If you own a dog (which you probably do considering you're reading this article), odds are at some point or another you've had a few visits to the vet's office.
There's nothing worse than watching our beloved companions feel miserable, or be in pain. But, it's even worse when the very person who can help them also terrifies them. From my experience working in animal hospitals most dogs get at least a little nervous at the vet.
Sure, there are some who nearly drag their humans into the building in excitement because they know the techs have all the good treats. This is great! This is what we all want. Even as a trainer, I'd be delighted if my dogs pulled me into the vet's office with excitement and joy. However, most dogs aren't quite so thrilled once they walk through the front door. Some dogs are just a little unsure, while others are full-blown terrified.
But... can you blame them? The reality is that most (if not all) of the experience our dogs have at the vet's office is when they are sick or injured. Much like my dislike of hospitals. I hardly ever go to the hospital for something good, so I avoid it at all costs.
There's also the smell. Our dog's have incredible noses and they can literally smell the fear and anxiety of the other animals in the hospital (science is cool, huh?). Add on being poked & prodded and the cold, small and unfamiliar exam rooms.... of course they're a little nervous.
When our dogs aren't feeling well, or are in pain, the last thing we want is to add even more stress onto them by bringing them somewhere that causes stress regardless of how they feel. Luckily, there are many things we can do to help make the vet's office a more comfortable and familiar place. As their owners, it's our job to provide them with the skills they need to be confident and prepare them for the moments where confidence isn't quite so easy. Let's dive in.
This is something I would recommend any puppy owner start as soon as you bring your puppy home, but it's also something you can start at any point in your dog's life. It's especially important for older dogs.
Can you imagine how weird it would be if someone you didn't know locked you in a small room and started touching your belly and moving your legs? Your family doesn't even do that! You'd probably even call the police!
One of the best skills you can teach your dog is how to be comfortable being physically handled and manipulated. Here's an exercise I do with my dogs that is extremely beneficial for a multitude of reasons.
At least twice a week I get down on the floor with my dogs for a half an hour or so before going to bed. Yes, on the floor. If you're unable to get down on the floor, you can have your dog jump up on the bed with you. I choose nighttime because that's when my dogs are the most relaxed, and I want them relaxed. I encourage them to come lay on the floor next to me. I rub their belly to calm them down, and then I give them a doggy massage.
At least, they think they're getting a massage, but I'm actually strategically feeling for any lumps or bumps, bug bites, skin irritation or matted fur. I make sure to quickly check their ears, and give them a little foot massage to get them used to having their paws touched. I may even carefully practice moving their legs. Gently, of course. We aren't playing with puppets, just making sure they don't seem to have any discomfort bending or stretching their legs normally.
All of this mimics what your vet may need to do during a check up. And if it's part of your dogs normal routine they're much less likely to be stressed by it during an actual exam. It also has the huge benefit of helping you keep tabs on your pet's health. You'd be surprised how much we don't notice on a day-to-day basis. Doing this a few times a week can help you identify health issues early.
Your dog will also love the one-on-one time with you where you aren't distracted by anything else. Getting down on your dog's level every now and then means the world to them.
Set aside one day a week to trim your dogs nails, clean their ears, and brush their teeth and fur. If you have a long haired dog you probably aren't too alarmed by this as you already need to brush their fur at least once a week, if not more. But in the case you don't already do this, yes, at least once a week.
Don't wait until your dog's nails are so long they split or until your dog's ears are infected and painful. Sure, your dog's nails may not need to be trimmed every week - but it's more about the habit. Trim just the very tips of their nails and once this is a normal weekly event having their paws touched will be easy-breezy. My dog literally sleeps through his nail trims now.
This also saves you a ton of money in the long-run because you won't be paying the vet or groomer to do it for you all the time. If you're uncomfortable trimming your dog's nails or aren't sure how, your vet, groomer or a local trainer should be happy to teach you. (If you're in the Denver area, I'm more than happy to do this.)
Remember, if your dog isn't comfortable with you doing all these things, they definitely won't be comfortable with a stranger doing them.
Remember how I said earlier I hate hospitals because I only ever go for something bad? Your dog probably feels the same way. Fortunately, your vet wants to keep your dog healthy in the first place, not just treat them when they're sick.
My first recommendation is to find a vet you like and stick with them. When I worked in specialty I was always appalled when I'd ask who someone's primary vet was and they said they didn't have one. You need to have a primary vet. I'm not saying stick with the first one you see. I'm not even saying to stick with just one. Personally, I have two. One holistic and one traditional. Both of my dogs are established at both practices.
What's important is finding a vet you trust and jive with. That may seem odd, but you should find someone who explains things in a way you understand and who you're comfortable asking questions and having discussions with. Once you do, stick with them. If you're an established client they're going to be able to get you in sooner if your pet is sick, they'll be more able to give you advice over the phone if you have a concern, and you're dog will have a chance to get comfortable with the staff.
Rather than only taking your dog to see the vet when they aren't doing well, you should be taking your dog in for a wellness exam at least once a year. Twice a year for senior dogs.
Personally, I take my dogs for wellness exams every 4-6 months, even my young dog. While this a great opportunity to catch things early, I mainly do it to give my dogs good experiences at the vet. They go when they're feeling great, they get plenty of treats, and the veterinary staff and the building starts to become familiar and comfortable. Much like going to their favorite pet store. You may be concerned that this is expensive - but usually an exam fee is less expensive than a grooming appointment. If you end up paying for more than an exam fee, was it really a wellness visit? Did your dog have an easy, good time? If not, it doesn't count. And isn't your pet's confidence and comfort priceless anyway?
Our veterinarians and vet techs have the best of intentions. They truly love our pets. Even on the bad days. Even when our pets are being difficult. Unfortunately, in all the clinics I worked at I hardly ever saw them greet a nervous dog in a way that made that dog more comfortable. Usually, they made the dog much more nervous.
See, as humans we tend to find comfort in physical touch and verbal praise. We want to hear things like "it's ok" and "don't worry". When our children go to the doctor they get lollipops and stickers. Our vet staff usually tries to mimic this, and so do we.
More often than not, the techs walk up to us and greet our dog before they say hello to us. They baby-talk with a high-pitched tone, crouch down, try to stick their hands out for sniffs, try to offer treats, all the while we're petting our dogs and matching the baby talk with "it's ok. You're ok".
We all have the best of intentions. But we need to remember our dogs are not human, and treating them as if they are has no benefit to them. What is comforting to us is not always comforting to them. They experience the world much differently than we do.
There's a phrase in dog training that goes, "You get what you pet". And it's true.
When we pet our dogs we are rewarding any behavior they are exhibiting. So if our dogs are nervous, and we pet them, we reinforce that behavior (or make it more likely to continue). The same goes for when we talk to them. Any attention you give your dog is a reward. When your dog is nervous and you try to comfort them, you're rewarding the nervousness.
Interestingly, when the vet staff tries to comfort our dogs and ask our dogs permission to take them on the leash, our dogs only understand this as "the humans are acting strange". We don't usually talk to our dogs in a way that suggests whatever is happening is a big deal or in a way that makes us seem unsure.... unless something is wrong. The less confident we are, the less confidence our dogs have in us.
I'm sure at this point I'm starting to lose you. You're probably thinking I want you, and the vet, to be cold towards your dog. I promise you, that's not what I want. I want you and your vet to be confident and act as if everything is great and normal.
Dog's feed off of our energy and our emotions. If you're nervous, you're dog will be nervous. If you're unsure, your dog will be unsure. The same goes for the vet staff.
Whenever I go to a new vet my dog has never seen before I ask the receptionist for a favor. This is much easier now with most vets doing curbside, but even when we can walk inside I always walk into the clinic to check-in without my dog first so I can ask this. Here's what I say....
"Hi! I'm here to check in for my appointment. Can you pass a message along to the technician who will be coming out to get him? My dog tends to be a little nervous at the vet, and baby-talking him only makes it worse. When the tech comes out I'd like her to completely ignore him. When it's time for her to take his leash, she can just take it right from me and walk away with him. He responds really well to people who are confident and act like his being here is no big deal."
I usually get a pause and a weird look, but this helps our dogs tremendously. Once my dog has been handled then they can give him treats and love and pets, it's the initial meeting that makes or breaks the appointment.
Let me say that again. Muzzle train your dog. Yes, you. Even you with the happy go-lucky golden retriever who's always excited to see everyone. Muzzle. Train. Your. Dog.
There's a lot of stigma around muzzles. As soon as we see a dog with a muzzle on most of us assume the dog is a highly-aggressive danger to society. This couldn't be further from the truth. A dog who is properly muzzle trained, and wearing a good muzzle that's fit correctly is the safest dog to be around. And, in my opinion, anyone who has taken the time to muzzle train is in the top level of responsible pet ownership.
For most of us it's easy to say "Oh, my dog would never bite anyone."... but here's the truth. Any dog is capable of biting. Any dog.
Now, obviously some dogs are a much higher bite risk than others. But no dog is perfect, just like none of us are perfect. You may never need to use a muzzle, but you should still train your dog to be comfortable in one. I'm normally not a violent person. I've lived my whole life without ever getting in a physical fight, and I probably never will. But, if anyone ever tries to mug me, you better bet I'm putting up a fight.
Every dog has a threshold, and it's different for all of them. But once that threshold is met, whether it be fear or pain, every dog is capable of biting. Sometimes it's not even intentional, it's an automatic reaction to pain or fear, and they don't mean it.
Hopefully you never go through this, but if your dog is ever in an awful accident and in a lot of pain, they may need to be muzzled to keep the medical staff safe as they work to help them. And if you're dog isn't muzzle trained (or comfortable wearing a muzzle), the necessary muzzle might cause them even more stress than they're already experiencing.
For those of us with nervous dogs, a muzzle can help even when our dog has never tried to bite. See, vet techs deal with a lot. And they've all been nipped at or bit before. If your dog is nervous and seems tense, the techs may get a little nervous themselves. You're also probably a little nervous or stressed because you feel bad that your dog is nervous and you're worried about their behavior. Your dog feeds off of both your stress and the techs nervousness and becomes even more unsure themselves. The more nervous your dog gets the more the stress level in the room goes up, and it turns into a cycle.
If you train your dog to be comfortable in a muzzle, and you put a good muzzle on them during the appointment, they are ZERO risk to the vet tech who doesn't know how sweet they are the same way that you do. When the vet and their staff have zero fear of being bit, they are much more comfortable and your dog can be handled confidently. That confident energy wears off on your dog, and they become a little less uncomfortable. See where I'm going with this?
Our veterinarian and their amazing vet techs want to keep your pet healthy. They want to do everything they can to make you and your pet as comfortable as possible. And they don't want to be scary. Prepare you dog for visits by starting at home and getting them used to being examined, manipulated and groomed. Make these actions normal, not a special occasion. Visit your vet when your pet is healthy, let them get comfortable with the staff and make sure you don't accidentally reward or reinforce nervousness.
We love our dogs, our vets do too! With a little extra time every week, and a change in our point of view on how we act during visits, we can make a world of a difference in how our pets experience going to the vet's office.