It’s that time of year again… your reminder card has arrived in the mail, and Buster is due for his annual wellness exam. Or perhaps he’s limping, or coughing, or his skin allergies are flaring up. Whatever the reason, you know what it means – a trip to the vet.
If you dread veterinary visits because your dog is so anxious, you’re not alone. I would estimate that on any given day, at least half of the patients I see at our clinic are showing obvious signs of fear – panting, trembling, or trying to hide. Some are so frightened that they lunge and bark at anything that moves, or growl and try to bite in self-defense. Even dogs who are normally easy-going and friendly may not enjoy visiting the vet because, let’s face it… having medical things done is never fun.
The good news is, there are some simple things you can do to make veterinary visits much easier for your dog. Think about it – the unpleasant part of the visit (shots, blood draws, temperature-taking, etc.) is actually very brief in most cases, and the procedures themselves are only mildly uncomfortable. But for most dogs who have anxiety at the vet’s office, the entire experience is a roller-coaster ride of stress and worry – they anticipate the bad stuff from the moment you pull up in the parking lot, and it only gets worse from there.
It’s important to keep in mind that for many nervous dogs, their fear is compounded by the fact that they are also anxious around unfamiliar animals or people, or with certain types of body handling. Being restrained and examined by a stranger who smells like other dogs can be much scarier than the shots themselves – indeed, this seems to be true for a large number of the fearful patients that I see.
So what is our goal?
We can’t avoid needles and thermometers entirely, but we don’t need to – instead, we can focus on changing how your dog feels about the rest of his experience at the clinic. Ideally, we would like Buster’s time with us to be 95% fun and 5% mildly uncomfortable stuff, rather than 100% scary from start to finish. Believe it or not, this is achievable with the vast majority of dogs – it just takes a little time and planning.
Not only will working with Buster help to reduce his anxiety at the dreaded once-yearly wellness visit, it could very well make it easier for him to get vital medical care if he is sick or injured at some point in the future – as medical professionals, it’s much easier for us give your dog a full, thorough physical exam and treat him appropriately for any problems if he isn’t terrified and fighting us at every step.
With these benefits in mind, here are a few simple, specific things that you can do to improve your dog’s experience at the vet’s office.
The first piece of advice is also the easiest! Believe it or not, this one thing can make a tremendous difference in your dog’s perception of the veterinary clinic – even if you don’t do anything else on the list below, bringing along your dog’s favorite food every time he gets a check-up will pay huge dividends down the road. Feed him in the lobby, on the exam table, and even while he’s getting his shots if it’s allowed at your vet clinic. Ask staff members to offer a treat when they say hello.
Why do treats make such a difference?
Of course, common sense tells us that we would probably enjoy visiting our doctors more if they served us chocolate milkshakes or hot buttered popcorn! Even in non-scary situations, we intuitively understand that most things are more enjoyable when accompanied by a tasty snack.
But when fear comes into play, treats become even more valuable. This is because one of the most effective ways to decrease anxiety is through a process called counter-conditioning. Basically, this means that we pair the scary thing (vet visits, in this case) with something really great (like bites of cheese) – if we do this repeatedly over a period of time, our dog begins to associate the two things.
Using really tasty food rewards is a particularly good way to accomplish this, because eating something yummy stimulates the pleasure center in the brain – this works in dogs as well as humans. It’s a very nifty biochemical reflex, and a powerful way to create good feelings in an environment that might otherwise be somewhat uncomfortable. So when your dog eats cheese at the vet’s office and experiences the resulting rush of endorphins, all of those good feelings become associated with the clinic itself – very handy for his next visit!
Teach Basic Exam Skills
For many dogs, the most stressful aspect of their entire experience at the veterinary clinic is the exam – being physically restrained and handled by a stranger, who is poking and prodding at some very personal areas. Their anxiety is often compounded by the fact that they don’t know what’s going to happen or what they’re expected to do.
Fortunately, most dogs can easily be taught a few simple skills to make things much easier. Being asked nicely to cooperate with handling by the vet staff in exchange for treats makes your dog feel like he has some control over what’s happening to him (a huge factor in reducing anxiety!), and also makes exams and procedures go much more smoothly.
So, I promise – these skills are easy to teach, and well worth your time! Even if you don’t have any interest in advanced obedience training or fancy tricks, a few short training sessions at home are all you need to help your dog be better prepared for seeing the vet.
If you only teach your dog one thing before his next vet visit, make it this one!
It can be very difficult or even impossible to do a useful physical exam on a dog that is thrashing and flailing while an assistant attempts to restrain him, or one that is leaping up and down in over-charged excitement. Attempting to force these dogs to hold still is often counter-productive and makes their anxiety worse. Instead, do your dog a favor and teach him to stand quietly on cue.
To teach this skill, sit or kneel in front of your dog with one hand gently holding his collar. Offer a treat with the other hand right in front of his nose – keep the treat at about chin level, otherwise your dog may sit. Praise and reward for standing still.
Once your dog can do this for a few seconds at a time, you can have a friend or family member do a quick practice exam while he stands quietly. The treat helps to keep his focus on you rather than on the person touching him, and also serves as a reward for calm behavior. When the time comes for the real thing, your dog will appreciate understanding what he’s supposed to do!
Note: if you have a small dog, be sure to practice this skill on a table of some kind if you can. You can use a grooming table if you have one at home; if not, just spread a towel on your kitchen table or counter-top for practice. Dogs under 20-25 pounds will usually be on an exam table at the vet’s office, so if they haven’t had any experience with this beforehand, being so far off the ground can be very scary!
Hop up! (Get on a scale, table, or other platform)
This is a handy cue that I use all the time with my dogs, in lots of different places. Basically, it means to get up on whatever is in front of them – a low table, a chair, into the car, etc.
For our purposes at the vet’s office, the most common platform that we need dogs to get on at every single visit is the scale. It breaks my heart to see how many dogs are frightened by the process of picking them up to place them on it, or even attempting to gently guide them with a leash – they don’t understand what we’re doing, and the more we have to struggle, the more anxious they become.
Instead, teach your dog a simple “hop up!” cue at home – use a low ottoman or even an aerobics step, depending on the size of your dog. Use a treat to lure him up at first, then reward as soon as he’s in position. You can add a sit-stay to this if you’re feeling ambitious, but it’s not strictly necessary.
Finally, it’s immensely helpful if your dog knows how to lie down on cue. This is because there are many times that we may need to look at a lump or a wound on his chest or abdomen, or remove sutures from a surgery site in this area.
If your dog is anxiously (or excitedly) pacing around the exam room and doesn’t know this skill, the only way for us to get a look at his undercarriage is to physically lay him down and hold him in position – we do this as gently as possible, but for many dogs it’s very frightening to be forcibly placed on their side or back from a standing position.
Instead, it’s far preferable if we can ask your dog to lie down for a treat. Then, once he’s down, we can guide him over on his side by touching his hip and shoulder – simple and stress-free, rather than having to wrestle. You could also teach your pup to roll over on cue to make things even easier!
As you can see, none of these skills are complicated or difficult to teach. If your dog is already somewhat fearful or doesn’t have much experience with training, it may take a little longer for him to be comfortable – but the process should still be fairly quick and easy 🙂
So, take a few minutes over the next few days and give these new skills a try! At Buster’s next annual check-up, you’ll be surprised how much easier everything seems if he can do these few simple things on cue – no wrestling or struggling, and much less anxiety. Instead of being a scary place where strangers grab him and hold him down, the veterinary clinic becomes an opportunity to earn lots of tasty rewards for offering behaviors he knows and enjoys.
Muzzle train your dog
Why muzzle training, you may ask? Buster is a sweet boy. He’s never bitten anyone.
Even so, hear me out – I’m going to suggest that you work on this anyway.
I firmly believe that every dog should be taught to put a muzzle on comfortably, regardless of how docile and friendly they may be. Buster may never attempt to bite anyone, which is wonderful – but it is very likely that at some point in his life, he will need to wear a muzzle.
Perhaps his vet needs to examine a painful torn toenail or a broken leg. Perhaps he’s sick and needs to be hospitalized, but balks at having his IV catheter placed. Or even someday, despite your best efforts, perhaps he’s frightened of being handled or having his temperature taken. When this happens, the veterinary staff will need to place a muzzle for safety before going forward – because even the gentlest dog in the world may bite under these circumstances.
If Buster has never seen a muzzle before, having this unfamiliar object strapped onto his face can be stressful and frightening – doubly so if he is already anxious or in pain. Worse, some dogs learn after repeated experiences that a muzzle predicts scary things; once this happens, attempting to place the muzzle can become a very high stress procedure, with the dog struggling and snapping at anything that comes near his face. This isn’t a good situation for anyone, least of all the dog – so we want to be proactive and avoid it if at all possible.
Most pet stores sell muzzles in a variety of different styles and sizes, so it should be easy to find an inexpensive one to practice with. I normally recommend basket muzzles for dogs who will be wearing them for longer periods of time (such as some of the patients I see for aggression problems, who may wear a muzzle for our entire training session every week), but for our purposes at the vet clinic, a regular cloth muzzle is fine as long as your dog can still eat small treats with it on.
To start, simply show your dog the muzzle and hold a treat at the end so that he has to stick his nose inside to eat the treat. Once he’s comfortable with this step, let him stick his nose in and feed several treats in a row, rapid-fire, as long as he chooses to stay put. If he gets nervous and wants to back out, that’s fine – it’s important to let him go at his own pace.
Most dogs will quickly become accustomed to the feeling of the muzzle touching their nose and put it on easily to earn treats. Finally, once he’s comfortable for up to 10 seconds eating treats with his nose in the muzzle, you can buckle it behind his ears for brief periods at a time – just make sure to reward generously once he has it on, then remove it again before he becomes uncomfortable.
Note: if your dog has had previous scary experiences with a muzzle in the past, or if he is generally fearful of new things, this process will take considerably longer and you will need to take smaller steps towards the end goal. If you get stuck or have any trouble, a good reward-based trainer should be able to help.
Make a plan with your vet
All right, you might say. That’s all well and good, for dogs who get a little nervous. But what if Buster is so terrified that he can’t even make it into the building without urinating in fear, and has no interest in any kind of treats? Or he barks and lunges at anyone who comes near him in the clinic?
For a dog with more severe anxiety issues, the suggestions above may not be enough – if this is the case for your dog, try sitting down with your vet to discuss a plan for his next vet visit. Many extremely fearful dogs can benefit from anti-anxiety medication to given at home prior to their appointment, or may do better with house-call visits if this is a service your veterinarian offers.
In some cases, the best option is to give an injectable sedative before any kind of handling takes place. We have a few patients at our clinic who are managed this way every time they come in, and it has made things much safer and less stressful for them – we schedule them as the first appointment of the day, and have them come in already wearing their own comfy muzzle from home (owners have worked on muzzle training ahead of time, as described above).
Dog and owner are escorted directly to an empty exam room, so no waiting in the lobby or worries about encountering other people or dogs. In most cases, the owner can hold the collar and allow the dog to lick some cheese or peanut butter through the muzzle while a staff member quietly enters, injects the sedative into a rear leg, and leaves again as the drugs take effect.
The entire process is very quick and smooth, and we can do our exam, vaccinations, heartworm testing, nail trim, and anything else that might be needed while the dog is asleep. If you think your dog might benefit from this type of plan, I definitely recommend talking to your veterinarian about whether this would be an option at your clinic. Most vets are happy to talk about a low-stress plan for handling these dogs, to make the visit as easy as possible for everyone.