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Is reactivity a sign of pain in dogs? Pain-Induced Reactivity: When Discomfort Fuels Defensiveness

anxiety dog training reactivity Oct 18, 2023
A lion having a splinter removed from his paw by a human.

You're about to take that first satisfying sip of your hot coffee, you feel a sharp, shooting pain in one of your molars. The simple act of enjoying your morning brew turns into a painful ordeal. You grit your teeth and bear it, thinking it will pass.

Throughout the day, that nagging pain in your tooth doesn't go away. It's like a persistent drumbeat in the background of your life. You can't concentrate at work, and even your colleagues' innocent chatter feels like a jackhammer in your head.

By lunchtime, you find yourself snapping at your co-worker for no apparent reason. The pain has made you irritable and on edge. Even the simplest tasks become challenges because every moment is accompanied by that throbbing discomfort in your mouth.

You realize that it's not just about the pain anymore; it's about how it's affecting your mood and patience. You, a usually calm and composed individual, are now irritable and short-tempered, all because of a tiny toothache. It's incredible how something so small can have such a significant impact on your day and your demeanor.



Pain is a powerful motivator for dogs, just as it is in humans. Just like us, when our pets are in pain, their behaviors and reactions can be significantly influenced. One notable effect of pain is the potential increase in reactivity, where a dog, usually gentle and amiable, may exhibit signs of discomfort, irritability, or even become defensively reactive. 

Here are some insights into how pain can trigger or exacerbate reactivity in our dogs:


  1. Discomfort Breeds Irritability: Dogs experience a similar range of emotions as humans, and discomfort can lead to irritability. When they're hurting, they may become more sensitive to touch, noise, or other dogs' actions. This heightened sensitivity can cause them to react defensively, even in situations that wouldn't typically bother them.


  1. Protective Instincts Kick In: Dogs, by their nature, have an innate drive to protect themselves when they perceive a threat. Pain can make them feel more vulnerable, as they may sense their reduced physical capabilities. In such situations, their instinct for self-preservation might lead to reactive behaviors as a means of self-defense.


  1. Communication Through Reactivity: Dogs often communicate their pain and discomfort through reactivity. It's their way of saying, "I'm not feeling well, please give me space" or "I can't handle this right now." This communication can sometimes be misunderstood as aggression or classical reactivity, especially if the pain is severe and the dog is unable to express themselves clearly.


Understanding the link between pain and reactivity is vital for pet parents AND pet professionals who hope to resolve reactivity. It's not uncommon for dogs to react defensively in response to pain, and misinterpreting this behavior can lead to unnecessary stress for both the dog and their human companions. 


By staying vigilant and compassionate, we can help our dogs navigate through their pain-induced reactivity, ultimately ensuring their comfort and well-being. This not only strengthens the bond between us and our four-legged friends but also allows them to enjoy a happier and more peaceful life.


Here are some actionable steps to address pain-induced reactivity in dogs:


  1. Immediately stop the rehearsal of the undesired behavior. Avoid triggering scenarios and stimuli until your veterinarian can rule out pain as the root cause.


  1. Schedule a vet visit asap. While you wait for your appointment, be mindful to document new behaviors. Consider things like;
  • Excessive Grooming
  • Pacing
  • Panting
  • Limping
  • Changes in gait
  • Change in sociability. 


  1. Remove all aversive training tools; Prong Collars, Choke Chains, E-Collars. The efficacy of these tools are long refuted by science. They "work" because they cause discomfort. Chronic discomfort breeds behavior issues. 



Pawsome University specializes in Reactivity and similar aggressive behaviors, and works with pet parents and shelters all over the world via Virtual Training & Consulting. Book a free evaluation call today!


- John Caponetta