Does your dog pant, shed excessively, cower, tremble, or hide under chairs while you are at the vet clinic? Does your dog shy away from veterinary staff reaching toward your dog during exams or basic medical procedures, such as taking his temperature? If so, your dog is telling you that is he stressed and nervous! You can make the vet visit experience better for both of you by following these tips:
1. Use treats!
Bring treats to reward your dog for lovely behaviors and to obtain your dog’s attention while at the vet clinic. Reward your dog for any calm behavior (lying down, having a soft expression, or not panting). Have your dog take treats from vet techs, the doctor, and other people in the clinic – your dog should think, “Wow, this place is great! Everyone feeds me!” Reward your dog for walking on a loose leash and for following you into an exam room. Reward your dog for standing still during an exam and after a procedure – such as giving a vaccination or swabbing an ear - is performed.
2. Practice exams.
Use baby steps – starting slowly and then gradually increasing the difficulty over time – to teach your dog to accept restraining hugs and holds and to hold still for paw, eye, ear, and mouth exams. Ideally, make the skill easy enough that your dog never starts to wiggle and struggle – then release! If your dog starts to wiggle and fuss during your fake exam, wait for a moment of stillness, release your dog, treat your dog, and then repeat the skill again – when you repeat the skill again, make it easy enough that your dog does not resist. Then treat! You don’t want to create the pattern of “be calm and still, struggle, be calm and still, then treat!” Instead, create the pattern of “be calm and still, then treat!” After your dog willingly and happily accepts exams from you, ask your friends to examine your dog, too.
3. Create fun!
Do more than just medical visits and boarding at the vet. Does your vet clinic offer day camp (play with other dogs) or day school (dropping off during the day for a private training session with a professional trainer)? Or can you take training classes at the vet clinic? Try one of those fun activities for your dog. Turn the vet clinic into somewhere fabulous to go!
If your clinic does not offer such services, ask the vet staff to allow you to come into the clinic on a day on which you do not have an appointment. Walk into the clinic, give your dogs some treats for doing some tricks, and then leave! Suddenly your dog will not always associate the vet with medical procedures. You may even ask the vet staff to allow you to walk your dog into an exam room, give cookies, and leave.
4. Ooze calmness.
Your dog is so in tune with how YOU are feeling and acting, so be sure not to send your dog signals that you are stressed. This means don’t hold your breath, clench the leash tightly, or talk in a tone that sounds as if you’re worried. Avoid saying “it’s ok, it’s ok, it’s ok;” that will surely tell your dog that you’re worried about something and that things are indeed not ok! Instead, tell your dog, “You’re so brave! I’m so proud of you!” Your voice tone normally matches the words you say and sends the signal to your dog that all is well. Be calm, be confident, and breathe at a normal pace.
As an added bonus, following the above steps will also make it easier for veterinary staff to examine and care for your dog!