Helping Fearful Dogs Cope When Visiting the Veterinarian

Jean L. Tomaselli-Dawkins CPDT

My employment as a veterinary assistant began in the local clinic when I was in high school. Over time, I became a veterinary technician and eventually a critical care nurse for animals. I developed a reputation as a person whom was able to handle difficult animals. I was frequently called upon to hold fractious cats and sedate “land shark” dogs. As a veterinary technician the unfortunate reality is that, if you need to treat a dog who is petrified, you just have to get it done. There are three vets needing help, six patients waiting in the lobby and those nails just need to be cut before King gets picked up by his owner. So to cut King’s nails you may have to muzzle, restrain, wrestle, etc. The dog may experience stress, fear, and trauma while certainly nobody is able to communicate to him exactly why we have to get these things done. Often the pet is left with a poor impression of the “goings on” at the annual vet visit as well as a truck load of anxiety to boot. Fortunately, many practices make valiant efforts to avoid this scene. They conscientiously use techniques that reduce the stress, pain and anxiety of the pets they provide medical care for. This is a key component of the ethical training veterinary professionals receive.

One of the topics my clients bring up constantly when addressing the issues of their fearful dog is how the annual visit to the vet can be very stressful. I hear complaints about how “Dr. Doe doesn’t like Phoebe because she growls or that we left that vet because they said he was aggressive but we think he is sweet and loving at home.” I often find myself defending the veterinarian because I know there is just a communication break down at the route of the problem.

A dog’s behavior in the vet clinic can be a red flag to behavioral patterns at home. Just as commonly dogs’ express little or no behavioral symptoms at home and only “act out” at the vet. Through repeated exposure to what the pet perceives as traumatizing and repeated “practice” of its own maladaptive behavior he can become a handful for everyone involved. Over the years I have become more aware of the effect professionals have on animals. When positive reinforcement trainers need to get something done we make sure the animal offers the behavior. We are thinking of the animals’ future appropriateness when he is confronted with a similar situation. For example, we can teach a dog to volunteer having his nails clipped via a technique called shaping. Just like when you see a zoo animal volunteer something on TV, such as a hippo opening his mouth to have his teeth examined. This is called an animal husbandry routine. Nobody can force the hippo to let us examine his teeth; he has been trained to offer behaviors via shaping. The same can be done with dogs, but what vet clinic really has time to think about shaping behaviors? Many practices are just too busy handling surgeries and emergencies to do behavior modification or training on site. Nonetheless, there are many things we can do as a patient care team to make the whole experience better for everyone involved including the canine patient.

In my practice as a professional canine behavioral consultant I often help clients come up with a pro-active plan for making the vet visit less stressful for their fearful/ reactive pet. I have included many helpful tips in the paragraphs below. I also asked some local vet practices for their input and included their responses in my plan.

Plan for Streamlining the Vet Visit for Anxious Dogs

Preparation for the appointment

Call well ahead to schedule your dog’s vet visit when possible. Get the name of the staff member who you are talking to so that you can work on the plan for your dog with a knowledgeable person. Ask for an appointment at the hospital’s quietest time; maybe the facility is less busy on a certain day of the week after lunch or surgery hours. Disclosure will be so important every step of the way. Be truthful about your dog’s reactions at the vet, .i.e.” Mollie is too difficult for me to handle in the lobby, can we arrange to have a tech walk her directly from my car to the exam room when it’s time for her appointment?” Letting the staff know that you are being honest about your pet’s behavior at the vet might help them to better collaborate with you; “Scrappy has a relationship with Dr. Jones, can we see Dr. Jones please?”

Before Your Appointment

If your dog is in good health and going to the vet for a routine visit make sure he gets adequate exercise and enrichment as the day of the appointment gets closer. Exercise; make play dates with friends, walk, and play ball. Often when dogs have reactive moods they have been building up for a while, getting routine exercise and outlet will help mitigate overall anxiety. How often does your dog leave the house anyway? Dog’s who don’t get out of the home into the real world enough may experience something similar to culture shock when going to the vet.

The Day of your pet’s appointment

More exercise! “Take a hike” as it was well put by a local Bucks County vet. But don’t take your dog to the point of fatigue directly before your appointment. Try to tire her out well and schedule the exercise earlier the day of the appointment, so she is calm and satisfied but not exhausted or over stimulated.

Check your equipment; ID tags intact, collar in good shape, (if it’s on tight enough you should not be able to pull it off, attempt to pry the collar over your dog’s ears. If you can pry it off, your dog can back out too.) Do you have a six foot long leather or cotton leash? Leather or cotton gives you more holding comfort and the six foot length gives you more balance. No retractable leashes PLEASE!!! This makes it impossible for you to balance and hold your dog safely (this is something most dog trainers agree on.) Talk to a professional trainer about equipment changes that can give you more leverage. Gentle leaders and Gentle Leader Easy Walk harnesses give you more control without the negative fall out that choke chains and prong collars can have on anxious dogs. Can your pet eat treats at this appointment? If so bring really, really high end treats to reinforce all calm, relaxed, compliant behaviors that your dog offers.

Good Shoes! Nothing is worse than watching a 100lb. woman go flying across the reception area in her high heals with her bull mastiff in hot pursuit of a hissing cat!

The parking lot and reception area

You put on the leash-Jake get’s excited, get in the car-he’s bouncing off the walls, pull into the vet’s. parking lot-he’s barking like wild at nearby squirrels, dogs etc., he doesn’t want to go in the door-you struggle and finally get him in, now any manner of stimulus is in jakes face-he is wild eyed and panting or displaying any number of stress symptoms. “DAD, GET ME OUTTA HERE!” Jake is fully wound up, how will he handle the exam room now? This process is called sensitization and MUST be avoided if you want to help your dog. Start by identifying what is triggering him then come up with a plan to prevent sensitization. Break it down and work separately on each area. If it means driving to the vet hospital once a month to purchase dog food so the receptionist can feed him a treat. Maybe your vet has a back door to go in to avoid the whole scene of the reception area? Some practices will come out to get your dog for you, others will allow you to wait until the exam room is free then escort you right in. One great practice I spoke with said, “If it does indeed make the individual dog feel better, their clinicians will do the exam right at the car.”

“Give kisses, Fluffy.” We all need to socialize but the reception area of your vet hospital is not always the right place to do it. Do not force your dog to interact with other dogs or people. Anxiety can quickly escalate into aggression to many owners’ amazement.

Hold your leash in a collected position. Collected is the key word, not tight. A tight leash will cause your dog to feel restrained. Restraining fearful dogs with the leash in the face of their biggest fears can cause them to default to aggression. They know there is no option to flee on a tight leash (or any leash for that matter). A good positive trainer can help you understand the subtleties between a collected leash and a tight leash.

In the exam room

Whew, we made it! But oh-oh remember what happen last time? Sadie growled under her breath when the technician came in to draw blood, she peed on the exam table, then she tried to bite. Oh what a mess. Many pet owners feel embarrassed or defensive about their dog’s behavior; Sadie might detect and react to these emotions too. Your practitioner usually has a plan. She should be well versed in canine body language and appeasement gestures. She is reading your pet. Some things your veterinarian may do to help your dog feel more relaxed are; avoid eye contact, say hello to you but not your dog, avoid shaking your hand, stay further away until your pet relaxes or she may have an indifferent/ passive body language. Don’t think your vet is avoiding you; she is actually trying to make herself appear non-threatening to your dog. Some practices will initially offer a treat to see if your dog is willing to eat (this is a stress assessment test that we also use in obedience classes). They may offer a blanket for your pet to lie on, a toy or better yet a food filled Kong you can secretly slip to the receptionist. Talk about making your vet look really good in Sadie’s eyes!

A few years back my then eight year old Pit bull Moorey tore his cruciate ligament. Moorey is fearful of many new men. At our visit to the specialist he was whining, apprehensive and shivering occasionally. The orthopedic surgeon walked into the exam room carrying a model dog leg for demonstration. Moorey went into a happy dancing frolic and to my dismay jumped up and grabbed hold of the model leg. I asked him to let go and he politely did. No harm done, we all laughed and Moorey was in love with this orthopedic surgeon guy for the remainder of that visit and the follow up visits too.

Assessment of what your individual dog needs is imperative

Once you have identified what works best for your pet, get it on paper, get your vets input and ask him to put it in your file. Some dogs do better on the floor-avoid the exam table. Some just relax faster with a muzzle or mild sedation-maybe that’s just what your pet needs. Some do better receiving treatment away from their owner. Remember pain changes everything so assessment of your pet’s pain is critical. A small percentage of dogs are just too out of control to leave the home at all-those pet’s need vet care too, so ask your vet for other options.

I asked some local practitioners what they wished their clients would do to make things better for the reactive dogs they see. Some of the most common responses I heard from them were; that they wish they could get clients to stop giving the wrong verbal cues to their dogs. Soothing the dog with repetitious “its ok, mommy’s here” can often launch the dog’s stress level over the top. The same can be said for yelling, reprimanding sternly and repeating commands over and over again. All of the above usually only add to the tension of the situation. Instead be loose, speak very softly even giggle a little. When it comes time for the actual exam just being quiet, might be best for many dogs.

*A great resource for understanding how to read your dog and calm him down is; Calming Signals DVD by Turid Rugaas

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