Teaching caregivers about animal behaviour - Veterinary Practice
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Teaching caregivers about animal behaviour

Understanding human psychology and how we learn new things can help veterinary professionals ensure the learning, understanding and cooperation of pet caregivers and owners

When we are working with animals, there are almost always people involved too, and we require the understanding and cooperation of caregivers for us to help their animals. But to increase owner understanding of their animal’s behaviour, we need to consider how humans learn.

Why do we need to consider human behaviour?

Abraham Maslow developed a hierarchical model of human needs (Figure 1) and proposed that the needs at the bottom need to be fulfilled before individuals can be expected to attend to the needs higher up.

FIGURE (1) Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Basic human needs

Considerations for fulfilling basic human needs in the veterinary scenario must occur before expecting people to be able to take on board important information about their animal.

Considerations for fulfilling basic human needs in the veterinary scenario must occur before expecting people to be able to take on board important information

These needs range from providing or ensuring there is access to refreshments and a toilet, to ensuring no individual is put into a situation or asked to do something they do not feel safe or comfortable doing. You also need to consider conducting risk assessments and implementing essential management strategies if safety is at risk due to an animal’s behaviour.

Psychological needs

Attending to psychological needs could involve:

  • Providing information before meeting the owner and their animal, including an outline of what they might need to do to prepare for visits, where they might need to go/park (using clearly visible signs on the premises if relevant) and what to expect from the visit. This might be in the form of a registration confirmation email, for example
  • Explicitly stating protocols regarding client confidentiality/GDPR compliance on your website or in confirmation details
  • Verbally outlining what the next stages are (reiterate in writing if required) at the end of a visit
  • Structuring the environment appropriately so all individuals feel included regardless of age, ability, space requirements, etc
  • Emphasising collaboration between the owner and the vet team. The language used can aid this, eg using “we” and asking the owner about their thoughts and ideas
  • Using genuine and appropriate humour, and finding familiar ground to enhance the relationship between the veterinary team member and owner
  • “Receive-listening” (Sawyer, 2021) – dialogue is more efficient if we avoid interrupting and take time to formulate our response after the owner has finished speaking. If this leads to a pause, it simply communicates that you are processing their words
  • Considering the emotional state of all learners (aiming for an environment where both the animal and caregiver(s) are in a positive emotional state)
  • Providing the owner with a sense of control
  • Building trust and rapport using open-ended questions, paraphrasing what the caregiver has said to ensure you understood them correctly, using lay language and expressing empathy and authentic kindness
  • Creating a non-critical environment by using positive reinforcement liberally. Social reinforcers such as smiling, genuine praise, head nods and quiet encouragement can help reduce anxiety
  • Staying within one’s professional remit
  • Being mindful of language used and body language that might be translated as judgemental


Esteem needs should be considered. These needs often include setting goals for individual caregivers to achieve, and respecting all individuals, ensuring that other members of the public who might be in the same environment respect one another. Focusing on teaching alternative human behaviours rather than responding to incorrect or undesirable behaviours also plays a role in this category.

Communicating with humans about their animal’s behaviour

Teaching caregivers about animal behaviour should aim to help them consider why their animal may be exhibiting certain behaviours. Is the animal in physical pain? Are they frightened? Are the animal’s basic welfare needs being met? Does the animal understand the cue? Is the animal relaxed enough to be able to pay attention?

Teaching caregivers about animal behaviour should aim to help them consider why their animal may be exhibiting certain behaviours

Owners can be encouraged to see that an animal might need help rather than being at fault. If our language and attitude towards the animal and human reflects the belief that both are thinking and feeling beings with underlying reasons for behaviour, the owner will usually be motivated to share the same views. This is especially true when the owner sees the effect this has on their animal.

If, in our great enthusiasm and desire to change views, the owner is flooded with information, we run the risk of appearing dictatorial or conflicting so much with the owner’s current beliefs and habits that they cannot accept new ideas.

How can the vet team educate owners about animal behaviour?

“Puppy parties” at the vets

Puppy party” sessions are advantageous in terms of teaching human and dog behaviour for various reasons:

  • They aim to create a positive association with the veterinary practice
  • They teach owners about basic dog behaviour – this may be the only instance when an owner obtains professional advice, as many will choose not to proceed with further guidance from professional trainers or behaviourists
  • A relationship is formed between the veterinary practice/staff and new owners
  • The veterinary practice becomes a source of information about behaviour, which means owners are more likely to turn to veterinary staff for behavioural advice in future if required

It is vital that staff members conducting puppy parties have some behavioural training to ensure that they are of benefit to the behavioural health of the puppies.

Off-lead play

The advantages of off-lead play between puppies are widely debated among behavioural professionals, with some firmly believing that off-lead social interaction between evenly matched puppies (in terms of boldness, size and age) is an imperative part of learning social skills. Others are of the view that puppies are not ideal candidates to teach each other the appropriate social skills. There is also a risk of puppies forming a high expectation of getting to play with other dogs (which can have further implications on walks).

If off-lead play is going to be part of these sessions, they must be overseen by someone experienced in dog behaviour [so] it is a positive experience for all puppies involved

Puppy party environments, therefore, can be used to teach the puppies to enjoy interacting with their owner while surrounded by the distractions of other puppies. What is universally agreed on, however, is that if off-lead play is going to be part of these sessions, they must be overseen by someone experienced in dog behaviour. This ensures it is a positive experience for all puppies involved, and no puppy is rehearsing inappropriate behaviour. Owners can also be taught about appropriate dog interactions during these sessions.

Visits to (or from) the vet

All veterinary staff, from receptionists and nurses to care assistants and vets, can teach caregivers about animal behaviour. It might be as simple as a receptionist asking an owner whether they’d like to wait outside with their dog if it is becoming increasingly stressed in the waiting area, or perhaps moving a chair for an owner so their animal has more space or isn’t sitting directly opposite or next to another animal in reception.

Maybe a nurse can teach an owner how to put eye drops in while highlighting body language signs that indicate when to stop and give the animal some space. Or, indeed, a vet might be able to explain to a client why they are letting the animal explore the consult room when they take their history or why they are examining the dog on the floor instead of the table. Veterinary professionals can also explain to owners the potential links between physical and behavioural issues and why it is important to address both – because the emotional welfare of the animal is equally as important as the physical welfare.

All veterinary staff, from receptionists and nurses to care assistants and vets, can teach caregivers about animal behaviour

Of course, clients will also ask vet staff specifically for behavioural advice. Therefore, it is ideal if there is a member of staff available to provide advice to ensure everyone’s safety and prevent any undesirable behaviour from escalating. Information must not be given outside an individual’s remit because inappropriate advice may be more detrimental to the animal’s behaviour than only providing management advice.

There may be a team member who has additional qualifications in animal behaviour who might be able to teach colleagues “on the job”. This is ideal and should be embraced because the whole veterinary team can become effective in reduced-stress handling procedures, body language and behaviour, helping to make visits as stress-free as possible. If owners know that a veterinary practice works this way, their anxiety about their animal’s vet visit will also be significantly reduced.

Pre-purchase consultations

Expectant first-time owners are like expectant parents in many respects, and providing forthcoming owners with behavioural advice before bringing a new pet home is hugely advantageous. Pre-purchase consults provide the opportunity to discuss expectations, settle the new animal into the home and build relationships with the owner(s). It is essential that whoever provides pre-purchase advice has sufficient behavioural knowledge to help at arguably the most crucial part of the relationship that is about to develop.

Final thoughts

Finally, it is worth considering our responsibilities as veterinary professionals. All vet professionals work as part of a team that looks after an animal’s physical and emotional well-being. (This team includes veterinary staff, behaviourists, trainers, riding instructors, groomers, physiotherapists, nutritionists, walkers, day care providers, and so on.) Recognising your area of expertise, sticking to it and referring to other professionals as appropriate keeps everyone safe and happy, and is a great way of learning more – because we are all still learning every day!

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