There’s no question that trips to the veterinary hospital have the potential to wreak havoc on a dog’s psyche and bring out the worst in their behavior. Normally outgoing dogs may become timid, and confident dogs may become fearful. A dog that would never growl or bite in their home environment may bare his teeth when being handled by strangers in the veterinary hospital setting. Such behavioral changes are typically stress or fear induced. By doing some advance work with your dog, you can help create positive rather than negative behavioral responses to veterinary hospital visits. This becomes a win-win situation in that the experience will be less stressful for you and your dog and there will be a greater likelihood of successfully performing diagnostic tests and providing therapy without the need for sedation or anesthesia.
I asked Chicago based professional dog trainer and behavior specialist Jennifer Hack of Dynamic Dogs, Inc. (www.DynamicDogsChicago.com) to provide some guidance for making veterinary hospital visits as stress-free as possible. Here is her sage advice:
On the way to the vet
Before you leave the house, grab a handful of special favorite treats and a regular leash (extendable leashes are not good for control). Dogs who get into the car expecting a negative outcome will often exhibit immediate anxiety. To prevent this, socialize your dog often and take your dog to fun destinations as well, and he will be much less anxious than if his only car rides take him to the vet. Your attitude will also make a huge difference- the more confident and calm you are, the safer your dog will feel. Additionally, take your dog along for a “just for fun visit” when you pick up food, products, or prescriptions. Do such practice runs at a time when the staff can greet your dog and give him treats.
The waiting room
If your dog is anxious (whining, barking, etc.), do not reinforce the behavior by attempting to comfort him or pet him. Instead, find something constructive for your dog to do that will earn your praise. Rather than sit and let the anxiety build, you may want to do some obedience work with your dog around the room- you only need a small area. It may be difficult to overcome the distractions, but it’s good practice. Teach your dog a “look” command. Start by holding a treat next to your face and say, “look.” After three seconds of eye contact mark the behavior by saying “Yes!” and give the treat. Build up the amount of time longer and longer before you reward, and eventually you can phase out the lure and your dog will be focusing on your face.
Remember courtesy to others in the waiting room. Not everyone’s dog is well socialized with other dogs or humans, and they may be ill, so always be aware of what your dog is doing and do not allow them to approach, sniff, or invade the space of other dogs or cats. When seated, keep your dog directly in front of on a down-stay by your feet.
Behaving for the exam
Accepting handling and examination is essential for every dog, from puppies to adults. From a young age, condition your dog to accept handling from head to toe, and make it fun. Start by doing the handling yourself, and then if possible, have several other people practice handling your dog gently as a vet would. You can also practice with your dog on a table, doing the following:
-Mouth: When routinely praising and petting your dog, don’t avoid their mouth. Touch their muzzle often and gently rub their gums.
-Ears: Gently massage the base of the ears and practice looking inside.
-Front Paws: Start by holding your dog’s paw and then praising and rewarding with a treat. Then touch each nail individually and feel between the toes. To keep your dog from pulling away, have him “sit” and “stay” first.
-Abdomen: With your dog in a standing position at your left side or on a table, massage your dogs rib cage and his abdomen and hips, lifting up each rear leg and also touching the rear paws.
Teach your dog the command, “over.” In addition to all the basic obedience commands, teaching your dog “over”, to lie down on his or her side, is useful for exams. Start this when your dog is feeling relaxed and go at your own pace. From a down position, slowly roll your dog over and praise and reward.
Often while your veterinarian is examining your dog, you may be holding your dog’s head. Keep one hand on the collar holding your dog steady, and one hand on the neck. Talk to your dog and give hearty praise in order to distract him while he is receiving a shot or having his temperature taken. The more confident and calm you feel, the more comfortable your dog will feel.
To muzzle or not to muzzle?
A muzzle is a misunderstood tool. There is a stigma that muzzles are only for incorrigible dogs, or that wearing a muzzle is somehow traumatic to a dog. In reality, we must admit the fact that any dog, no matter how socialized or nice, has the physical capability to bite, especially when feeling frightened, vulnerable, or in pain. You want to take every opportunity to prevent bites- better safe than sorry! If you have any reason to believe your dog may bite during a veterinary exam, based on previous history or body language, request that your dog wear a muzzle. I prefer basket-style muzzles because they allow the dog to open their mouth, pant, and feel more comfortable, rather than the cloth-style that holds the mouth closed. You can condition your dog to wearing a muzzle at home for short periods of time; that way he won’t view it as a negative occurrence. If you feel your dog may have an aggression issue, find a professional trainer who is also a behavior specialist.
If you would like to contact Jennifer Hack, you may email her at Jennifer@dynamicdogschicago.com.
Best wishes to you and your four-legged family members for abundant good health,
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.