Creating a Therapeutic Environment


Every day colleagues come to rehab just to take a couple of deep breaths, “It’s so calm down here.” Working with animals is not inherently calm, it’s peaceful because we make serenity a practice. The tool we use is the Behavior Continuum. In very basic terms it describes a dog’s behaviors along a continuum from calm and engaged in the environment to stress to the point of fight, flight or bite. Somewhere on that continuum a functional threshold exists, the point at which the dogs shifts from calm to stress. The goal of a therapeutic environment is to help dogs relax to a state below functional threshold. And interestingly, the environment that keeps dogs calm is soothing to humans, too.

Dogs tell us if they are moving through the continuum from calm towards stress with specific behavior signals. Some of these signals are reflexive, or unintentional. Other signals are volitional, or intentional. Here are some examples of intentional signals that tell us a dog is moving from calm to stress.  These photos were taken during a marketing photo shoot in 2009, a perfect example of humans (me) not listening to the dog:


These photos are the perfect example of how we, the human, are so engaged in what is supposed to be happening that we are not paying a bit of attention to the dog. Which is why, in a rehabilitation department, the eyes must always be in on the dog. With our eyes on the dog we can see when they are reaching functional threshold and we can make changes help them de-escalate.

We modify the environment to make the dog comfortable – if a dog is terrified of other dogs, we don’t place him in a crate in the middle of the busy therapeutic exercise area and expect him to modify his behavior to fit our space, we tuck him in a dark corner of my office with the lights down low and the spa music listing through the air.

We modify our evaluation course to make the dog comfortable – if a dog doesn’t want to lie down, she doesn’t have to, we complete our passive range of motion in standing.

We modify our treatment course to make the dog comfortable – if a dog doesn’t want to be stretched today, they will not be stretched.

We allow the dog to express his needs – sometimes a dog doesn’t like what we are doing and they begin to communicate using signals. If we accidentally ignore them the signals might escalate to showing their teeth or growling; we never reprimand them for this expression, instead we remove our hands, apologize for not listening, and thank them for sharing. And then we don’t do it again (and we apply a muzzle as necessary).

A common question I hear from rehabilitation interns early in their internship is, “How can you get anything done using therapeutic handling?” The answer is, in the beginning we often don’t get everything done. But it’s a very good trade for us. What we get in return for less in the beginning, is the most important thing in a therapeutic relationship – trust. Our patients know that we hear and respect them, so in time they listen and respect us. This reciprocal communication is the therapeutic agreement; I agree to listen and they agree to allow me to treat. And then together we can take a couple of deep breaths.  

For information on how to integrate therapeutic handling into your practice visit Complete K9 Training.


Sasha A Foster