Imagine the scenario; your young puppy, who is not yet used to car journeys, is bundled into a car, feels sick on the journey and then arrives at a strange smelling new place. In this place there are wails and cries from other animals, he is hissed at by a cat in a nearby basket and lots of new people try to talk to him, whilst their dogs bark beside them.
The puppy is then taken into an enclosed room, a strange person leans over him to give him a very big, perfunctory pat on the head and he is unceremoniously lifted onto a table and held in a “death grip”. A very painful jab follows and the big scary person wrestles open the puppies mouth, sticks a thermometer up his bottom and puts some sort of contraption roughly down his ear canal.
For a puppy in their impressionable fear phase, this can be hugely disconcerting or, worse still, it can prove to be a traumatic experience.
Maybe the next time he comes to this place he is unwell and is subjected to more poking and prodding. This time he has an injured nail treated. He is held very still by a Vet and a Vet Tech and his very sore nail is poked and prodded. Now he is really starting to get very uncomfortable in this place.
On his next visit, the Vet wants to look at a sore ear. This time your dog is already in a lot of pain, is anticipating being restrained and being subjected to pain. In his fear he starts to show signs of being very uncomfortable, he tries to let you all know, he gives a warning growl and the Vet advises the Vet Tech to hold tighter. You scold him for being naughty and, before you know it, the dog feels completely confused and trapped and bites.
In this situation, the owner and the Vet, of course, only want to help the dog but, often the way that this is handled is not in their best interest. It is a much more common type of scenario than you may think and who can blame the poor dog really? There are many dogs that are extremely anxious when visiting the vets and it is up to us owners and the vet practices to change this.
So, what can you and your Vet do to help change your dog’s perception of the Surgery?
The ultimate goal is to have your dog love visiting the vet – every time!
Table of Contents
1. Recognise that they are stressed
The first thing is to be looking out for signs that your dog is frightened. Not every dog will be scared when they first visit the vet but you should be looking out for those subtle body language signals. It is not just trembling and whining that are stress signifiers.
- Have their tail tucked between their legs
- Be trying to hide, perhaps under the waiting room chair or under the examination table
- Be showing the whites of their eyes
- Have their ears pressed flat against their head
They may also be showing subtle appeasement signs to try to diffuse what they perceive as a stressful situation. These can include:
- Frequent lip licking
- Avoiding eye contact
- Lifting a paw
- Excessive sniffing
- Tail wagging when they are clearly not having fun!
Yawning is not just a sign of being tired for a dog, it can also be a sign of stress
2. Be aware that pain can heighten stress levels
Often when you are visiting the vets, it is because your dog is unwell or had an accident. They may be in pain. Pain heightens a dog’s levels of anxiety. They will be more sensitive to strange situations and handling a dog when they are in pain can be extremely stressful for them. It is important to be aware of this and ensure that you and your Vet are very careful about how you handle the dog in these circumstances.
3. Look for a vet practice that is supportive of positive training techniques and low-stress handling techniques
If your Vet is not supportive of helping your dog to associate the place with positive experiences, is not willing to be patient and gentle with the way they handle your dog or is not happy to work with you whilst you try to help your dog overcome their extreme reaction to visiting the vet, then it may be time to look for another Practice. Most vets will be more than happy to help you but, if not, don’t be afraid to look elsewhere. Your dog’s welfare should be the priority.
Being restrained by a stranger when they are already worried can be a frightening experience for your dog
4. Make vet visits fun for new puppies
Most dogs learn to be frightened of the vets as a result of their experiences whilst in them. Starting off on the right paw is the best way to avoid your dog developing an extreme reaction going forward.
5. Visit the vet even when you don’t need an appointment
This is a really important one, especially if your dog currently has a very extreme reaction to visiting. If they are only visiting whenever they are needing to have intrusive examinations or treatments it will be difficult to change their perception of the vets and their reaction is only likely to get more extreme with each appointment. By visiting outwith these times, not only are you getting in many more opportunities for training sessions, but these sessions will not be associated with something potentially scary.
If you have a supportive practice they should be happy for you to visit whenever you need to, as long as you are not disrupting their normal business.
If your dog has an extreme reaction, consider making multiple trips where you just get out and walk around the area outside the practice, always making sure that you reward your dog with treats. Then progress to popping into the waiting area, initially just for very short periods, and continuing to reward with treats. After this progress to sitting in the waiting room for a bit. Perhaps ask the vet staff if they can feed your dog some treats too.
If they get frightened in the consultation room, perhaps the staff would be willing to allow you to take your dog into an empty room as part of the process.
6. It is all about desensitisation and counter-conditioning
The process being described above is known as desensitisation and counter-conditioning. This is a crucial part of the process of changing your dog’s fearful reaction towards a vet visit.
You want to be gradually re-introducing your dog to visiting the vet and pairing it with positive things (the super yummy treats), so that your dog begins to associate the vets with good things rather than bad, eventually changing their reaction from a fearful one to a happy and relaxed one.
Depending on your dog’s level of anxiety, this process can vary in terms of how quickly you will start to see a change. It is important to build up the steps gradually, always use your dog’s favourite food reward and not to push them too fast.
For dogs that have had a very traumatic experience in the vets in the past, it is important to start from scratch. They will likely be too stressed to jump right into trying to take treats when they are in an appointment. Start the process before you need to visit for an appointment and build up your reintroductions using the steps described above.
7. Practise “examinations” at home
Sometimes part of the stress of a vet visit for your dog can be the poking and prodding they are subjected to on the consultation table. When we are petting our dogs at home, it is rare for part of that ritual to be us closely examining their paws, or isolating their nails. We don’t tend to fiddle about with their ears, looking into their ear canal and we rarely lift their lips to look at their teeth.
This means, when a strange Vet does this, especially if your dog is being restrained and forced into having this done to them, it can be extremely upsetting for them.
By practising at home, it can make this seem a much less unusual and scary experience when it then happens in the vet. Make sure that when you are doing this that it is always paired with tasty rewards and praise and that your dog is comfortable and relaxed. Hopefully, your dog will start to relate a paw examination with getting something super yummy and be quite happy when the Vet then takes a look at their next exam. Don’t forget to be armed with lots of their favourite treats when you are at the vet visit too!
Set up “practice” check-ups in a relaxed home environment and with someone they trust. Get your dog used to having their teeth, ears and feet being checked, all with the use of yummy treats so they see it as a good thing
8. Waiting rooms can be scary places – you don’t have to sit in them
If your dog finds the whole vet experience terrible, even just sitting in the waiting room can be super stressful. By the time they have sat in the waiting room for ten minutes waiting for their appointment, they may be much more stressed than when they first arrived. This makes the actual consultation even more terrifying.
Whilst you are working on reducing your dog’s negative reaction towards a vet visit, it may be worth avoiding the waiting room if you can. If it is cool enough, perhaps you and your dog could wait in the car until you get a wave from the vet staff. Maybe you want to go for a little stroll around the immediate vicinity until the Vet is ready.
Your ultimate goal will be to have your dog feel happy and relaxed with all parts of the visit, but whilst you are working on it, baby steps may be needed and management to help keep your dog as relaxed as possible can help in the early days.
9. Don’t be afraid to ask for your dog to have the space they need
If you are in the waiting room and someone sits beside you with a big, boisterous, overexcited new puppy and they want to let their puppy “play” with your dog, they may mean well but this is likely to make your already stressed out dog more anxious. Don’t be afraid to explain that your dog is nervous and needs his space. The owner will more than likely be completely understanding and, if they are not, be your dogs advocate and get up and move to give them the space they need.
10. Don’t scold them!
When you have scared dog it is really important not to scold them for any fearful behaviour that they display that you may not like. They will only be exhibiting this behaviour because they are highly uncomfortable and if you then reprimand them when they are already frightened you will just make their fear even worse.
Either move them out of the situation that is making them uncomfortable or try to manage it as quickly and best you can and then go back to gradually building up positive associations when possible.
Reassurance can be good. It is a myth that giving a dog a cuddle if they are looking for one can help to reinforce their fear. It is important though that you are careful not to reinforce your dog’s fears by unintentionally conveying your worried reactions
Vet visits can be stressful for us too. If you have a very poorly dog and you are worried about them, seeing them getting further distressed purely because of where they are can be extremely upsetting. Whilst some dogs do relax much more by getting reassurance from their owners, it is important not to transfer your own anxieties onto your dog. If you are speaking in a frightened tone, grabbing them in a fretting manner when you wouldn’t normally, or perhaps holding their lead much shorter and tighter than normal, you can make your dog feel more fearful. Try to stay calm and relaxed and if you are aware you are making your dog feel more nervous and you trust the vet staff to be gentle and kind, it may be better for you to leave the consultation room in this instance.
Don’t get frustrated and offering reassurance if your pup is looking for it
11. Go to the vets with a hungry dog
Whenever you visit the vet, whether it is a “practice” trip or for a proper appointment, unless you can’t for treatment reasons, it is good to come along with a dog that is hungry. If you have a morning appointment, maybe don’t give them their breakfast that morning. That way when you are working on your desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme they are likely to be more receptive as they will be even more motivated by the yummy treats you are using.
12. Distraction can works wonders
If your dog is only mildly anxious, distraction techniques can work well. Whilst in the waiting room you may want to work on some training exercises. Asking for a down, stay or a paw or some other trick you have been working on can be good to keep them focused on you rather than on the scariness of the environment. Obviously, if your dog is extremely anxious this may be too much for them and will have to be worked up to gradually.
If your dog is mildly anxious in the waiting room, why not distract them by asking for some familiar behaviours and reward these with yummy treats
13. Consider using calming aids
Using products that can help take the edge off your dog’s stress levels can be useful to support them in getting to a place where they will be receptive to desensitisation and counter-conditioning. ADAPTIL is a dog appeasing pheromone that can help sometimes reduce your dog’s levels of anxiety. It comes in a spray or a collar version and it may be worth trying to see if it helps your dog be a little bit more receptive to training.
Anxiety wraps like a Thundershirt are also worth considering. These “hug” the body at calming pressure points and can also help to relieve anxiety. It is important not to only put this on when visiting the Vet, but at other times too, otherwise they could start associating this with the vet and become frightened of the shirt and also more anxious in advance of arrival.
14. A muzzle may be worth considering whilst you are working on a behaviour modification programme
In an ideal world, if you have a dog that is extremely fearful of the Vet and they have exhibited aggressive reactions when being examined before, you would go back to basics. You would set up a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme where they are reintroduced to the surgery again gradually; first just outside, then in the waiting room and then in the consultation room (without an exam) and so on. This would all be done very gradually, over an extended period of time and with the help of lots of super yummy treats. This would mean that you would know that when a physical exam is required, you and your dog would be ready to introduce this stage feeling much more relaxed and things would be much more likely to succeed.
Life doesn’t always work like that though and sometimes unavoidable consultations may be required before you feel ready to introduce your dog to that stage.
If this is the case and you know your dog can have an extreme reaction, to minimise any risk to you or the vet staff, a muzzle may need to be considered.
If your dog is not used to wearing a muzzle, this in itself can be extremely stressful and that can then make the whole vet visit even more scary than normal.
To avoid this we would suggest working on getting your dog used to wearing a muzzle at home before it may need to be used at the vet.
You would start by introducing the muzzle just by sight. Every time you bring the muzzle out your dog gets a tasty treat. Move onto rewarding anytime your dog touches the muzzle, then anytime they put their nose in a little, you may want to put the treat inside the muzzle to encourage this. You would then gradually build up the length of time they keep their nose in the muzzle until you can introduce strapping it on. Your ultimate goal is to have them excited when they see the muzzle and relaxed when it is left on.
Make sure you pick a well-fitting basket style muzzle. This should be one that stays on securely but that also allows your dog to pant freely and take treats and drink water.
15. Make sure your dog is not stressed out on the journey to the vet
Is your dog stressed out in the car? If they are we would always suggest working on a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme to change this. This is especially true if they are also frightened of the vet. Combining two stressful experiences in one go can just be too much for some dogs. If they are already stressed out after the car journey it will be harder to work on trying to have them feel more relaxed in the vets.
If your dog is stressed in the car this can make a trip to the vet even scarier. You may need to work on getting your dog to feel more relaxed in the car too
16. Refer to the resources of trailblazers like Dr Marty Becker and the late, great Sophia Yin
Whilst most Vets have their clients best interests at heart, very few of them have had any behaviour training as part of their Veterinary studies. This means that they may not recognise the signs of stress in your dog and they may not realise that their rushed, forceful treatment during a consultation may be making your dog’s fear worse.
In recent years there has been a shift in awareness amongst Vets in relation to understanding dog behaviour and the importance of low-stress handling and other factors within a vet practice.
Dr Sophia Yin was a huge trailblazer in this field. A practising Veterinarian and Animal Behaviourist, she tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness amongst veterinary professionals and owners alike about the importance of gentle, scientifically proven techniques for modifying animal behaviour and on low-stress handling techniques within practices.
She tragically passed away in 2014, but her legacy continues and you can read more about her work here.
Dr Marty Becker is another great influencer in this field. He is the founder of the Fear Free initiative, which focuses on a kind and gentle approach to handling animals in a calming veterinary environment.