Dogs can experience many of the same emotions as humans — happiness, sadness, fear, anger. So it should come as no surprise that dogs can feel irritable, too.
A grumpy dog might let out a snarl or move away when you try to touch them. But don’t take it personally if your furry best friend acts this way toward you. When a dog experiences irritability, they usually have a good reason for their behavior.
If you have a crabby canine companion, keep reading. Our experts share potential reasons for grumpiness in dogs, plus advice on how to help a prickly pooch.
Do Dogs Get Grumpy?
Yes, dogs can act grumpy, says Dr. Maggie O’Brian, a veterinary behaviorist at Southeast Animal Behavior and Training. However, “irritable” would be a more appropriate word, she says, since “grumpy” can have a negative connotation.
“We can see irritability in dogs,” Dr. O’Brian says. “Typically that would be a dog that has a shorter fuse or a lower tolerance for certain triggers or interactions.”
How can you tell if your dog is feeling irritable? Dogs who feel this way may exhibit antisocial behaviors. “They may avoid certain interactions with people or be more likely to show aggression, such as growling or snapping,” Dr. O’Brian says.
“You may see things like head ducking or showing the whites of their eyes,” Dr. Sinn says. “You may see things like lip licking as they start getting more and more uncomfortable. You can see worry wrinkles on their foreheads. You can see their ears get pinned back. Also, a crouched body posture, or leaning away from a person.”
It’s also essential to try and determine why a dog is acting grumpy, Dr. Sinn says, especially if they’re not always irritable. “Why is a dog not wanting to have that interaction?” she asks.
Experts say there is usually a medical reason for irritability in dogs — and one of the primary causes is pain or discomfort. But other factors like stress might also cause your dog to be grumpy. Let’s unpack some of the possibilities.
Why Is My Dog Grumpy? 5 Potential Reasons
Here are a few common reasons why dogs get grumpy:
Pain or Discomfort
“Irritability … is almost always pain related,” says Dr. Sinn. Musculoskeletal issues — that is, issues related to a dog’s muscles or bones — are a common cause of pain in dogs.
Dogs can experience a variety of musculoskeletal issues, such as injuries like sprains and fractures, orthopedic conditions like hip dysplasia (abnormal formation of the hip joint), and joint pain associated with osteoarthritis.
But any medical problem that causes pain or discomfort — gastrointestinal issues, headaches, glaucoma — can also lead your dog to be irritable. All of which is quite understandable, if you think about it.
“It’s similar to how someone with a bad headache may be quicker to snap or be short with their words,” Dr. O’Brian says.
Itchy skin — or pruritus, as it’s known medically — can cause a dog to feel irritable, Dr. Sinn says. “If you’ve ever experienced a sunburn or [sun poisoning], or if you’re allergic to poison ivy … it does not increase your bandwidth in terms of being able to deal with day-to-day life,” she adds.
A grumpy dog might also be a stressed-out dog. A dog’s irritability might be exceptionally high when they encounter several stressful events around the same time, which Dr. O’Brian calls “trigger stacking.”
“For instance, if a dog’s tail got stepped on in the morning, they were separated in their crate later that day because a maintenance worker comes to the house, and then in the evening the cat in the house tries to play roughly with them, that may result in aggression,” Dr. O’Brian says. “On a more typical day, the dog may have tolerated that interaction better.”
A Change in the Environment
If the environment isn’t quite right, your dog might not be quite right. Maybe you’ve recently switched jobs or welcomed a new pet to the family, and your dog’s normal routine has been disrupted.
“Environmental stressors in general can lead to irritability,” says Dr. O’Brian. “If there is a lot of noise, activity, or if another animal or person in the environment continues to pester or disrupt the dog, this may lead to irritability. Conditions such as underlying anxiety or fear may make a dog more prone towards getting irritable.”
While age itself doesn’t necessarily cause a dog to be irritable, senior dogs are more susceptible to medical issues that may cause grumpiness.
“Aging dogs are at more risk of osteoarthritis, [cancer], sensory loss, and other disease processes,” Dr. O’Brian says. “This may lead them to not feel their best, which can then lead to more irritability. If a senior dog shows new or worsening irritability, particularly aggression, an underlying medical concern would be strongly suspected, assuming nothing else in the environment has changed.”
How to Help a Grumpy Dog
If your easy-going dog suddenly starts displaying grumpy behavior, the first thing you should do is take them to the veterinarian for a check-up. That’s because, in most cases, irritability in dogs indicates a medical problem that needs to be addressed.
With senior dogs, try to avoid chalking up behavioral changes like grumpiness to old age. “Instead of just shrugging it off and saying the dog is getting old … the dog’s getting grumpy, I would really urge [pet parents] to look a little bit deeper,” Dr. Sinn says. Have your veterinarian investigate to see if there is an underlying physical cause for your pet’s behavior.
If your veterinarian has ruled out a medical issue, there are other steps you can take to help your grumpy dog feel better. “If the environment is overwhelming, try to reduce the stimulation by providing a quiet, safe place,” Dr. O’Brian says. “This can have white noise, classical music and some food toys.”
How you respond when your dog is acting irritable is also key, Dr. O’Brian adds. “It’s important to never punish a dog for behaviors such as growling or snapping,” she says. “These are forms of communication, and dogs are asking us for space or to discontinue an interaction.
“Punishing this behavior can further exacerbate the dog’s stress level or teach them not to use their warning signals in the future,” Dr. O’Brian continues. “Dogs that don’t give warning signals but still feel the same way are more dangerous and typically more stressed. We want to give them space and speak nicely to them and try to adjust the environment to help them feel more relaxed.”
- McAuliffe, Lindsay R et al. “Associations Between Atopic Dermatitis and Anxiety, Aggression, and Fear-Based Behaviors in Dogs.” Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association vol. 58,4 (2022): 161-167. doi:10.5326/JAAHA-MS-7210