For a lot of dogs, going to the vet can be stressful. The stress can result in lots of panting, pacing, drooling, shaking, lip licking, yawning, hyper vigilance, growling, snapping or even biting.
Have you ever thought about why this happens? Vets and vet techs are nice people. They got into this line of work because they love animals, so that’s not the reason. This all happens because one of the ways that a dog learns is by association. This means that he learns when something predicts awesome stuff or when something predicts painful or scary stuff. Depending on the association, you may see the behaviors mentioned above, or you may see happy behaviors like jumping, kissing/licking, play biting and so on.
If your dog is struggling at the vet, it’s not too late to help. The first thing you need to do is contact your vet and schedule some “happy visits.” Most vet offices out there offer these, so they should know what you’re talking about.
Figure out where to start
The first step in the plan is going to differ depending on your dog’s level of fear. If your dog is absolutely petrified, you may need to do your first couple of visits in the parking lot without even entering the building. (If this is the case, you’ll want to contact a certified trainer to help develop a plan.) If your dog is nervous but is still holding it together, you’ll probably be fine having him in the building as far away from everyone as possible.
Work at your dog’s pace
It’s beyond important to do this at your dog’s pace. If you dog is nervous when you pull into the parking lot, you’re going to want to stick to the step of pulling into the parking lot and giving him lots of tasty treats. You’re going to stick to that step until you pull into the parking lot and he starts getting excited. If you were to try to jump ahead and go in while he is extremely stressed, it’s unlikely that things are going to get any better.
Get your food prepared ahead of time and keep it out of sight
The order of events is extremely important. This means that food must come second if we want to change the way your dog feels about something scary. Scary stuff MUST predict awesome stuff and not the other way around.
If your dog sees or smells the food ahead of time and then the scary thing appears, the order of events is wrong and your dog’s association with the scary thing won’t change. Believe it or not, your dog’s association with the awesome thing may actually change. If he smells and or tastes cheese just before something painful or scary happens, he may no longer want cheese in the future.
Whatever step you’re at, make sure the thing your dog dislikes happens first, (pulling into the parking lot, walking into the building, seeing the staff etc.) and then the flow of food starts. As long as you’re going at your dog’s pace, you’ll see a change in his behavior in future visits.
The food deliverer
It makes sense for your dog to receive treats from a person if he is afraid of that person. The idea is to change his association. This can work, but often times it’s not the best way to go about it. In the video posted I have the staff give Villere some treats. This is because his fear if very minimal. Once you get to that point, it’s okay. But if your dog is too nervous, having a person approach to give a treat can actually cause more fear. Your safest bet, especially in the early stages is for you to deliver the food AFTER he notices the person.
Go at the right time
If your dog is reactive towards other dogs, communicate this to the staff. Trying to accomplish this with other dogs around is going to make this near impossible, especially in the beginning. If there is no other choice, ask if there is access to the building through another door and try to go right into an exam room instead of the waiting room.
Here is a video of Villere's happy visit to give you a visual:
Once your dog is feeling good about the parking lot, the building and the people in the building, you're ready for the next step. Stay tuned for step 2.
Thanks to Hardin Valley Animal Hospital for being so awesome! If you're in the Knoxville, TN area, we recommend them. They're a Fear Free Certified hospital.
By: Kevin Duggan, CPDT-KA