understanding dog behavior

Animal doctors need to be aware of what their patients are telling them.


  • A new book written by a veterinarian offers numerous case studies and field notes illustrating why her colleagues must study animal behavior.
  • Kendal Shepherd’s practical guide for giving dogs the best lives possible should be on the reading list for anyone who wants to understand them.
  • Veterinarians deal with patients who don’t speak their language and must learn as much as possible about their cognitive and emotional lives.
  • Veterinarians could learn a lot about dogs by shadowing positive force-free trainers.

A few months ago, I learned about a forthcoming book by acclaimed veterinary behavior consultant, surgeon, and certified animal behaviorist Dr. Kendal Shepherd called Demystifying Dog Behaviour for the Veterinarian and it has now been published. 1,2

I’ve always been a fan of veterinarians becoming literate—multilingual if you will—in the “languages” their patients speak using their voices, faces, tails, ears, other body parts, and odors so that they can understand as much as possible what their patients—each and every individual with a unique personality —is trying to tell them. It’s all part of giving the dogs and other animals the best lives possible and is a win-win for all.

understanding dog behavior

Among the many take-home messages from Kendal’s book is that veterinarians should learn about the behavior of dogs and all of their other nonhuman patients, similar to what we expect of people who train or live with dogs and other animals. This means that a class—even a short course—in animal behavior should be required during their schooling.

Source: CRC Press, with permission.

I’m thrilled Kendal could take the time to answer a few questions about her important book with a strong practical bent that shows how important it is to use what we know on behalf of dogs and other animals. Here’s what she had to say.

Why did you write Demystifying Dog Behaviour for the Veterinarian and how does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?

I felt that using my own experience as a vet and how I had fumbled my way into dog behaviour might help others. I had come to realise that one didn’t need to ‘be familiar with the literature’ first before one dare behave in a way that helped dogs simply to feel comfortable in one’s presence. Yet the field of animal behaviour, particularly canine behaviour, was launched upon the veterinary profession as a ‘speciality’ as typified by The British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) manuals of canine and feline behavioural medicine. Although of course innovative and valuable texts, the impression was given that, as with conventional medicine, a diagnosable and named behaviour problem had to exist before intervention was justified.

Understanding dog behavior

Kendal Shepherd doing a behavior assessment of Bronson, a so-called ‘dangerous’ pit bull.Source: Kendal Shepherd, with permission.

My approach has been that, if the basics of getting along with dogs with a little theory underpinning it are understood and communicated to dog owners in an easily understandable way, then so many ‘problems’ either disappear or don’t arise in the first place. To damage a dog behaviourally during one’s interaction with them is very sad.

Who is your intended audience?

Although the title includes ‘For the Veterinarian,’ I feel that almost anyone involved or with an interest in dogs, professionally or otherwise, could benefit from reading it. But definitely, every vet student should expect a question in their final exams based on something in the book!

What are some of the topics that are woven into your book and what are some of the major messages?

The main message throughout the book is that understanding dogs and their behaviour does not need to be complicated. It saddens me when vets blame owners for irresponsibility and not being able to handle their dogs, particularly now with ‘pandemic puppies’ when the vets themselves do not understand how to avoid forcing a dog to bite.

For example, there are so many misunderstandings implicit in the word ‘obedience.’ As I demonstrate with common definitions of the word, they all lead to the assumption that there is a power greater than oneself (whether that be the police, one’s school teacher, parent, government, God etc.) who knows better than you do and has laid down rules or laws that must be followed or obeyed. The implication is that we, if left to our own devices, would not follow the rules and do something else instead. The motorist would speed, the child would watch TV instead of doing homework, the monk would prefer to have, if not sex, then at least a cuddle, and so on. In other words, the assumption is that to be obedient, one has to forgo a pleasurable activity of some kind. [I love when you write, “Implicit in all definitions is that an obedient individual would rather be doing something else.” (p. 63) It reminded me of people who are helicopter dog guardians who, for the most part, are constantly saying “No!” or “Stop” or “Don’t do that!”]

The problems arise when such assumptions are transferred to dogs. Dogs will always do whatever reaps the best reward in their perception at any given moment in time. And when this choice of behaviour conflicts with a human choice, it is labeled ‘disobedience.’ Yet, the theory behind a disobedient dog’s behaviour is exactly the same as for an obedient one. Hence my definition of an obedient dog is one whose own choice of behaviour can be successfully altered to coincide with that of the owner.

For those who still buy into the dominance myth—that dogs are always trying to dominate their own and other humans or that we need to dominate them—the dog is also severely hampered by how well appeasement or threat-averting behaviour fits with the commonly-assumed appearance of ‘submission.’ If a dog looks ‘submissive’ then the false assumption is that he is acknowledging an authority. But I have gone as far as to say that assuming abject submission is potentially more dangerous than ascribing ‘dominance’ to a behaviour. If I had continued to try to ‘get the job done’ on every dog that went belly-up to me in the veterinary consulting room, I would have been bitten many times.

When I first came to my conclusions about whether dominance existed as a condition which dogs aspired to, I had to equate my thoughts with existing definitions of dominance. The term was then bandied about (and still is in some quarters) as if the state of dominance was a fixed feature of a dog and the literature seemed to be tying itself in knots trying to explain why the ‘dominant’ dog might appear to be considerably less so in a different context. I am therefore trying to amalgamate the definitions of dominance relationships as well as pointing out that the purpose of them is to obviate the need for damaging aggression in a social animal. The labeling of a dog as ‘dominant’ or the diagnosis of ‘dominance problems’ in a dog biting the owner on trying to retrieve a stolen item is an oxymoron!

Also, most unfortunately, the e-collar used by some humans is still freely available for sale in the UK and is generally promoted and accepted by those same believers in ‘dominance’ and ‘submission.’ 5 Otherwise sensible and loving owners seem lulled by cognitive dissonance and the remote nature of the pain they are deliberately inflicting on their dog. Yet the application of such an alien sensation can do nothing but harm the fundamentally trusting nature of the dog-human relationship. The importance of the case presented in my book was, however, not so much that the e-collar was consigned to the bin, but rather that it was done voluntarily. Nothing is ever gained by preaching.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

I’m hoping that whatever page of the book happens to fall open as a reader flicks through, will present something of gentle yet educational interest. Whether it be an anecdote from personal experience, an analogy to help explain an otherwise dry behavioural theory, or the often emotional outcome of a legal case, the reader does not have to have ‘marked, learned and inwardly digested’ everything that has gone before in order to appreciate the contents. In fact, I envisage the book as being able to be picked up and learned from during even the briefest of coffee or tea breaks!



Neither Psychology Today nor I have any control over the advertisements that appear in this essay.

1) Dr. Kendal Shepherd, BVSc., MRCVS, qualified from Bristol University in 1978. With extensive experience in small animal practice, she was the first veterinary surgeon to be accredited by ASAB as a certificate clinical animal behaviourist in 2005. She is heavily involved in the behavioural assessment of dogs under both sections 1 and 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and also accepts instruction in welfare cases. Her particular interests are: promoting the need for vet/medic co-operation in thorough and expert investigation of all dog bite incidents, including fatalities, the routine education of children regarding dog bite prevention; and the encouragement of all veterinary professionals to routinely safeguard the behaviour of their patients in all the cases that they treat.

2) The book’s description reads: This practical guide for busy veterinarians demystifies the apparently complex nature of canine behaviour while simultaneously emphasising its importance. Authored by acclaimed veterinary behaviour consultant Kendal Shepherd, the book provides practical knowledge of dog behaviour and an understanding of how to talk about it with clients. Shepherd shows how this can enhance the relationship between owner and pet and between dog and environment, including the vet surgery, as well as improve the vet’s own sense of fulfilment and enjoyment of practice. From a discussion on the true nature of obedience to stressing the importance of behavioural indicators when assessing pain and mental welfare and finally by reminding vets of their obligations under Dangerous Dogs legislation, the emphasis is on the prevention of aggression throughout. Packed with anecdotes drawn from real-life cases, easy to read and understand, the principles explained can be effortlessly assimilated into the average consultation without the need for lengthy report-writing.

3) For more discussion of the importance of becoming dog-literate click here.

4) For more discussion on the general topic of dominance in dogs, which is not a myth, but rather a well-documented fact of life, click here. Also see, “Dominant Alpha Humans Don’t Garner Dogs’ Respect and Trust.

5) For more information on the harmful effects of e-collars click see “Is It Time to Ban Shock Collars for Dogs In All Situations?” and “Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged?

Bekoff, Marc. Should Shelters and Breeders Require Literacy in Behavior?

_____. For Dogs, Helicopter Humans Don’t Balance Scolds and Praise.

_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, University of Chicago Press, 2018.

_____. The Downside of Myths About Dogs.

_____. Do Dogs Bark Unnecessarily or Excessively? (To answer this question reliably it’s essential to take the dog’s point of view.)

_____. Canine Science Isn’t a Soft Science: Hard Dog Data Abound.

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019.

_____. Social Dominance Is Not a Myth. (Social dominance is real but has been widely misunderstood and misused.)

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

Author’s Books on Amazon

A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible

Understanding Dog Behavior – Editor’s Comments

Understanding dog behavior to the extent that you know what your dog is thinking and feeling must be good for your dog – right? So it follows that understanding dog behavior for a veterinarian must be as important if not more important since dogs are at their most vulnerable when the vet treats them.

Demystifying Dog Behaviour for the Veterinarian by the veterinarian Kendal Shepherd does what it says “on the tin” and helps to improve vets’ and dog owners’ understanding of dog behavior. Should it be on vets’ and dog owners’ bookshelves as a ready reference for to help us discover what dogs are thinking and feeling. Well I certainly think so. How about you?

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Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books, won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions, compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's latest books are Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (with Jessica Pierce) and he also publishes regularly for Psychology Today. Currently, Marc and Jessica are writing a book about what the world will be like for dogs as and when humans disappear (Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, Princeton University Press, 202?). In 1986 Marc won the Master's age-graded Tour de France. His homepage is marcbekoff.com.