Many dogs dislike going to the vet. Their objections can take the form of unruly behavior, signs of stress (shaking and salivating), or even aggression. Unfortunately, we can’t point out to our dogs that these medical appointments are highly beneficial and for their own good, or simply explain to them in plain English that even though it might not always seem like it, the vet has their best interests at heart. How then—for the sake of our dogs, ourselves and our veterinarians— can we help our dogs to love (or at least calmly tolerate) a visit to the vet? Learn how to keep your dog calm and less stressed at the vet with these steps for canine bliss.
1. Choose the right vet. This is obvious, but important. Of course, you want your vet to be up on the latest in the field of veterinary medicine, but equally important is someone who is willing to take time with a skittish, anxious or even just highly exuberant dog. The entire clinic staff should be sensitive to any needs your dog may have. Ask the veterinary practice directly about their willingness to work with you if your dog is struggling to cope. Shop around—if a vet isn’t interested in accommodating you, find one who is.
Good practices include using treats to help dogs feel happier and taking a little extra time to encourage (rather than force dogs) to do what’s they need to do. Lessons from veterinarian Sophia Yin’s Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats have made a huge difference for many dogs, so ask if a veterinarian is accustomed to incorporating them into their practice on a daily basis. Among the many issues Yin covers: getting dogs in and out of kennels and putting them on a leash, reading a dog’s visual signals to recognize stress and fear, various methods of restraint required for various procedures, how best to pick dogs up, detailed principles of classical and operant conditioning to modify behavior, and many other ways to minimize the emotional challenges dogs face at the vet.
2. Communicate with your vet. Be clear with your veterinarian about what scares your dog and what steps are possible to make your dog have a better experience at the office. Share any cues your dog knows that can be helpful, such as “sit,” “down” and “stay,” as well as the husbandry-related cues mentioned in point 5.
GET THE BARK NEWSLETTER IN YOUR INBOX!
Sign up and get the answers to your questions.
In this odd time in which we are living, many veterinarians are not allowing owners in the clinic, which means it’s harder to show our vet what our dogs can do or what makes them uneasy.
Videos are a great way to share information about cues and problematic issues, so consider asking your veterinarian if you can send in videos to explain your dog to them. If they agree, be thoughtful of your veterinarian and veterinary technician’s time and keep the videos brief. If the staff are not willing to look at these videos, consider that perhaps you haven’t yet found the right veterinarian for you and your dog.
3. Make vet days “fun days.” Follow every veterinarian visit with a favorite activity, such as a swim, a visit to the park or a walk in the woods. Knowing that a good time will follow the vet visit can help your dog feel better about being there.
4. Train your dog to relax in response to your touch by practicing dog massage at home. Then, give him a soothing massage during a vet visit, especially while in the waiting area. To increase its effect, practice it in a familiar setting rather than trying it for the first time at the vet’s office.
5. Train your dog in husbandry tricks. To alleviate the stress your dog may feel at being physically manipulated at the vet, train him to do things that translate to the exam process—for example, to step up onto a small platform when asked, a “trick” that works well for the vet’s scale. Others include “belly up” for abdominal exams; “shake” to present a paw for blood draws; and “down/stay” for vaccinations, exams and anything else that requires him to remain still. Besides making visits to the vet less stressful, training your dog to perform these behaviors on cue also shortens the visit, which in turn makes it less objectionable for everyone (and may even leave more time for you to discuss your concerns with the vet).
6. Use counter conditioning to help prepare your dog for potentially scary things. This means teaching your dog to associate something that will happen during a vet visit with feeling good. Examples include teaching her that when someone examines her ears or her mouth, she will get a treat. With enough practice doing this in the right way (she’s not frightened and does receive a treat), you can make these aspects of an exam no big deal for your dog.
7. Make your first visit to the vet an opportunity to get acquainted—to sniff around the waiting room, meet the vet and the staff, and have a pleasant experience free of pesky exams or shots. If your dog is comfortable getting on the scale, a weigh-in is fine, but if not, skip it. Have everyone your dog meets be a source of the highest-quality treats you can provide—hamburger, chicken, real steak. If your dog is crazy about balls, chew toys or squeaky toys, have the vet and the vet tech each give your dog one while in the exam room. You want your dog to think that this is a place where the most wonderful things happen. I call these appointments “meet and greets” and I advise them for dogs of any age. Simply call the vet and say that you’d like to make (and pay for) an appointment during which your dog is introduced to the facility and the staff. If they’re unwilling, consider looking for another vet.
8. Have everyone at the clinic give your dog lots of top-quality treats at every visit. This is “Love Your Vet 101” advice, but it’s popular for a reason: It works. If a dog learns that he gets the most delicious treats in the world while at the vet, then he is more likely to be cooperative about going there. To be successful, two important aspects of this strategy must be observed: First, use extra-special treats, not the ordinary kind; dry biscuits are just not going to have the same emotional impact. (Which would you find more motivating, a chocolate chip cookie or a cracker?) Second, unless it’s inappropriate for your dog’s health condition, be generous—multiple treats make more of an impression.
9. Plan your clinic entrances and exits to make them as free of stress as possible. Many dogs’ objections to the vet are really objections to the lobby or waiting area. If this applies to your dog, there are ways to get around the situation. Ask if there’s a back entrance that you and your dog can use; also, try using your car as an alternate “waiting room” and ask if someone will let you know when it’s time for the exam; at some clinics, a staff member will come out to your car or give you a call on your cell phone to let you know it’s your turn.
10. Finally, maintain a calm frame of mind yourself. Your emotions are contagious— the more cheerful and relaxed you are, the more you can help your dog. So, use whatever works for you— chocolate, relaxing music, deep-breathing exercises—but try not to stress!
Regular vet visits are important to our dogs’ health and well-being, but getting our furry “patients” there is only half the battle. Having them be happy and cooperative is the real victory—which is why I advise making this a fundamental part of every dog’s training and education.