #1. Yogi was a 13 year old dog that had competed in agility for years and had been diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma, an aggressive low survival rate blood cancer. But he started coming to our canine conditioning classes, to get his brain active again. In just three weeks, his eyes brightened up, his movement opened up, and yes - one day he jumped into the car. I got the email late at night - his owner was so shocked at his turnaround. 

6. Your dog is reluctant to, or even refuses, to sit. 

I call this one The Broken Sit. Dogs don't arbitrarily decide today ‘I'm going to really annoy my owner and not sit’. But you'd be shocked by the number of times I hear words to that effect coming out of my clients mouths. If you have ever said "There's nothing wrong with him, he's perfectly capable of sitting" - then join the club.

Dogs chose not to sit for one of three reasons:

It’s uncomfortable IN their body (somewhere - it could be anywhere under their fur),

It’s uncomfortable TO their body (imagine sitting on a cactus),

Or they think they can't do it safely (think sit on it and you immediately fall over - like a kitchen chair missing a leg).

7. Your dog is reluctant to, or even refuses, to lie down. 

Not so different from the broken sit, The Broken Down is more serious. A dog could most likely survive without a sit (heck I'm sure there are millions of dogs around the world that their owners would swear they don't know how to sit ;)) - but no down, probably not. My guess is that most times it is not the being in a down that is uncomfortable, although certainly with many diseases that would be true, but it is the getting up from a down that hurts. Just consider that in the reality show The Biggest Loser: the first and main exercise they have people do to start exercising is getting up from the lying down position. It's why morbidly obese people end up bedridden. It is friggin' hard to get up, you're lifting your entire body weight. And if you have something going on with your body - wow.

8. Your dog is reluctant to, or even refuses, to do stairs. 

Sometimes the first quality of life decision dog owners make is based on whether the dog can go up or down the stairs (any stairs) on their own. But along the way, they didn't notice that the dog was no longer doing the two or three step leaps, or that there was a slight hesitant before the dog started up or down the stairs. Or the classic 5 stair off the deck launch hasn't happened in a month or so.

Stairs can even give you a first clue on changes in their eyesight.

9. Your dog’s sleep patterns change. 

Longer or shorter. Are they waking up to move around more often than what has been normal for them? Are they lying down, presumably to sleep, and then barely notice that anything is going on around them - maybe lifting a head, opening eyes? These signs are very, very, subtle sometimes.

10. Your dog uses external supports. 

What does that mean? It means he can't do it on his own, so he makes use of external assistance. While its a bit odd to see, you may see them leaning on things or even changing where they are walking to be closer to something solid.

A dog walking down a long flight of stairs now does so right up beside the wall.

Something else that most people miss is that the dog stands with their feet close together. Why do they do that? Because while 4 legs, one at each corner is the most stable position, when one is weak, in pain, uncomfortable - it will fail.

By bringing two legs together they create one stronger one - albeit in a slightly unstable configuration.

11. Your dog Freezes and Braces. 

Freezing can mean "I can't move".

Bracing (you know the four legs all slightly spread out from under the dogs body) can mean "If I move, I'll fall over".

12. Your dog is limping. 

If your dog is limping, there is a valid reason. Something hurts.

My dogs walk a lot in snow, and not only can the snow ball up in their pads, but so does the salt and road grit. And then they can limp. It may be a simple as that.

If a limp remains even after rest, and even after ruling out the more obvious possibilities, it should be properly investigated by your vet.

Yes, there will be times when a limp is an early indicator of a more major issue. But getting it properly investigated at the outset almost always costs less in the long run. 

But it maybe a muscle strain or sprain, or just a knot, which probably should be a visit to either a canine massage therapist or a canine rehab therapist, if the limp has persisted and you have had it checked by the vet.

And finally ... a best practice is to get into the habit of feeling your dog’s usual muscle tone. Shoulders, biceps, back, neck, hips and upper legs. Your hands and your gut will tell you if further investigation is needed.

Did you know?

Dogs that bite because of pain have most likely been in a substantial level of discomfort long before you spotted it.


  • The things the dog does every day are key to spotting pain

  • Dogs [in pain] often go about their day regardless. 

  • The dog is ready to bite at the point the pain is unbearable

  • Addressing a suspected pain or discomfort issue does not always mean big dollars at the vet

    View the original blog post here.

    About Debbie Colbourn here.