Today, I want to tell you a story about one of my favorite patients.
Hudson is a 13-year-old Border Collie mix – very handsome, with a long fluffy coat and bright, intelligent eyes. Like most dogs, he adores his family. He’s getting a bit grey in the face now and he doesn’t see quite as well as he used to, but he’s extremely smart and his nose works just fine. His favorite hobbies include snuggling on the couch with his mom, going for car rides, and taking long afternoon naps in the sun.
Historically, however, he is not a huge fan of veterinary visits.
I first met Hudson about a year and a half ago, in July of 2016. His owners came to me because they had heard that our clinic was good with “difficult” dogs, and they hoped we would be able to help.
His story was as follows:
Hudson had been adopted many years ago, as a 12-week-old puppy from the local shelter. Nothing was known about his parents or littermates, but he had always been a shy pup who was cautious about the world and not always comfortable with strangers.
His owners did not recall any particular inciting event that marked the beginning of his loathing for veterinary clinics. Rather, it seemed to be a gradual slide from caution and ambivalence as a puppy, to outright fear and aggression as an adult. Things worsened with each passing annual visit, culminating in a complete refusal to allow any type of handling in this setting without heavy restraint by the time he was 5 or 6 years old.
At Hudson’s most recent veterinary visit, a few months prior to our meeting, the staff had been forced to try and subdue him in the lobby with a rabies pole – this is a rigid, adjustable fiberglass pole with a thin loop of cord at one end to lasso the dog, intended to help keep the handler safe while restraining an aggressive animal.
He bit down on the pole and broke it.
He was eventually restrained behind a door by passing his leash through at the hinge side and pulling it tight, for the few seconds needed to hastily give the necessary shots before sending him on his way.
After this visit – the last in a long line of scary, unpleasant experiences that had left him understandably wary of anyone in scrubs or a white lab coat – his owner resolved to find a better way to do things. She was embarrassed by Hudson’s behavior and felt sorry for the veterinary staff, but she was also keenly aware of how upset her dog was and wished there was something she could do to make things easier for him.
Hudson’s story, unfortunately, is not a particularly unusual one. Every veterinary clinic sees its share of fearful, aggressive patients – these situations are hard for the dogs and their owners, as well as the staff.
But in truth, I’ve always felt that “difficult” dogs are some of the most rewarding cases that I see. With a little patience, a committed owner, and a good training plan, there’s a lot we can do to help.
So, first things first.
Why do some dogs act this way at the veterinary clinic?
It’s important to understand this – and really, truly believe it – before we go any further, because we can’t devise a plan to work on the problem if we don’t agree on what it is.
Is it because they’re stubborn, willful, or dominant? Do they need to be shown who’s boss, or punished for their “unacceptable” behavior?
You may have heard all of these things said, at one time or another – by well-meaning friends or acquaintances, or even by veterinary staff who are not well-versed in behavior issues. I know I have!
But none of them are true.
Aggressive dogs at the vet’s office are stressed and uncomfortable. They have learned that scary things happen here – strangers invade their personal space and hold them tightly, touch sensitive areas of their bodies, and poke them with needles. There may be strange and frightening smells, of disinfectant and sterile surfaces and other animals. Dogs may bark at them in the waiting room, or cry and howl from cages in the back.
They are afraid, and want us to leave them alone.
Truthfully, I’m in constant awe of the fact that so many of our patients accept all of this every year with good-natured tolerance. Dogs are truly remarkable, resilient creatures!
But the ones who bark and lunge, or try to bite, are not abnormal or “naughty” – they’re reacting to a stressful, scary situation in the only way they know how. They deserve to be treated with kindness and respect, just as much as any other animal in our care.
And so, let’s talk a bit more about Hudson.
With dogs who are extremely aggressive or fearful at the vet’s office, we have two main options.
First, we can teach them to be comfortable with being touched by the veterinarian and staff, getting shots, having blood drawn, etc. – this is often accomplished by teaching the dog to voluntarily stay in position when asked, with lots of rewards for willing cooperation. Muzzle training is also needed for safety, in many cases. This is probably the ideal option for most dogs, but it does require a significant investment of time and effort – especially for an older dog with a long history of bad experiences to overcome.
Alternatively, we can opt to give a dose of injectable sedation at the start of the visit, and do everything we need to do while the dog is sleeping. In some cases, this may be the safest and simplest option for everyone! The rub, however, is that giving the sedative injection without a rodeo may still require some preparatory work and a carefully choreographed plan.
In Hudson’s case, we did initially do some muzzle training and a bit of foundation work with staying still on a mat when asked to. Ideally, we would have progressed from there until he was happy being touched and examined on his mat.
We did make some headway with this plan, but it was slow going. He was very sensitive about certain types of handling, even from his owners, and had a tendency to bite without much warning if he began to feel overwhelmed. His mom was very diligent about working on things at home and we met weekly to assess his progress, but it was clear that it would likely be several months before he would be comfortable enough for even a basic exam.
A few weeks into our training, an unexpected poop emergency forced our hand.
As anyone with a long-haired dog can attest, there are times when things can become snagged and entangled in the fur around the rectum. This is, of course, a smelly and unpleasant situation for all involved – but it’s also a serious health issue, since the underlying skin in this area will quickly become raw and sore without proper grooming.
Hudson would not allow his owners to trim or clean this area, so they called us in desperation. He needed a sanitary groom, and he needed it today.
So, we went to plan B.
Since his owner was not able to place a muzzle on him, we used a thick blanket to cover the front half of his body while I gave a quick sedative injection. The blanket effectively blocked his view of what we were doing, and also provided some protection for my hands in case he tried to bite.
He was deeply suspicious of the blanket, so it took a few attempts before we were successful – but in the end, he was sedated and we were all in one piece. Once he was asleep, we were able to clip the hair under his tail and thoroughly clean the area.
His owner was delighted, and thanked us profusely. This, she said, was the best things had ever gone.
This year, when it came time for Hudson’s annual exam and wellness care, we came up with the following plan:
She and Hudson came to the clinic for a total of four training visits, each about 20 minutes long. At each visit, I came into the exam room and tossed treats on the floor for him to eat. When he was comfortable with this – wagging his tail at me when I entered, and waiting expectantly for treats without any anxiety – we reintroduced the blanket.
Slowly, over the course of these four visits, we taught him to put his head under the blanket for a handful of treats on the floor. At first, he was nervous and backed away as soon as he felt the cloth touch the top of his ears. But as he learned that nothing scary was happening, he got braver.
By the end of his last visit, I could toss a handful of treats on the floor and drape the blanket over the entire front half of his body without provoking any anxiety at all. Once the blanket was in place, I could also touch his back, rear legs, and tail without any problems. We even practiced the act of giving a shot with a capped syringe, which didn’t bother him in the slightest.
And so, we scheduled his appointment for the real thing.
The morning of “D-Day”, as we called it, his owner stopped at a drive thru and bought Hudson a bacon biscuit. He trotted happily back to his exam room, ears up and eyes bright. I crumbled a piece of bacon in my hand and tossed it on the floor, then draped the blanket over him – just as we had practiced. He busily sniffed out every crumb as I gave the sedative injection, with no reaction at all.
When he fell asleep, we took him back to the treatment area and did everything we needed to: full physical exam, brushing and grooming, nail trim, and blood draw for his heartworm test and annual lab work. As soon as we were finished, we brought him back to the exam room to wake up with his mom. Once he was up and ready to go, he went home – still wagging his tail.
His owner was ecstatic.
We will likely follow the same plan next year, since everything went very well.
I wanted to share Hudson’s story in the hopes that it might provide some ideas for someone else with an aggressive dog who can’t be handled by the vet. What we did for him was not particularly time-consuming, or difficult – it just took a bit of creativity, a committed owner, and a willingness to meet him halfway.
I think Hudson would likely agree, it was more than worth it 😊