Basic Canine Handling, Restraint and Training

Original Editor - Ansi van der Walt Top Contributors - Jess Bell, Tarina van der Stockt and Kim Jackson

Basic Dog Handling[edit | edit source]

Certain techniques can be used to successfully approach most dogs. These include:[1]

  • Modulating your voice (high pitched voices may be less threatening to some dogs)
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Adopting non-threatening body postures (e.g. standing sideways or crouching down)

Such techniques may help the handler to be able to put a leash / muzzle on the patient. However, it is important to note that there are large differences in behaviour between breeds and even within breeds. If a patient has had a traumatic experience at your practice, it has likely “learnt” some negative behaviour which may make it more difficult to handle at the subsequent visit.[1]

Removing Dogs from Cages[edit | edit source]

Most frightened dogs can be secured by carefully looping a leash over their head and then pulling them to the front of the cage. These dogs will often relax when they are petted or carefully picked up. Leather gloves can be beneficial as they help to protect hands. Plastic squeeze barriers (i.e. shields with handholds) can be used to push aggressive, small- or medium-sized dogs to the back of their cage.[1]

Lifting and Carrying Dogs[edit | edit source]

Small dogs can be carried if they are held between the arms, as long as the back is supported. Unless the dog is very trustworthy, the dog should be muzzled. Large- or medium-sized dogs need to be lifted carefully to prevent back injury. If the handler is able, they can lift the dog as they would a small dog. If dogs are heavy, a rolling cart or stretcher will be needed.[1]

Collars[edit | edit source]

Standard Collar[edit | edit source]

Standard, flat collars provide a suitable place for you to easily attach your dog's identification (i.e. dog tags). However, they can be potentially dangerous in some contexts.[2]

  • Dogs playing roughly / in a mouthy manner can get their mouth caught in another dog's collar, which can cause panic. As the dogs struggle to free themselves, the collar can tighten - this has resulted in suffocation[2]

Choke Chains[edit | edit source]

You should beware of using a choke chain on dogs who have:[2]

  • Short noses
  • Bulging eyes
  • Small tracheas (or dogs who have trachea that is prone to collapse)

Dogs may develop neurological damage (i.e. Horner's syndrome) when corrections with a choke chain are too strong. Damage includes pupil changes and nerve-induced lameness in the front leg.[2] Choke chains should not be left on unsupervised pets. They can get caught on something, tighten and strangle a dog who is stressed / panicking.[2]

Martingale[edit | edit source]

Martingales (or limited-slip collars) are similar to flat collars, but they tighten when dogs pull. However, unlike choke chains, they are not generally used for giving correction. When adjusted correctly, they are less likely than a flat collar to slip over a dog’s head. They should be adjusted so that even when they are tight, they cannot accidentally strangle the dog.[2]

Harness[edit | edit source]

The harness is one of the most common alternatives to a collar. They are often recommended by veterinarians for dogs such as:[2]

    • Pugs (because of their short noses)
    • Miniature poodles (because of their tendency to have collapsing trachea)

It is important to note that harnesses may exacerbate the dog pulling on its leash.[2]

Head Halters[edit | edit source]

Head halters help to reduce a dog pulling and to maintain its attention. However, dogs often need a lot of training to get used to halters.[2] They can also interfere with the animal’s eyes depending on the design and shape of the dog’s muzzle.

Slip Leads[edit | edit source]

Slip leads are most commonly used in a clinical environment. They fit any dog and the dog is unable to pull out of it and escape. Regular leads are easily converted into slip leads by sliding the clip through the handle and making a loop.[1]

The following video demonstrates the use of commonly used dog collars.


Muzzles[edit | edit source]

A muzzle is used to help keep you safe when working with dogs.[4]

Basket Muzzle[edit | edit source]

The advantages of basket muzzles include:[4]

  • Excellent airflow
  • Dogs can drink with the muzzle on
  • Muzzles are secure

Dogs seem to have fewer problems with these muzzles than enclosed muzzles.[5]

Fabric Muzzles[edit | edit source]

Fabric muzzles may be used at veterinarian’s offices and can be useful to carry in vehicles, bags or emergency medical kits. They are inexpensive and can be used while grooming / nail clipping.[4] They should not, however, be used for training. It is important to remember that dogs can still pinch you with their teeth when wearing a fabric muzzle.[1]

These muzzles restrict a dog’s ability to pant[5] and it is not recommended that they be left on while animals are unattended / unsupervised. If it is hot or the dog is stressed in a warm environment, the dog could potentially overheat and die.[1]

The following steps may help a dog get used to wearing a muzzle:[4]

  1. Show the dog the muzzle and talk to the dog with an even voice
  2. Allow the dog to sniff the muzzle and provide praise if the dog pays positive attention to the muzzle
  3. Place a favourite dry treat in the muzzle - let the dog put his nose in to get the treat out
  4. Provide praise and encouragement in order to create positive associations with the muzzle

A muzzle should never be put on when you are showing anger or frustration.


Communication Between Domestic Dogs and Humans[edit | edit source]

Communication between two animals is said to take place when an observer notices expected changes in one animal’s behaviour in response to signs from the other animal.[7][8]

Communication is not limited to members of the same species. It can take place between different species (i.e. inter-specific communication), such as between domestic dogs and humans.[8]

Because dogs have lived in close proximity to people for more than 30,000 years, they have developed skills that allow them to communicate with humans.[9] They are, in fact, considered better at reading human communication than genetically-related species like primates.[8][10]

Because of these skills, dogs can respond to different signals given by humans, including human pointing, body posture, gaze direction, voice and sounds and touching / marking as cues to find hidden food.[7][8]

Dogs are also able to signal to humans (e.g. using gaze direction). One study found that when obstacles are placed between a dog and a box with a hidden reward, and the dog cannot open the box using methods it has been trained in, dogs will establish eye contact with their owners more quickly and for longer than socialised wolves.[8]

Learning[edit | edit source]

The rest of this page will discuss learning theories in relation to dog training.

It is important to note, however, that a recent review which looks specifically at the effects of these various training methods on canine physiology, welfare, and behaviour toward people and other dogs found that:[11]

  • Aversive training methods (e.g. positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can negatively affect the physical and mental health of dogs
  • There is no evidence that positive punishment is more effective than positive reinforcement-based training

Thus, this review encourages the use of positive reinforcement methods by those working with and handling dogs and suggests that positive punishment and negative reinforcement should be avoided as much as possible.[11]

The Dog Trust also suggests that instead of punishment and negative reinforcement, which can lead to fear, frustration and confusion, as well as behaviour suppression, depression and aggressive responses, positive reinforcement should be used.[12] They propose the following strategies to deal with unwanted behaviour in dogs:[12]

  • Reward wanted behaviour
  • Ignore unwanted behaviour
  • Avoid situations where unwanted behaviour may occur
  • Train an alternative, acceptable behaviour when unwanted behaviour cannot be ignored or avoided

Associative Learning[edit | edit source]

Learning is defined as: “a relatively permanent change in behaviour due to experience”.[8] Through learning, animals are able to adapt to changing, dynamic environments.[8] Dogs are capable of learning human gestures. However, the process by which they learn to respond to these gestures is affected by the environment, as well as the consequences of their behaviour in response to the gesture:[1]

  • Was there a positive or negative result to their behaviour?
  • Is the situation familiar or unfamiliar?

Classical or Pavlovian Conditioning[edit | edit source]

Classical conditioning is a type of learning discovered by Ivan Pavlov.[13] Pavlov presented dogs with food and measured their salivary response. He then began to ring a bell just before he gave the dogs their food. At first, the dogs only salivated once they received their food. However, they soon learned to associate the bell with food and began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone.[13]


Classical conditioning may be used by animal trainers to:[15]

  1. Condition autonomic responses (i.e. drooling, producing / reducing adrenaline) in the absence of stimuli that would normally cause these responses
  2. Create a link between a stimulus that does not typically affect an animal and a stimulus that does affect an animal

Some stimuli (such as food / pain) produce reactions in animals without training - these are called primary or unconditioned stimuli. Other stimuli only cause a reaction in animals once learning has occurred - these are called secondary or conditioned stimuli.[15]

Classical conditioning can act as a “bridge” between the time it takes for an animal to receive a reward after performing a desired behaviour.[15]

Operant Conditioning[edit | edit source]

While classical conditioning depends on a preceding stimulus, operant conditioning is a two-way process that occurs when an association is formed between a behaviour and a consequence.[16][15]


Positive Reinforcement[edit | edit source]

Positive reinforcement occurs when something is added to encourage a behaviour. For example:[18]

  • Dog gets a treat for returning when called

Primary positive reinforcers are things that animals naturally like (e.g. food, water). Secondary positive reinforcers are things that animals have to learn to like.[18]

When using positive reinforcement, it is important to consider the following:[18]

  • If animals are acting out of fear, positive reinforcement may reinforce the fear response
  • Timing is essential - the reinforcement must come immediately after the preferred behaviour in order to reinforce this behaviour (not something that comes later)
  • The reward has to be sufficient for the dog to want to repeat the behaviour
  • Reinforcements can become associated with the person giving them
  • Animals may have enough of a specific reward, so it will no longer be as motivating
  • Positive reinforcements increase behaviour, so they should only be used when you want to encourage an animal to do something

Positive Punishment[edit | edit source]

Positive punishment is used to reduce a behaviour. “Positive” in this context means the addition of something. Examples of positive punishment:[12][18]

  • Shouting at a dog
  • Squirting a dog with citronella for barking

When using positive punishment, the following points should be considered:[18]

  • Behaviours tend to be motivated by an expectation of a reward - the motivation of this reward is still there despite the punishment. Thus, the positive punishment must be greater than the reward to stop the behaviour
  • Timing is important - it must occur at the time of the behaviour in order to create a connection with the behaviour
  • Punishments may be associated with the person, so the behaviour only stops when this person is present
  • Punishments can cause physical and mental harm

Negative Reinforcement[edit | edit source]

Negative reinforcement encourages a behaviour by removing something unpleasant. Examples include:[18]

  • Choke collar is loosened when the dog moves closer to the trainer
  • Reins are loosened when the horse slows down

In order to use negative reinforcement, the trainer must be able to control the unpleasant thing that is being removed.[18]

Negative Punishment[edit | edit source]

Negative punishment reduces behaviour by removing something good. An animal is less likely to repeat a behaviour if it causes him to lose something he likes.[18] Examples include:[12]

  • Remove attention from the dog
  • Take a treat away from the dog

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Van der Walt A. Ethology for Physiotherapists - Patient Communication and Safety Course. Physioplus, 2021.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Yin S. Which types of collars and harnesses are safe for your dog? [Internet]. Cattledog Publishing [cited 9 April 2021]. Available from:
  3. Monkoodog. How to choose the right COLLAR for your dog. Pros and Cons EXPLAINED. Available from: [last accessed 9/4/2021]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Woodward S. Muzzles: A Tool to Keep Everyone Safe [Internet]. Best Friends [cited 9 April 2021]. Available from:
  5. 5.0 5.1 Gibeault S. Dog muzzles: when, why, and how to correctly use them [Internet]. American Kennel Club. 2021. [cited 9 April 2021]. Available from:
  6. Zak George’s Dog Training Revolution. How & Why EVERY DOG Should LOVE Wearing a MUZZLE. Available from: [last accessed 9/4/2021]
  7. 7.0 7.1 Derville, S. Inter-specific visual communication and cognition in the context of domestication. 2013.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 Elgier AM, Jakovcevic A, Barrera G, Mustaca AE, Bentosela M. Communication between domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and humans: dogs are good learners. Behav Processes. 2009;81(3):402-8.
  9. Siniscalchi M, d'Ingeo S, Minunno M, Quaranta A. Communication in Dogs. Animals (Basel). 2018;8(8):131.
  10. Hare B, Tomasello M. Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends Cogn Sci. 2005;9(9):439-44.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Ziv G. The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs - a review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior. 2019;19:50-60.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Dogs Trust [Internet]. Dog behaviour problems. 2010 [cited 8 April 2021]. Available from:
  13. 13.0 13.1 Rehman I, Mahabadi N, Sanvictores T, et al. Classical Conditioning. [Updated 2020 Aug 27]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from:
  14. Learn My Test. Pavlov's Theory of Classical Conditioning Explained! Available from: [last accessed 8/4/2021]
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Braslau-Schneck S. An animal trainer's introduction to operant and classical conditioning [Internet]. Wag N Train [cited 8 April 2021]. Available from:
  16. Akpan B. Classical and operant conditioning—Ivan Pavlov; Burrhus Skinner. In: Akpan B., Kennedy T.J. (eds) Science Education in Theory and Practice. Cham, : Springer Texts in Education. Springer, 2020. p.71-84.
  17. khanacademymedicine. Operant conditioning: Positive-and-negative reinforcement and punishment | MCAT | Khan Academy. Available from: [last accessed 8/4/2021]
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 18.6 18.7 Braslau-Schneck S. An animal trainer's introduction to operant and classical conditioning: Part 2 [Internet]. Wag N Train [cited 8 April 2021]. Available from: