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How to Alleviate Your Dog’s Stress When Going to the Vet

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This can be a tough task, but this blog is here to help.

Having a dog in your life can be rewarding on many levels. Emotionally, they bring a richness to our lives. Physically, they can be a catalyst for increased activity which is important for health and fitness. Dogs amuse us, protect us, and at times inspire us to be better human beings. They can also bring out a tenderness in us that some folks have a much harder time showing to human beings. For many, they are members of our family.

Part of having a dog involves certain responsibilities. These include but are not limited to: providing proper feeding, a safe place to live, adequate stimulation, exercise, and decent medical care. Not all these benefits will be readily embraced by every dog. Veterinary care is a good example. While some dogs are perfectly fine with going to the veterinarian, others look upon this journey with fear and anxiety. Depending on the dog, this can manifest itself in relatively mild symptoms such as panting, trembling, whining, urination and defecation. More serious reactions include escape behavior, excessive howling, barking, and aggression.

For some pet parents, the difficulty in taking their dog to the veterinarian is severe enough that they put off dealing with all but the most critical medical issues.

As a dog trainer, I was frequently asked to diagnose and offer treatment programs to help dogs overcome their fear of veterinary visits.

Depending on the pet parents’ commitment, and the severity of the dog’s reactions, this was not always the easiest behavior to deal with. The good news is there are a great many things pet parents can do to help alleviate and sometimes even eliminate a dog’s fear of veterinary visits.

Let’s take how to address this behavior one step at a time.

What’s the first thing to know?

To most effectively address behavior, it is important to understand the root cause(s) of it. Often a behavior, take for example excessive whining, is a symptom of an underlying problem. Simply reacting to behavior without addressing actual causes can result in symptom substitution. Instead of a dog that whines at the veterinarian, now he defecates or worse.

So, what are the underlying causes of this behavior?

Learned behavior. Dogs are not born fearful of the veterinarian or veterinary hospital. This is learned. This isn’t to suggest that veterinarians or their staff are to fault. No one gets involved in veterinary medicine because they don’t care about animals. The challenge is that some of the procedures a pet has to endure are frightening, at times uncomfortable, invasive, and occasionally even painful. Additionally, dogs don’t understand the purpose. They only know that when they are taken to the hospital bad things (from their perspective) happen. Once they learn to associate negative things with the veterinary experience, the fear or anxiety they feel usually manifests itself in some sort of behavior. Barking, defection, howling, trying to escape, trembling, pleading looks for you to help, aggression, etc.

What’s the next step in dealing with this challenge?

Step one: The waiting room. What normally happens here? Your dog realizes they are going to the veterinarian sometime between the parking lot and the front door of the hospital. Normal walking on the leash becomes far less eager once you get them into the reception area waiting room. The dog recognizes where they are and can see the reactions of other waiting dogs, many of whom will be stressed. Dog and parent sit and wait while the anxiety builds.

How do you change this? The best way to address this behavior is to change the dog’s experiences during veterinary visits and repeat those experiences multiple times. This will counter condition the dog, basically retrain them to have different, more positive associations with walking into the hospital and sitting in the waiting room.

Take your dog to the veterinary hospital/clinic. When you get there, bring them into the waiting room, sit down and start giving them super special treats. I always used hot dog pieces for these super special treats. I also know that almost every dog I worked with was crazy about them. I broke these into maybe 20 pieces per hot dog, so we are talking about very small bits here. Sit in the waiting room with the dog and start praising nonstop. Every 20 seconds or so give them a tiny piece of hot dog. After about 5-10 minutes, get up with the dog and leave. Go back to the car wait about 15 minutes and repeat the process. Then call it a day and go home. Do that 2x a week for a month and I can pretty much guarantee that most dogs will be less anxious, and far less stressed and fearful when visiting the hospital than they were previously. If it’s too difficult to take the dog to the veterinarian twice a week do it once a week. The more often you can do this the faster you will be able to condition the dog to be less fearful.

A few other suggestions. Veterinary offices are busy places, so it is best to check with them before going to visit. Explain to them what you are doing and most will be very supportive. In fact, depending on how busy they are when you arrive you may find some of the veterinary staff are happy to help. Over the years I have had staff members of dozens of hospitals come up to me and the dog I was working with, offering to feed and pet them. The more positive the dog’s experience is, the greater the likelihood they will enjoy it and learn to associate positive things with veterinary visits.

Also, try not to overwhelm the dog. This blog is simply a guide. If you find that your dog is tired after the first 10-minute session, quit there. If 10 minutes is too long, try 5 min for a start and work your way up.

What happens if food doesn’t work?

That depends, is your dog food motivated normally, or are they just motivated by different things?

What If your dog isn’t food motivated?

If the dog isn’t motivated even by super special treats, ask yourself what are they motivated by? Some dogs are play motivated. Some love toys. If you can find what your dog loves and offer that at the hospital, you’re in luck. Try a favorite toy or some gentle play. The key is to teach the dog to have more positive associations at the veterinary hospital.

What if the dog is usually food motivated but won’t take any at the veterinary office?

If your normally food-loving dog is too stressed to take food during the hospital visit, try feeding them prior to entering the hospital. Take the dog from the car to the hospital front door, stop to feed them a special treat, and walk them back to the car. Do this 10x per session a few times a week. By the end of the first or second week, the dog should show very little stress walking to the hospital door. At that point try walking from the car to door 5x and then on the 6th go into the waiting room sit for a minute or two and leave. Remember to praise them while you are sitting there! Do this for the rest of the week and by the following week, most dogs will be ready to take food when sitting in the waiting room. At that juncture start taking them a few times a week and feeding them in the waiting room as outlined in the above instructions.

By the way, the above modification can be used with toys or play. Simply walk from the car to the front door, play gently with the dog for 20 or 30 seconds, walk back to the car, and repeat.

These methods seem very time-consuming. Isn’t there a faster way to do this?

Some dogs will make amazing progress in a very short time period. Other dogs might take months. Some can learn to actually enjoy going to the veterinarian. Others will never love it, but can certainly learn to tolerate it. Behavior modification can take time but, in my opinion, if this helps your dog feel better and be less anxious/fearful it’s time well spent.

In my next blog, I will discuss how to alleviate stress during veterinary examinations.

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