Many puppies and dogs are excited to meet and make new friends. But when they go to the vet, they get picked up by unfamiliar people, elevated onto a scary, cold and slippery table, poked, prodded, pulled into position and pricked. Veterinarians who don’t know or listen to a dog’s body language may potentially use force or extreme restraint while examining and administering medication, which will only intensify a dog’s fear and scar a dog psychologically for life.
Fran and Kolya
Last year Fran and Kolya went to their former local veterinary clinic. Before this visit, Kolya was never scared of the veterinarians and always had a good experience. Kolya’s favourite veterinarian took time to reduce Kolya’s fears and calm him down by keeping him entertained and distracted with toys while being very quick yet gentle when applying medical treatments. When Fran and Kolya arrived, they were notified that this certain veterinarian had left the clinic, but Fran didn’t worry as she knew and trusted these veterinarians.
Fran went to quickly wash her hands and when she came back, she was shocked as she saw four people pushing Kolya against a wall and physically forcing him downward to manipulate his body into position so they could administer the medicine intranasally (up the nose). Kolya was so scared that he was trembling and urinating in fear. Due to the excessive force used and the pain and trauma it caused Kolya, the veterinarians were unsuccessful at administering the medication. It took Kolya 40 minutes to calm down from this mistreatment to be able to give the medication. Ever since then, Kolya has been petrified of the veterinarians and starts to shake in fear when he sees them.
Unfortunately, experiences like this aren’t unusual.
Would you like to see your child crying, screaming in fear, and struggling while being forced into a chair to get a vaccination from the doctor? Probably not. A child’s favourite doctor makes it fun, has toys and gives candy after the visit. Going to the doctor or to the vet shouldn’t be traumatising.
A vet visit is about meeting your dog’s physical needs, but make sure that it’s not done at the expense of their emotional needs. Reducing a pet’s fear, stress and anxiety is critically important as their emotional well-being influences their physical well-being.
Forced restraint creates increased discomfort, fear and pain from the handling and procedure, and places the dog into such intense fear that they will either fight for their lives or go into learned helplessness where they’re frozen in place by fear. This improper and outdated technique also creates a major safety risk to the dog, veterinary staff and people nearby as the dog may redirect a bite as they struggle. Emotionally, the dog will be so psychologically traumatised that they will be wary and scared of the vet for life. Putting dogs in this state of acute fear, anxiety and stress will negatively affect diagnostics such as heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature and suppresses the immune response.
Fear is one of the main reasons why dogs are perceived as aggressive or misbehaved at the veterinary clinic. It is imperative that subtle and overt fear behaviours are recognised, the least amount of restraint is used, and steps are taken to reduce actions that cause fear to accelerate.
Signs of fear in dogs
For many dogs I’ve trained, just the chemical bleach smell of a veterinary clinic sends them running away for safety. Respect your dog’s emotional state as that of fear of what will happen to them and help them through it. Don’t force them as they won’t just 'get over it'. If you are scared of spiders, how would you feel if your mother or father dragged you into a room filled with spiders saying 'it’s okay, it’s okay'?
'Happy vet visits'
Many international, fear free and low stress certified veterinary clinics have included free "happy vet visits” as a part of their services, where a puppy/dog and their owner can come in to say hello, get a cuddle and treats. Even adult dogs who have shown anxiety towards vets can have their stress levels significantly reduced by going to “happy vet visits”. Work with your veterinary team to arrange these visits at a time that is right for them and you. These visits create good associations, positive experiences and teach important social, handling and grooming skills that are the foundations for future low stress vet and grooming visits.
Fear free and low stress steps
There are many steps that you can take to achieve a low stress and fear free visit for your dog.
Training before the veterinary visit
See the veterinarian for a “happy vet visit” cuddle and high value dog treats like freeze dried chicken, hot dogs, peanut butter or cheese. Bring these treats with you so your dog can have a positive experience and you can feel secure in your veterinarian’s care. It might take several visits for the clinic to become a safe place.
Teach your dog that handling means great things, through positively reinforcing them to accept a person to touch them all over and with gentle massages
If your dog is scared of the car, seek a qualified positive reinforcement dog trainer to provide you with solutions
Speak to your veterinarian prior to the visit if your dog suffers from anxiety or severe stress
Work with a trainer for low stress husbandry courses to teach your dog that handling and husbandry equals good things
Day of the visit
You could try putting Rescue Remedy in your dog’s water or food bowl a few days leading up to the vet visit
Message your vet before you leave so they know you’re on the way and if you have a highly nervous or stressed dog, they can hopefully place you directly into an empty exam room upon your arrival
Download the App RelaxMyDog on your phone and play it or calming music while taking the car share, taxi or your own car
Bring a generous number of favourite treats or toys to make it a more positive experience
Bring their bowl/treat toy/a ladle to smear food onto, snuffle mat, and towel/ blanket with you for the vet visit
Upon arriving at the veterinary clinic
If your dog is scared upon entering the veterinary clinic, do not ever drag them through the door. Take time to meet the veterinarian outside and use high value treats to help your dog learn that the veterinarian and the clinic has a good association as they walk in
If your dog becomes agitated in the waiting room seeing other dogs, unfamiliar people or smelling strange smells, this agitation and stress will only worsen as they are taken into the examination room. Instead of letting the fear intensify, take your dog for a short decompression walk, or ask your vet if they have an empty room that you can wait in and use a snuffle mat, treat toy or even throw food over your dog’s favourite blanket to help calm them as they “snuffle” for food (this is called a scatter feed, which can be done on safe surfaces)
During the veterinary visit
One way to gauge your dog’s stress level is if your dog won’t eat. If your dog is receiving routine care, they can have treats. Use high value food in their bowl or smeared inside a treat toy to occupy, entertain and calm your dog and keep them in a stable position while being examined or vaccinated. Peanut butter smeared on a ladle also works well to keep your hands away from the dog’s muzzle (avoid having your hands near the dog’s nose during this process)
Use a calm tone in your voice. Don’t use a high-pitched repetitive tone as this tone of voice will only increase your dog’s anxiety.
Try to remain calm to help your dog remain calm. If you become stressed at any time, take at least 3 to 5 deep breaths.
Gently help your dog into position. If your dog has to be vaccinated, feed them the treat toy or ladle in front with you, and the veterinarian on their side. A front approach and direct stare are threatening in dog body language, especially from unfamiliar people or dogs.
Keep your hand on your dog for reassurance, as not all vets are trained in gentle control, one of the fear free techniques
Comfort your dog if they become fearful. This will not reinforce their fear. It will give them reassurance, help make for a better vet visit and future vet visits.
Ask the veterinarian to examine your dog where they are most comfortable, this could be on the floor, your lap or on the examination table.
If the veterinarian tries to put your dog onto the cold slippery table, stop and ask them to use your dog’s blanket as a non-slip surface to help your dog smell familiar smells of home, provide them with comfort and more traction.
The rule is to avoid prolonged struggling or fighting. If a dog struggles for more than 2 seconds, ask the veterinarian to stop and re-position to prevent your dog from increasing in fear, anxiety and stress.
If you see your veterinarian and their staff attempting a wrestling match with your dog, or using extreme restraint or force, stop them and leave or veterinary visits will become an association of lifelong fear and cause severe psychological to your pet.
After the veterinary visit
Take your dog for a quick walk after the visit to decompress through scatter feeds on grass, or using your own snuffle mat
Play RelaxMyDog APP or calming music on your phone on the ride home
If your dog was scared or uncomfortable, give them space and time alone when you get home, along with a stuffed treat toy and things to chew. Or if they need comfort, provide that.
Continue the Rescue Remedy in their water or food bowl for about 1 to 2 days after being home if scared
If crocodiles and bears can do it…
High welfare standard zoos and sanctuaries have been utilising cooperative care and low stress handling techniques for decades. If a tiger needs a blood draw or a hippo needs their teeth to be brushed the keeper/trainer positively reinforces and force free trains the animal for voluntary veterinary and husbandry care. They do this by respecting their boundaries, listening to their behaviours and emotions and providing the animal with the choice to leave through using the techniques of low stress handling, fear free practices, positive reinforcement and cooperative veterinary practices.
If we can train a tiger to do voluntarily blood draws and an elephant for a nail trim, then we can surely help our dogs have positive experiences at the vets as well as low stress husbandry and grooming.
Article written by trainer, animal welfare professional and PDTE Friend Ruby Leslie.