Clinical Techniques: Canine Behaviour in Clinical Practice

Clinical Techniques: Canine Behaviour in Clinical Practice


Canine Communication + Behaviour

Communication occurs when one dog sends a signal that impacts the behaviour of another dog, so canine communication is a behaviour that has a goal and function.

Dogs use several ways to communicate

The main method of canine communication is by visual signals and body postures. They also use sounds, olfactory communication (sniffing and marking) and touch.

Dogs use consistent feedback signals across the species and exaggerate their signals to ensure they are understood. This is achieved by using repeat signalling, multi-signalling and emphasising signals by using loud sounds.

We now know that dogs will show their motivation and emotions through their behaviours. The canine therapist can be guided by the dog’s feedback signals to predict what the dog may do next. By the therapist adjusting their own behaviour and enriching the environment, this will lead to a more effective treatment session.


Clinical Tip: Consider the context of canine behaviour in clinical practice. By understanding dog communication signals and adjusting our behaviours so that we give more dog-appropriate signals, we may make our communication much more effective.

Humans use a different communicating medium to dogs and this may lead to humans and dogs not understanding each other, which often leads to miscommunication issues.

Remember humans are "listeners" and dogs are "watchers".


Anthropormorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to dogs and can lead to miscommunication and inappropriate treatment choices for the canine patient. Zoomorphism is the attribution of canine characteristics to humans by dogs, therefore, dogs may interpret our behaviour as if we are the same species, so the dog may view our behaviour as canine signals.

It's essential that canine therapists observe their canine patient behaviour very carefully to ensure that subtle signals are not missed and the understanding of the dog's motivation will prevent mis-interpretation of what is observed.

Canine Visual Signals + Body Postures

Consider the following canine behaviours listed below, in context of your clinical practice. Develop a systematic analysis of each dog's range of feedback signals in relation to your actions, postures, movements and the clinic environment.

• General body position and orientation of the canine patient to the therapist

• Pilo-erection

• Ear position

• Facial postures

• Tail position

General Body Posture;

Is the dog standing, sitting or lying down?


Assess your standing canine patient and determine is the dog;

  • Stiffly erect?
  • Hunched over with head lowered?
  • Standing alert?
  • Directly facing you or turned away from you?
  • Shaking or shivering?
  • Immobile or trying to move?


This is also known as raising of the hackles / hair raising. Some dogs only raise their hair between their scapulae, whilst other breeds hair raise along the entire length of their back.


Assess if the dog's hair is;

  • Standing up along the neck / back?
  • Lying down flat?

Ear Position;

Canine breed variation makes it difficult to read ear position in some dogs.


Analyse ear position;

  • What is the normal ear shape for this breed?
  • Are the dog's ears up and facing forward?
  • Or are they rotated backward and held flat to the dog’s skull?
  • Or are they in between these 2 positions?
  • Are they moving/twitching or still?

Facial Postures;

Be aware if a dog looks towards you, to answer you need to turn your head away. Look at facial postures, teeth and eyes.


Analyse facial postures;

  • Mouth opened or closed?
  • Showing of teeth?
  • Facial muscle contraction around the mouth?
  • Opening of eyes and dilation of pupils?
  • Narrowing of eyes?
  • Orientation of the eyes?

Analyse mouth;

  • If the mouth is open are the dog’s teeth showing?
  • Is the dog yawning or licking it’s lips repeatedly?
  • If teeth are visible look at position of lips and can you see only front / canine teeth or can you see back teeth?
  • If the mouth is closed are muscles and skin around mouth relaxed or are they wrinkled or tense?

Analyse eyes;

  • Are eyes staring without movement?
  • Are eyes relaxed and scanning the clinic area?
  • Are eyes darting around?
  • Is the dog staring directly at you or at another person or dog?
  • Are eyes wide open so you can see the sclera?
  • Do the eyes appear to be slightly closed?
  • Are pupils dilated or constricted?

This male Chihuahua is confident, assured and making decisions.
This male Chihuahua is confident, assured and making decisions.
This female Chihuahua is alert and a little wary of the camera.
This female Chihuahua is alert and a little wary of the camera.

As the camera comes closer watch her facial features change.
As the camera comes closer watch her facial features change.
Confident, alert but sending signals out towards the camera not to take a step nearer.
Confident, alert but sending signals out towards the camera not to take a step nearer.

Tail Position;

Assess the type of tail your dog has, consider whether it has been injured or docked.


Assess the tail activity, position and overall posture;

Is it standing straight up?

Is it tucked down between legs?

Is it moving from side to side?

If so, how fast is the tail moving?


Remember to look at all the feedback signals together in context of the clinical environment. This is a continual canine conversation which the therapist needs to be an active participant to build the professional bond of trust and confidence with the dog.

Aggressive canine behaviours

This is one of many canine behaviours and it is rare for it to happen without other behaviours and feedback signalling being observed. Understand the layering of feedback signals in the wheel of canine behaviours they may demonstrate in context of the clinical setting.

Aggressive behaviours in dogs refers to any behaviour connected with an attack or an impending attack. It's rare to meet an aggressive dog, however a dog will show aggressive behaviours if they feel seriously threatened. Therapists who do not understand canine communication signalling may inadvertently threaten a dog by their inappropriate postures and handling, no matter how well intentioned.

Consider if the dog is in pain and what other feedback signals the dog displayed before moving to the aggressive behaviour. Aggressive behaviours can be either offensively or defensively motivated.

Offensively threatening behaviour is when the dog may be protecting food, their bone or home. These dogs use body postures to make the dog seem larger and show its weapons (teeth).

Defensively threatening behaviour is when you have a mixture of fear and offensive elements, seen in a dog in pain, trapped, threatened or cornered.


Dogs will use dominant postures and aggressive threats to try to "win" in certain situations. Threats are signals to let others know that outright aggression will follow if nothing changes (bite). The dog usually has an individual critical distance between itself and the perceived offender and this distance is used by the dog to judge the possible threat.

Fearful / submissive behaviour signals

  • Crouched body posture
  • Lateral recumbency
  • May lift their hind leg or expose belly or both
  • Dog may try to move away from fear
  • Body and head lowered
  • Tail tucked between legs, may have low wagging tail
  • Ears pinned back against skull
  • Not direct stare / widened eyes / eyes averted
  • Lips may be retracted / may show submissive grin
  • Sounds like whining, yelping, whimpering
  • Shaking, panting or urinating


If the fear continues; the dog may move into defensively threatening behaviours.

Offensively threatening behaviour signals

  • Dog is standing tall, erect, stiff, facing subject of threat
  • Pilo-erection
  • Tail position is straight up or wagging slowly
  • Ears up or pricked forward
  • Direct stare
  • Teeth bared and vertical retraction of lips
  • Barking or growling
  • Snapping or lunging at their target


If the threat does not alter; the dog may bite.

Defensively threatening behaviour signals

These dogs will show combined signals of offensive and fearful elements and have;

  • Crouched body posture and may not be directly facing threat, head lowered and may shift weight backwards
  • Pilo-erection
  • Tail lowered usually
  • Ears pinned back (flat back)
  • Not staring usually but eye contact with eyes wide open and may look away from source of the threat
  • Teeth bared with lips retracted horizontally
  • Growling, barking, whining or whimpering

If threat persists; the dog may bite or snap

Behaviour signals of a dog in pain or distress

  • Shaking, panting or urinating
  • Whining, whimpering, yelping or screaming
  • Trying to escape the situation

Defensive behaviours that may lead to aggressive behaviours

  • Displacement yawning, lip licking or grooming
  • Fearful responses such as crouching, eyes wide open, tucked tail, ears flattened back
  • Freezing or withdrawal from an activity

Canine Sounds

Canine vocalisations or auditory communication can be very varied to communicate; enjoyment, comfort, happiness as well as; distress, pain and serious warning signals

Engaged sounds of comfort

  • Barking
  • Whining
  • Yelping
  • Whimpering
  • Howling
  • Yapping
  • Purring
  • Sighing
  • Dreaming vocalisations

Warning sounds

  • Barking
  • Growling
  • Whining
  • Yelping
  • Baying
  • Yapping

Reasons for barking may include;

  • To alert and gain attention
  • To greet and welcome
  • To alert and warn
  • To ask to go outside or come inside
  • To threaten


Clinical Tip: Sounds vary in volume. It is important for the therapist to listen out for low volume growls.

Olfactory Communication

Little is really understood about the canine olfactory (scent) communication system, as it is so much more highly developed than in humans (40 times mores sensitive than in humans).

We now know it's an important canine communication system to gain additional information of their surroundings. The special sense that dogs use for communication is called pheromones.

Different hormones are secreted when a dog is angry, fearful or confident and some chemical signatures identify the sex, age and size of the dog. Males prefer to mark higher up to allow their urine scent to be carried further by the air. The height of the marking informs other dogs of the size of the dog.

Scenting is a way to leave information for others and links to their behaviours such as licking, sniffing.

Movement Enrichment Techniques: Therapeutic Handling + Clinic Enrichment

Therapists need to show an awareness and mindful control of their body postures and gestures, with a good understanding of the possible resulting canine responses.

The use of a humane and comfortable canine treatment programme is paramount and a dynamic risk assessment is carried out for every dog in each session, to ensure the safety of the dog, owner and therapist.

Canine behaviours in the therapy setting are influenced by;

  • The dog's signalment, breed temperament, personality, health status, motivation, previous experiences
  • Nature of the situation and clinic setting
  • Therapists use of appropriate behaviour responses in the clinical situation and effective communication with the owner and dog
  • Owners behaviours


The dog’s behaviours can be significantly influenced by associating the session with strong positive rewards, for example, tone of voice, Therapeutic Touch and Therapeutic Handling

Useful Clinical Tips for the Therapist

  • Understand your breed temperament and personality. Know if the dog has any socialisation issues in a clinical context or with strangers
  • Be aware of how to appropriately introduce yourself to your canine patient (consider your postures, facial posturing and movements around the clinic space) and have a good understanding of dog posturing and feedback signalling (calming signals)
  • Assess and treat with the consent of your dog and owner. A cooperative, calm and actively engaged dog leads to a successful treatment programme
  • Be aware that if the dog is in pain this may lead to certain behaviours and reactions
  • Do not raise your hand or dominate the dog by standing over it or lean onto the dog’s hind area to assess or treat
  • Avoid sudden, quick movements, staring at the dog, being face to face or using low, gruff clipped tones or clicking noises
  • Allow time for the dog to acclimatise to the clinic space and to your presence within the clinic
  • Understand the appropriate use of eye contact and calming signals (N.B. blinking slowly calms dogs)
  • Understand the appropriate use of desensitisation and counter-conditioning techniques for the fearful canine patient. Be mindful of how to use strong rewards in the therapy session appropriately, to reduce fear and to increase motivation, but not lose the quality of natural balanced stance and motion


Dunbar, I. Dog Behaviour (Neptune, NJ: TFH Publications Inc., 1979).

Estep, D.Q. Canine Behaviour (Canine Rehab & Physical Therapy; Millis; Levine & Taylor 2004).

Hart, B.L. The Behaviour of Domestic Animals. (W.H. Freeman & Company 1985).

Horwitz, D.F. Canine Communication. St Louis, Missourri.

Nott, HMR.Social Behaviour of the Dog. In: Thorn. C (Ed) The Waltham Book of Dog and Cat Behavior. Oxford, Pergamon Press. 1992.

O’Farrell, V. Manual of Canine Behaviour. B.S.A.V.A 2nd Ed 1992.

Simpson, B.S. Canine Communication. In: Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, Vol. 27:3, 1997.

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