Canine Ethology - Understanding Dog Behaviour

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

Introduction[edit | edit source]

Ethology refers to the study of animal behaviour. It is essential that animal physiotherapists have an in-depth understanding of animal behaviour in order to:[1]

  • Ensure the safety of the therapist, bystanders and the animal
  • Better anticipate how an animal may react to fear / anxiety / pain / discomfort

Human-Dog Bond[edit | edit source]

The human-animal bond is defined by the American veterinary medical association as: “A mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviours that are essential to the health and well-being of both.”[2]

Dogs were the first animal to be domesticated and have had many roles in human society over time including:[3]

  • Guarding and herding livestock
  • Guarding homes and castles
  • Pulling sleds (sledges) and carts
  • Finding criminals
  • Searching for victims
  • Hunting

Positive Effect of Dogs on Humans[edit | edit source]

There are various benefits associated with the dog-human bond, such as:[3]

  • Lowered heart rate, blood pressure, and anxiety
  • Decreased depression and improved self-esteem
  • Increased physical activity among dog owners

The use of animal-assisted therapy has also been found to be beneficial for children and older adults[3] and psychiatric service dogs are growing in popularity for veterans with PTSD.[4]

Negative Behaviour Issues in Dogs[edit | edit source]

However, the relationship between dogs and humans is not always positive. Certain negative canine behaviours are common and behavioural problems, particularly aggression, are the main reason owners give up their dogs to animal shelters.[3]

Behavioural problems tend to be adaptive behaviours by dogs in response to stressful environmental factors or illness and pain. Not all unwanted behaviours are maladaptive. Some are actually normal canine behaviours, but they are behaviours that are not considered socially acceptable by people. They can be instinctive or learnt and include:[5]

  • Aggression
  • Destructive behaviour
  • Urinating / defecating in the home
  • Unwanted barking
  • Self-mutilation
  • Fear-avoidance and appeasement behaviours

Aggression[edit | edit source]

Aggressive canine behaviour is classified as either directed towards:[6]

  • People known to the dog
  • Strangers
  • Other dogs

Key types of aggression documented in domestic dogs are:[3]

  • Territorial aggression (occurs when a dog wards off other animals from its property)
  • Protective aggression (occurs when a dog protects members of its pack - people or other animals)
  • Irritable aggression (caused by a dog's pain or frustration)
  • Maternal aggression (displayed during pregnancy or false pregnancy)
  • Predatory aggression (towards other animals - it is rare for dogs to kill / eat humans)

Aggression in dogs has been found to develop over time and is caused by a stimulus-response situation. Dominance-based aggression is the most common form of aggression for dogs to display towards members of their household.[3]

Outward signs of dominant conduct in dogs are:[3]

  • Rigid posture
  • Prolonged direct eye contact
  • Aversion to discipline from, or control by owners
  • Aggression

Owners, however, are often unaware of early signs of aggressive behaviour in dogs, so attacks may appear sudden or unprovoked. Dog owners are more likely to be bitten by their dogs than other people. Dominant dogs (regardless of gender, neutered status, pure vs mixed-breed) have been found to cause the worst bites.[3]

The following video shows some typical canine communication signs.


Causes of Unwanted Behaviour in Dogs[edit | edit source]

Pain or Illness[edit | edit source]

Certain illnesses can cause unwanted behaviour in dogs. Similarly, if dogs are in pain / experiencing illness, they may be less able to deal with stress. Therefore, any dog with behavioural problems (particularly aggression) should first be examined by a veterinarian to rule out illness.[5]

Normal Behavioural Needs Not Met[edit | edit source]

Although dog behaviour is affected greatly by experience and learning, there is also an innate element to canine behaviour. Understanding normal canine behaviour can help us to understand what domestic dogs might like to do in a day.[5] The daily ‘time budget’ of a wild dog roughly follows the following schedule:[5]

  • 12 hours sleeping (not all in one go)
  • 3 hours exercising (hunting and scavenging for wild dogs)
  • 3 hours eating (including plenty of time chewing)
  • 1.5 hours of play
  • 1.5 hours of resting
  • 1.2 hours of other social contacts
  • 1.2 hours other behaviours
  • 0.6 hours of grooming

Fear and Safety[edit | edit source]

Unwanted behaviour, especially aggression, may occur in response to a threat to the dog's physical safety, as well as a threat to valuable ‘resources’ (toys, food, attention or a favourite sleeping or resting area).[5]

Common expressions of fear for dogs include:[5][8]

  • Freezing
  • Fleeing
  • Inappropriate / strange appeasement behaviours
  • Fight (aggression)
  • Panting
  • Hiding
  • Escape attempts
  • Destructiveness
  • Self-injury

Chronic fear or stress may cause problematic behaviour even in response to very minor triggers. In these instances, the owner may not even be aware of what has caused the dog’s behaviour.

Causes of fear and stress in dogs may include:[5]

Other Causes of Behavioural Problems[edit | edit source]

Food / eating can also cause behavioural issues. Behavioural issues might be compounded by a dog's diet as food can impact serotonin levels. Serotonin affects levels of aggression and depression. The regularity and timing of feeds are also important as dogs may find it more difficult to stay calm in stressful situations if they have low blood sugar.[5]

Overweight dogs also have been found to display more unwanted behaviours than other dogs, including guarding and stealing food, barking, growling or snapping at strangers and other dogs, and not coming when called.[9]

It is therefore important to:[5]

  • Provide the dog with opportunities to chew
  • Feed the dog often enough, so that it does not get too hungry
  • Ensure that the dog can eat away from interference from other dogs

Similarly, if a dog is experiencing discomfort, its behaviour may be affected. It is important to ensure that dogs are:[5]

  • Able to eliminate when needed
  • Kept at a suitable temperature
  • Allowed to lick / groom
  • Able to stretch and roll on appropriate surfaces

Poor sleeping patterns can affect behaviour, so consideration must be given to:[5]

  • Bedding
  • Temperature
  • Social sleeping - to increase the dog’s sense of safety

The Dog Trust proposes the following strategies to deal with unwanted behaviour in dogs:[5]

  • 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

Considerations in a Clinical Setting[edit | edit source]

Animal handling and physical restraint may cause stress for a dog. It is, therefore, important to use as little restraint as is practical. The amount of restraint can be gradually increased to ensure that the handler remains in control.[10]

The use of restraint is affected by specific environmental and behavioural factors, as well as by the dog’s comfort levels. The use of basket muzzles may be preferred by dogs as they do not restrict mouth movement.[10]

It has been found that the use of auditory stimulation (playing classical music or recordings of dog laughter) can decrease stress levels in dogs, as can pheromone therapy, such as the use of dog-appeasing pheromone.[10]

Strategies for approaching a stressed or anxious dog are to:[11]

  • Get down on the dog’s level - squat or sit down close to it, but always keep your face away from the dog’s
  • Turn sideways - fearful dogs may believe that someone facing them head-on is a threat
  • Avert your gaze - a nervous dog may interpret direct eye contact as a threatening, rude or aggressive gesture
  • Watch your tone of voice - deep, low voices can be intimidating to a fearful dog. Talking to a dog in a higher-pitched, happy voice can be useful - a quiet, reassuring tone can also help
  • You should not punish / scold fearful dogs. This will make the dog more scared, which in turn may make it more likely to bite
  • Give dogs time to become comfortable and approach objects they fear on their own
  • Stay positive - begin by simply offering dogs praise or treats when they do something you want. As dogs begin to understand what you expect from them and learn they will be rewarded for doing those things, they will become more confident and behave in a preferred way more often.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Van der Walt A. Ethology for Physiotherapists - Patient Communication and Safety Course. Physioplus, 2021.
  2. Schaffer CB. Animals connecting people to people: insights into animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activities. Reflections. 2009;15(1):42-5.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 Byrd B. Human-canine relationships: dog behaviour and owner perceptions [dissertation]. Lynchburg: Liberty University. 2012.
  4. LaFollette MR, Rodriguez KE, Ogata N, O'Haire ME. Military veterans and their PTSD service dogs: associations between training methods, PTSD severity, dog behaviour, and the human-animal bond. Front Vet Sci. 2019;6:23.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 Dogs Trust [Internet]. Dog behaviour problems. 2010 [cited 8 April 2021]. Available from:
  6. Farhoody P, Mallawaarachchi I, Tarwater PM, Serpell JA, Duffy DL, Zink C. Aggression toward Familiar People, Strangers, and Conspecifics in Gonadectomized and Intact Dogs. Front Vet Sci. 2018;5:18.
  7. Jaw-Dropping Facts. Dogs Language Explained: How to Understand Your Dog Better. Available from: [last accessed 8/4/2021]
  8. Lopes Fagundes AL, Hewison L, McPeake KJ, Zulch H, Mills DS. Noise sensitivities in dogs: an exploration of signs in dogs with and without musculoskeletal pain using qualitative content analysis. Front Vet Sci. 2018;5:17.
  9. German A, Blackwell E, Evans M, Westgarth C. Overweight dogs are more likely to display undesirable behaviours: Results of a large online survey of dog owners in the UK. Journal of Nutritional Science. 2017;6: E14.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Walker E. Reducing Stress and Pain of Dogs in the Veterinary Clinic [Internet]. Available from: [cited 8 April 2021].
  11. Bender A. How to approach a fearful, shy, or aggressive dog [Internet]. The Spruce Pets. 2019 [cited 8 April 2021]. Available from