Strange dog behaviour no one tells you about in vet school

All vets have a responsibility to help their patients live healthily and happily. But many vets simply don’t take the time to understand the signs of distress in dogs. Dr Martin Godbout, Board Certified Veterinary Behaviourist, says all vets should be able to identify when their patient is feeling scared, anxious or aggressive.

“I was shocked to learn that many aggressive dogs are euthanised for this reason,” Martin says. “One of the most shocking statistics is that almost all episodes of dog aggression towards children can be prevented by simply educating people on basic communication.”

One of the biggest myths about dog psychology is that all dogs respond to a hierarchical structure and want to be dominant all the time. Martin says this misconception has a detrimental effect on the quality of life of many dogs.

“A better understanding of animal behaviour and reading body language could help contribute to better communication and an increased quality of life for both the animals and their owners,” he says.

So what are some of the other big misconceptions we have about dogs and their behaviour?

“The correlation between a wagging tail and happiness is one of them,” Martin says. “Another one is misinterpreting the signs of aggression as an attempt to play. Not considering signs of fear or anxiety, or thinking that a panting dog is just happy or thirsty, are things I would want all vets to be educated on.”

Even though dog psychology is not part of all veterinary school curriculums, Martin is confident that most vets develop a kind of sixth sense about reading dogs’ body language just by being exposed to them every day in their practice.

“Knowledge about dog psychology could definitely be improved among veterinary staff,” he says. “But studies show that most veterinary team members know a lot more than they think.”

Still, Martin believes vets could improve the health outcomes of their patients by making an effort to understand behaviour early on in their careers. “My advice for young veterinarians would be to consider behaviour just like any other field of veterinary medicine, such as dermatology or cardiology,” he says. 

“The same scientific approach and rigour should apply. Start observing animal behaviour at the veterinary clinic on your first day of practice. By taking only a few minutes to observe animals in this unfamiliar environment, you will rapidly be able to detect behaviours that seem unusual. You will then be able to ask more questions about the animal’s behaviour at home and educate owners on possible correlations.”

By taking steps to improve your knowledge on dogs’ behavioural development, basic communication principles, body language and learning processes, you can make a meaningful difference in your patients’ and clients’ lives.


Hear more from Dr Martin Godbout and other veterinary experts at the AVA Conference.

Register before 24 April to take advantage of early bird discounts.