Canine Behaviour for the Veterinary Profession

QEL code 1042
CPD 10
Estimated Study Time 10 hours
Start Date Anytime
Study mode Online
Award type Certificate
Assessment Method Short answer questions to confirm your knowledge
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Unit # 1

Considers the dominance theory and common misconceptions that have affected the way dogs are trained. We also consider learning theory, what we should use and when.

Unit # 2

Considers the role of emotions in dogs. Rather than focus on dog behaviour that needs to be changed, we focus on the whole dog, what underlies his behaviour and how we can change this.

Canine Behaviour for the Veterinary Sector

Behaviour problems can significantly impact canine welfare, even contributing to illness and disease. Illness and disease can also contribute to unwanted behaviour. Unwanted behaviour can also impact owners and caregivers welfare.

Behaviourists aim to provide evidence-based advice to caregivers and veterinary professionals and many behaviour practitioners work in conjunction with their vet. This is considered best practice.

The approach to behaviour problems in dogs has thankfully moved on from the outdated dominance theory and aversive methods.


Canine Behaviour Research

Current research advocates reward-based training methods and an understanding of the emotions behind behaviour issues.

In the past, behaviour problems were treated as the canine trying to achieve a dominant position in the family, and aversive techniques were often used to change this.

Instructing owners to eat before their dog or go through doors first will not influence the dog’s overall perception of the relationship – merely teach them what to expect in these specific situations. Much worse, techniques such as pinning the dog to the floor, grabbing jowls, or blasting air horns at dogs will make dogs anxious, often about their owner and potentially lead to an escalation of aggression.

Most scientists accept that dogs evolved from wolves and share a common ancestor. However, dogs are not wolves. They are different anatomically, physiologically and socially. The biggest difference between wolves and dogs is their ecological niche. Wolves, as a rule avoid humans whereas dogs have evolved to live near humans.


Dogs have changed a lot since domestication and groups of feral dogs do not have the same social structure as wolves. Studies of interactions between dogs show no evidence of fixed ‘hierarchical’ relationships. Instead they show relationships between individuals which are based on learning. The assumption that dogs’ responses in social interactions are fixed by innate characteristics, such as ‘dominance’ disregards their ability to learn complex associations.

Thankfully there has been a huge shift towards reward-based training, but we still focussed on changing the behaviour without consideration to what caused it. Approaching behaviour problems using operant conditioning and dog training misses a huge part of the problem. When looking at behaviour from an operant viewpoint, we run the risk of not recognising the emotions that triggered the original behaviour.

In the world of human psychology there has been a move away from working on just the consequences of behaviour. Human psychology now focusses more on the emotional drive experienced before the actual behaviour.

It is now recognised that behaviour is emotionally driven, and consequence led.

Sadly, in the canine world there is still a big focus on the consequences with little regard for anything else.

B.F. Skinner and Edward L. Thorndike are the most noteworthy theorists of the process called operant conditioning. These studies are the baseline for today’s ideas about dog training. These animal research studies can also be transferred to develop conclusions about modifying human behaviour. Thorndike is known for his “puzzle-box” experiment as mentioned above. The experiment shows that the cat was able to learn a task faster when reinforced as opposed to no reinforcement, because it had something to work for. Therefore, learning and accomplishing the new task will result in a desirable reward.

This study formed the foundation of the theory on operant conditioning. By manipulating the use of reinforcement, we can control the rate at which participants can complete a task.

The discovery of the conditioned reflex is generally credited to Ivan P. Pavlov. So closely is Pavlov associated with this phenomenon that it is commonly referred to as the Pavlovian conditioned reflex. Edwin B. Twitmyer independently discovered the conditioned reflex at approximately the same time and reported the finding in 1904 at the meeting of the American Psychological Association. Unlike Pavlov’s, Twitmyer’s data had little impact on psychology.

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