Understanding Dog and Cat Behaviour

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Animal Behaviour and Positive Interactions with Dogs and Cats

In all of our interactions with dogs and cats, it is important to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) as much as possible. Research has shown that a high level of FAS is detrimental to animal welfare and the human-animal bond. One of the ways that we can prevent and reduce FAS is by understanding how dogs communicate so that we can evaluate their emotional state during training, handling, and social interactions.


Dogs communicate through both visual displays of body language, vocalization, and through scent. Although we do not have the ability to understand dogs’ scent communication, we can learn a lot about their emotional state by reading their body language. Understanding what a dog is trying to tell us through their body language is essential for the good welfare of the dog and our own safety. 

Dr. Sophia Yin and Lili Chin created a basic body language chart to help people to understand the body language behind what dogs are communicating. Follow the link to look through the body language charts. 

Dogs are social animals and need interaction with others, so it is important to make positive interactions with them. Communication or training that instills fear can cause dogs to become anxious and/or aggressive. Research shows that training using ‘reward-based’ methods rather than punishment-based, or dominance-based approaches, resulted in dogs that were more obedient, less aggressive and less anxious. Reward based training is a great way to build the bond we share with our dogs, and provides enrichment through mental stimulation.

Here are some resources on dog training: 

Training With Rewards (DogsTrust)

What is Positive Reinforcement in Dog Training? (Companion Animal Psychology)

Training 101 (Fear Free Happy Homes)

A dog needs people who understand dog body language and interact in ways that do not cause fear.

What does the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Kennels say about handling dogs?

  • “Dogs are social animals and require social interaction with their own species and with people. They do not do well in isolation.
  • Where possible, animals should spend time outside the kennel environment, which may include being walked on leash, spending time in a home setting, riding in the car, etc.
  • Dogs that bark excessively, hide at the back of the pen, refuse to come to regular attendants, or demonstrate aggressive tendencies when approached are not likely to socialize well with people, and should not be bred.
  • Unsocialized dogs are fearful of people, may become fear-biters, and are more difficult to handle and control. Early exposure of puppies to people (socialization) greatly influences the future acceptability of the animal in a home setting. Daily socialization must be a regular component of every kennel operation and breeding program.
  • Puppies that are not sold at 8 weeks of age should receive a minimum of 20 minutes twice a day of individual (i.e., away from both visual and physical contact with littermates and other dogs) socialization with people in order to prevent the puppy from imprinting on other dogs and resulting in an inability to adapt to human owners when eventually sold.”
Excerpts obtained from the Code of Practice for Kennel Operations (3rd Edition, 2018), Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.


Dogs need activities that allow them to express normal behavior. Some dogs enjoy toys to tug, chew, and manipulate. Food dispensing toys provide ways for dogs to obtain their food and allow them to express behaviors such as chasing, sniffing, and chewing. Training activities, walks, and play with humans and/or other dogs also provide enrichment. 

Here are some resources on providing dog activities and enrichment: 

Activities & Enrichment for Dogs (Fear Free Happy Homes)

Canine DIY Enrichment (American SPCA)

Teaching Your Dog New Skills (Dogs Trust)

What does the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Kennels say about enrichment for dogs?

“Enrichments” should be supplied to dogs to provide an environment that will enhance the dogs’ well-being and permit them to live in many social environments in a compatible manner. Such enrichments should include toys, exposure to canine and human companions, and daily exercise in an outdoor area. 

Dogs need people that provide enrichment on a daily basis.

Excerpts obtained from the Code of Practice for Kennel Operations (3rd Edition, 2018), Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.


Cats use a variety of ways to communicate with each other and with their owners. Body language and scent are very important. When cats communicate with people, they may display different body postures and vocalize using different volume, pitch, tone and rhythm.

 Check out Fear Free Happy Homes’ reference guide to learn more about the signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in cats. 

Handling a cat also requires a respectful relationship. Cats should be lifted gently by placing a hand behind the front legs and another under the hindquarters. A cat should not be picked up by the scruff of the neck (behind the ears) or by the front legs without supporting its rear end.

 Cats need people who provide safe, respectful handling.


What does the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Catteries say about enrichment and play?

“The physical and mental well-being of domestic cats in confined facilities is greatly improved in an environment where the cats can express a wide range of normal feline behaviours. The complexity of a cat’s needs should be kept in mind when designing and developing catteries or other animal quarters. The cats must be allowed to engage in as many species-typical activities as possible. 

Play is an important factor in feline well-being. Cats and kittens should have the opportunity to engage in simulated hunting behaviour through play, including behaviours that simulate the hunting sequence. They should also have opportunities for inanimate play with rolling and batting toys. Play may be facilitated through enrichment devices, cat-to-cat contact, or human-cat interaction.”

Excerpts from the Code of Practice for Cattery Operations (2009) by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have been used with permission.

Although cats are not social in the ways dogs are, they are still animals that need to socialize with humans and sometimes other cats. Cats enjoy stimulating physical facilities and activities. 

Cats also like to play. Cats and kittens should have the opportunity to use their hunting behaviours through play, including behaviours that simulate the hunting sequence. They like to play with rolling and batting toys. A prey-sized moving object will get a cat’s attention. Toys that move and make noise will also intrigue a cat. It’s important that the cat can catch the toy during play sessions. Activities such as chasing a laser beam are very frustrating because the cat can never achieve the goal of catching the “prey”. 

To keep a cat interested in its toys, change the toys every few days. Make sure that the toys are clean and sanitized if cats share them. 

Cats love to use cardboard boxes to hide or perch and jump down or pounce. They also enjoy places that give them a different viewing point or a place where they can hide. 

Check out the information by Alberta SPCA on the importance of cat play. 

Access to toys enriches the environment for cats and stimulates play activity. 

  • Play behaviour and climbing needs may be supplied by other climbing structures like cat trees.
  • Furniture and toys should not restrict the free floor space necessary for socialization with other cats. 

Cats’ patterns of play reflect predatory behaviour specialized for prey such as rodents or birds. A prey-sized moving object will draw a cat’s attention. Appropriate toys create movement and noise that intrigue the cat. 

  • Toys may be hung or placed to encourage jumping, batting, pouncing and running. It is also important that toys are safe and don’t have small parts that could be ingested. 
  • Toys need to be changed about every three days to generate renewed interest, and may be reintroduced after a short period of removal. It is important that toys are appropriately sanitized if they are interchanged among different groups. 

Cardboard boxes placed in the housing area are popular for hiding places or resting areas. Specially designed boxes improve cat well-being by providing: 

  • Opportunities to engage in a wide range of behaviour (hiding, perching, jumping up/down). 
  • Choice of viewing points. 
  • Choice of textures.
  • Opportunities for marking (face rubbing on box) and scratching. 
  • More control over the amount of exposure to people or other cats.

Cats need people who understand that cats see, hear, feel and smell the world in their own way.

A cat needs a place to play and toys to play with.


Scratching is a behavioural need for cats and they will scratch furniture, walls, and floors if not given appropriate outlets. Scratching posts also allow for cat-cat olfactory communication.

Scratching posts are a good way to allow cats to engage in this behaviour in an appropriate way. The post should be high enough for the cat to fully extend its body when scratching. Some cats like to scratch horizontal surfaces. The post should be high enough for the cat to fully extend its body when scratching. Some cats like to scratch horizontal surfaces. Suitable materials for scratching posts can include a solid wooden post positioned securely and covered with sisal, carpet, or cardboard. Group housing should be equipped with several scratching posts, preferably placed both vertically and horizontally to provide for varying preferences by the cats. 

A cat needs a place to scratch and stretch.


Socialization with people and other cats is a critical part of every cattery operation. Cats that are not socialized with people and other cats become undesirable pets for most people and are unsuitable for breeding. 

Socialization is a response to learned behaviour. The ability to become sociable differs from cat to cat and may relate to genetic or family dispositions. However, any cat raised in isolation or deprived of sufficient contact with animals of its own kind will develop abnormal social behaviour. Auditory socialization should be provided in kennel or breeding facilities. Kittens should be exposed to household sounds such as toilets flushing, vacuum cleaners and doorbells to prepare them for home life. 

Social relationships develop within the first two months of a cat’s life. Following this time period, cats need continued socialization with other cats if they will be living in a multi-cat household. 

Social behaviour is also fostered by interactions with humans. The socialization of kittens to people must be introduced within the kitten’s first three weeks of life. Older kittens should receive human contact for a minimum of 40 minutes daily. Contact with more than one person increases acceptance of humans later in life.

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Activity 4.1 – Managing Risks  

Dogs and cats communicate with us through their body language. Noticing signs of fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) is important to ensuring good welfare. Taking steps to reduce FAS by considering how our interactions and the environment we provide affects dogs and cats is also essential.

Activity Instructions

In your Module 4 activity booklet, answer the questions about fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS). Use the materials from this module and the web resources to help you. 

Photo courtesy of Erica Cheung

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