Preparing Your Dog for the Vet Visit
Vivian Leven, CPDT-KSA

What do you think about when you hear the word dog training? For many people the visual is a classroom with a bunch of other dogs and handlers practicing different exercises like sit, down, and stay. If that's you, think again, as dog training is so much more. When you invite a different species into your life, you want them to adjust and feel comfortable with the variety of different experiences and environments that are part of your existence. This is in addition to teaching them a vocabulary of behaviors you would like to cue them to do. Do you have a training plan for that?

This article will address vet visits in particular as it is something our dogs will have to participate in for the rest of their lives, sometimes rather frequently if there are major health issues. There is nothing "fun" about vet visits for a dog; accepting shots, having their temperature taken, someone prying open their mouth, examination object stuck in the ear.... basically having their personal boundaries violated by strangers and possibly adding to that discomfort in the handling process. When you think about it, going to the doctor's office for our regular check-ups is not necessarily on the list of fun things to do for us either. However, we understand the importance of doing them. Explaining the same to the dog is not possible, so we actually have to work on making it as pleasant an experience as possible. We don't want this to be a scary and upsetting experience for your dog every time.

There are some wonderful vets out there that will try to make the experience as pleasant as possible, but they only have so much time at each visit. The main work to make your dog feel comfortable with vet visits needs to occur outside of the vet office; practicing the handling a vet would do and using counter-conditioning and desensitization processes to change how your dog feels about being examined. Also, if you are not completely sure, learn how to read your dog's body language so you will notice the signs of emotional stress, fear, and anxiety.

How you can prepare your dog

  • Set up handling exercises with your dog at home. Touch and treat, and gradually build up the intensity of the touch. Only move to the next more invasive steps when you are absolutely positive your dog is very comfortable with the present step. Think about how the vet handles your dog and mimic the handling. This includes moving your hand over the dog's body, opening the dog's mouth, lifting paws and looking into the dog's eyes and ears. It is so important to teach the dog to feel calm and relaxed during handling. Unfortunately, if the dog is not trained for this it is not uncommon for them to develop tensions, stress, and resort to avoidance behaviors when handled.
  • When your dog can accept the handling by you, set up the same session with a friend doing the handling exercises.
  • You can prepare your dog by taking short trips to the vet office and giving treats in the waiting room, or practicing walking up on the scale, and then leaving. Keep it short and sweet.
  • If your dog has a bite history or is very unpredictable, work at home to get the dog used to wearing a muzzle. Slapping it on last minute in a vet office with a dog that has never worn one before is a very bad idea.

What to do at the vet office

If your dog has issues going to the vet, give the office a heads up when you call to make the appointment. For dogs that become reactive to people entering into their space at the vet exam, it is better to have the vet already in the room when the dog enters. Either way it is important that any person entering the room will befriend the dog first with some treats and a casual greeting ritual, before beginning to handle the dog. Begin with easy examination steps and take plenty of breaks offering treats. Even treating during the examination process can be a really good idea. Remember that using force will make an animal very frightened. Animals do not appreciate it any more than humans do. It will just create more stress and possibly aggression. Force will also make it more difficult to create a better experience for future visits. Always present choices to the animal. It may mean that not everything can get done at one vet visit. Unless it is an emergency situation that is fine, take the time and practice at home for a while and go back at a later time, or maybe skip some of the very difficult exam activities all together. Your dog's emotional well-being is just as important as your dog's physical health.

Ultimately you are your dog's advocate and need to make sure your dog has pleasant experiences at the vet and minimize the number of bad ones. Let your vet know what your dog likes or dislikes. If you are not comfortable with an activity, voice your concern to the vet. If you want to interrupt an exam all together and take the dog home because it is too much for your dog - do it. You know your dog best.

At FGMN we have grooming and handling workshops from time to time. We can work with a variety of dogs in this workshop, anything from dogs that just need to build a solid positive experience with handling to dogs that already find handling averse and need a more structured counter-conditioning and desensitization protocol. There are some great resources on-line as well. For example, check out the Sophia Yin stress-free handling recommendations and the "Bucket game."