Recognizing Canine Communication

Recognizing Canine Communication Cues and Behaviours for the Safe Practice of Canine Osteopathy

By Erica Tramuta-Drobnis, VMD, MPH, CPH, February 2021

Staying safe while practicing canine osteopathy

Understanding canine behaviour and communication cues is critical to ensure successful treatment outcomes in canine osteopathy. Osteopathy treatment addresses a wide variety of ailments. These can include orthopaedic injuries, arthritis, chronic pain syndromes, acute trauma, and surgical recovery. However, to effectively provide these management services, practitioners need to practice safe animal handling.

Becoming familiar with canine behaviour and communication cues is critical to your success and safe interactions with your patients. Animals do not talk quite the way we wish they could. However, they speak volumes with their body language. Recognising these cues and understanding what your patients saying can differentiate between a successful treatment or a trip to the emergency room.

Introduction to canine behavior

All interactions with animals, even by trained professionals, need to occur without harm. How to stay safe and have a mutually acceptable relationship with you and your patient depends upon your ability to recognize cues the dog demonstrates throughout your interactions.

Non-verbal communications

When working with your patient, you may see signals indicating your patient's different moods or acceptance levels. Acceptance of you, of the situation, and the therapy is critical to your osteopathy plan's success. Remember that

  • You need to evaluate the entire body while assessing the dog's body language.
  • A fine line exists between anxiety and fear signs. Recognizing this is critical to ensure escalation to aggression and harm does not occur.
  • Dogs can easily switch from anxiety to fear to aggression to contentment, sometimes with apparent changes in manners, but the change is often very subtle.
  • Always ensure you keep an eye on your patient, even if focused on treating a specific part of the body. This allows you to detect changes and respond appropriately (Tramuta-Drobnis,2019a).

Signs of a content dog

Table 1 Discusses common behaviors shown by a relaxed dog. Most people recognize the play bow and the loose tail wag.

Loose, tail wagging ***Relaxed earsCuddlingSitting close
Relaxed eyes, SoftLoose lipsSeeking attentionRolling onto back,relaxed legs,
"Please rub my belly- like."
PlayfulTake treats/food willinglyFace licking/nuzzling

Table 1 Signs of a content, calm dog. Adapted from (Tramuta-Drobnis, 2019a & Tramuta-Drobnis, 2019b).

Subtle Behaviors indicating stress and anxiety

Table 2 Shows various behaviors, and body postures often demonstrated in various degrees suggestive of stress and anxiety. Sometimes these behaviors occur all at once, oryou may notice a select few. Once appreciated, take action to minimize the pet's stress, and you should see the signs abate. If you continue with your treatment despite the signs, they can escalate, putting you and the pet in harm's way.

Table 2. Behavioral indicators of stress and anxiety. Adapted from (Tramuta-Drobnis, 2019a & Tramuta-Drobnis, 2019b).

In addition to signs of anxiety and stress, fearful dogs may also demonstrate these actions in Table 3.

Standing low to the ground, tenseWeight shifted back
Whale eyed/plastered stare
("Deer in headlights appearance")
Usually, retreat
May growl or vocalizeTense shaking

Table 3:Additional signs of fearful dogs. Adapted from (Tramuta-Drobnis, 2019).

Please see Figure 1 for a visual image of some of the described behaviors.

Figure 1. Body Language of Fear in Dogs. A pictorial image of various signs of stress and anxiety in dogs. Obtained from Originally adapted from Dr. Sophia Yin,2015.

Your own body language matters

To discuss what the dog may do alone is to neglect the role you play. To succeed at practicing canine osteopathy, you need to understand canine anatomy and biomechanics. However, you must also understand how to interact with your patients safely and in a non-threateningmanner. Things to consider include

  • Standing to the side. Do not face the dog directly; stand with your body turned 45 degrees. This makes youl ess threatening.
  • Do not stand over the dog.
  • Let the dog initiate contact, coming to you.
  • Put your hand out at a lowl evel for them and allow the pet to sniff you. Do not attempt to grab at the dog.
  • Avoid direct eye contact, as this can be threatening.
  • Avoid reaching over the dog's head or crossing over their body.
  • Move slowly—no sudden movements.
  • Do not hug the dog. After a brief interaction, stop and allow the dog to regroup. The dog may seek more affection or may turn away.
  • Always watch for signs of stress. If cues suggest stress, walk away, change your position, leave there for a bit, and then reattempt to connect.
  • Speak calmly and quietly (Cattett, 2014;Tramuta-Drobnis, 2019a & b; Ziegler, 2009).

Where most dogs tolerate petting and ma

When first getting to know your patient,perform a consent test. Start interacting, petting, giving treats, and then stop your initial interactions. See if the dog walks away or solicits additional contact. Allow the dog to be involved in the decision-makingprocess. Do not force the dog to be restrained or force the dog to interact until it is ready.

When petting the dog, pet  

  • Under the chin
  • The side of the chest behind the shoulder area or
  • On the shoulders

Most dogs do not like having someone pet the top of their head directly. Avoid holding/restraining them by the collar or neck alone, and try not to hold the muzzle closed.

Patient Consent: Cooperative care

Cooperative care is a mutual relationship between you, the practitioner, and the pet. It allows the pet to participate in their care. The pet willingly decides to partake in their osteopathic treatment. This ensures a better outcome both medically and socially for all involved (Jones, 2018). See the resources below for additional information.

If you interact and force a dog to dosomething it does not want to, stress can ensue in both the osteopath and the patient. It can create long-lasting stress long after the situation.

If the pet requires a muzzle, muzzle training at home before the visits may be warranted. Using cooperative care training,the owner can train their dog to readily accept a muzzle and associate it with good things. The pet can then come muzzled or readily allow the owner to muzzlethe pet for safe handling.

Anytime the pet's behavioral cues escalate,demonstrating an increase in anxiety, take a step back. That pet is saying no.

Slow and steady wins the race

Have owners monitor the dog even before they get to you for signs of stress. While in the waiting room, if the owner appreciates nose or lip licking, low ears, yawning or whining, even panting,the pet is demonstrating signs of stress. Knowing this ahead of time is key to preventing escalation.

You may not be able to do your canine osteopathy treatments on the first, second, or even 5th session. Owners may have to do some work at home after making the initial osteopathic diagnosis via observation and gait analysis. You may not institute your treatment plan untilt he patient learns to trust you over time. See additional resources below.

In summary

At any time, a stressed, anxious, or calm dog can become aggressive. You must always be vigilant, always paying attention to sudden changes in behavior. Monitor for slight changes in ear position, tail posture, and eye changes to ensure you can anticipate the unexpected!

Remember that you need to use your senses too. It is not just one body part that you need to monitor. The individual signs they show are taken collectively with their overall body posture,demeanor, and cooperation or lack thereof.

Never force the dog to do something they don ot want to. Allow the pet to take part in the decision to accept yourt reatment. Remain calm. A painful dog may behave differently than he/she would typically.This may trigger the pet to become stressed sooner rather than later.

Learning to recognize the signs of stress will help you protect yourself and your staff and keep the pet safe and minimize anxiety. By doing all this, you can ensure your treatment is successful and that your osteopathy therapy provides the needed relief the pet and owner seek.

Stay tuned for our next blog, reviewing signs of pain in our furry canine friends. Canine Osteopaths need to understand and recognize signs of pain to properly treat their patients and monitor therapy response.


  1.  Muzzle use training: The MuzzleUp Project aims to educate and train on the safe use of muzzles and animal behavior.
  2. Cooperative Care resources
  3. Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry, by Deborah Jones Ph.D., ISBN-13: 978-0578423135
  4. Cooperative care videos byDeborah Jones, Ph.D.,
  6. Clicker training information:
  7. Understanding your dog's body language:

Works Cited:

Cattett, J. (2014). 5loving ways to pet a dog [Dog Behaviour Website]. Smart Animal TrainingSystems Pet Tutor.

Jones,D. (2018). Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry.

Tramuta-Drobnis,E. (2019a). Canine and feline behavior and handling. [Power PointPresentation]. Lehigh Valley County Animal Response Team, Allentown, PA.Unpublished.

Tramuta-Drobnis, E. (2019b). Animal Behavior and Rabies. [Power Point Presentation]. Allentown Bureau ofHealth, Allentown, PA. Unpublished.

Ziegler,T. (2009, September 9). Behavior [Power Point Presentation]. AmericanHumane Society Presentation.


Blog Post written by:
Erica Tramuta-Drobnis, VMD, MPH, CPH