Working as a registered veterinary technician in a day practice I’ve encountered hundreds of fearful dogs. With this occupation, you must learn to understand canine body language, recognize the signs and assess the risks. I’ve experienced it all, from subtle lip licking to submissive urination to a dog offensively baring his front teeth. As a Certified Dog Trainer I’ve learned that visits to the vet don’t have to be a stressful experience for your dog and certainly not for you.
Start at Home
Teach your pup that being handled is a good thing. There are several areas on your dog’s body that your veterinary professional will routinely examine. Locations such as ears, mouth and limbs will need special consideration so your dog is comfortable having them handled first by you, then by others. You can condition a positive association with body handling by pairing it with super tasty treats. It’s important to remember that when doing so the handling must predict the treat. You can watch our toe nail trimming video to learn more about how to create a positive emotional response with a type of handling that a dog typically finds aversive. You can also train a few behaviors using positive reinforcement methods that will come in handy for your upcoming visit. You can train a “Chin Rest” (see photo) either in your palm or on your lap. This training will cause exams of the head and blood draws become less stressful due to a reduced need for heavy restraint. You can teach your dog to “Touch” and follow your hand. This behavior can easily be transitioned to getting your pup on and off the scale, thereby eliminating a wrestling match. It’s also helpful to train your dog to “Settle on a Mat” or small roll up rug. Choose something that is easy to transport from a travel crate to the waiting area and to exam room table. Having this small “piece of home” which is associated with relaxing times serves as a wonderful “security blanket” for your pooch.
Before Your Appointment
As well as making a positive association with handling it’s important to create one with the hospital as well. Taking a little extra time prior to your pup’s appointment to familiarize your pup with the hospital will pay off big. If you have a young puppy investigate to see if your hospital offers in hospital puppy socialization classes. Many hospitals now offer safe, fun and informative puppy classes. These classes focus on socialization with similar aged puppies, unfamiliar people, and novelty stimuli in the hospital environment. Besides being critical for normal social development these classes are something that your pup will look forward to. If your dog is past the puppy socialization window (7 to 16 weeks) consider “Happy Visits” to the hospital. By going to the hospital and having several good experiences and getting treats instead of shots, your pup will learn to be less stressed. You’ll need to have several “Happy Visits” to equal one appointment, so don’t skimp on these! If your dog is already fearful of the hospital, try requesting an appointment during a quiet time of day. This can often be the first appointment of the morning, when the wait time is less and the foot traffic in and out of the hospital is low. Also, if your dog has become reactive to the stimuli in the waiting area, use your cell phone and call from the parking lot to let them know you have arrived. You can then wait in your vehicle with your dog until an exam room is ready.
It’s the Big Day
Appointment day is here! Don’t forget to pack a “Doggie Diaper Bag” prior to your departure with an abundance of high value treats, an interactive food toy (such as a peanut butter stuffed frozen KONG) and the settle mat. If your dog is off feed, you can bring his favorite toy or frozen low sodium chicken broth in a small container that he can lick at. Once you arrive at the hospital remember to maintain your space. Keep interactions with other canines and unfamiliar people to a minimum. If possible find a quiet spot away from the busy entrance, roll out your dog’s mat and engage him in a bit of training. Reward with tasty treats for keeping his focus on you, being able to respond to your cues and remaining calm. If your wait time is longer than expected pull out the frozen KONG or chicken broth and keep him busy. Once in the exam room, roll out the settle mat again but this time on the exam table and scatter several treats across it. Your pup will soon be looking forward to the treasure find on the exam table. If the exam table is already a scary place advise your veterinarian and ask if they would be willing to perform the exam on the floor. Most will appreciate the extra bit information and happily oblige. Dogs are masters at reading body language both canine and human so it’s important for you to take a deep breath and relax as well. Calm movements and a soothing voice can help set the tone. Just as you practiced in the waiting area remember to reward good behavior throughout the exam. If all else fails and your pup is excessively nervous or becomes aggressive with veterinary personnel, you might consider speaking to your veterinarian about prescribing a mild sedative to give prior to their appointment.
After the Fact
Once back home you will likely discover your pup is worn out from the big adventure so it’s important to arrange for a little down time in a quiet spot in the house. Remember to keep close watch on him and be on the lookout any adverse medication or vaccine reactions.
You Don’t Have to Fret
Your dog will likely require many visits to a veterinary hospital during its lifetime. A little time preparing and making positive associations with it before, during and after those visits will reduce stress and even make it fun for the dog and a happy, friendly experience for you, the doctor and the staff.