Visits to your dogs’ veterinarian can be a difficult and stressful event for all involved. Not only are they “difficult” for you dog, they are often terrifying as well. Even the most laid back and mellowest of dogs can be stressed at the local animal hospital, throw fear into the mix and you are dealing with a dog that literally fears for his safety and well being. There are several things that can be done to help things go smoothly.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
If you have been reading my blog I’m sure this is nothing new to you. Set yourself, and your dog, up for success by properly exercising him before the appointment. Running around in the back yard does not count, even if you have acres of land. Fast bursts of running/sprinting are not the same as sustained cardiovascular activity for at least 30 minutes. Walking is one of the best forms of exercise. The walk should be one with a purpose, not a “sniff and pee” type of walk. It is okay for your dog to sniff around on a walk, as long as you control when sniffing starts and stops, but the purpose of this walk is to tire him out. Treadmills are excellent options for busy people.
Watch Your Verbal and Nonverbal Language
When our dogs are stressed and afraid, it is a very natural for us humans to try to some how convey to them that this really isn’t something to be afraid of. Or in other words “it’s okay.” Well, often times it’s simply not okay. When a fearfully aggressive dog is trying to attack the vet tech or vet it is not okay :-). I understand this approach. In this time of stress (for the owner) owners are reverting to what they know, human psychology. That may work is we are dealing with another human, although it didn’t seem to help much the last time I took my daughter in for vaccinations, it sends the complete opposite message to your dog. The average dog has a very limited capacity to understand what you are saying. This is not because they are not capable of learning, it is simply because they have not been trained or taught properly. The time to do that training, or any training for that matter, is not when we need it. Stress and anxiety inhibit learning. For many dogs, a visit to the vet is one of the most stressful things they will experience.
Look at the situation from a dogs’ point of view. The entire appointment is a scary threat. He is anxious and stressed (I’m sure he even knows where he’s going before he gets there), strangers (vet tech and vet) are approaching, making direct eye contact, leaning over him, reaching over him, and are trying to poke and prod and restrain him. Then, he looks to his owner who has suddenly has changed their body language from one that was relatively relaxed to one of concern and anxiety. The concerned look the owner is showing is because they feel bad for their dog and they want to some how convey that concern to their dog, along with trying to relieve the stress the dog is experiencing. However, the dog is interpreting that concerned body language to be motivated by the same thing he is concerned with, the big bad vet! The behavior of the owner in this situation only serves to reinforce the fear that their dog is experiencing. In some cases, it does seem that this behavior helps to calm the dog, but these are the exceptions. The general rule is that this behavior makes the situation worse.
So, what should you do? First, remain calm and make sure your body language and your facial expressions convey that. Do not give that worried/concerned look, try to smile :-). If your dog is freaking out and giving you the look for “please help me” as he is struggling and trying to escape, look away from him. This will convey to your dog that you do not agree with the behavior he is displaying MUCH more so than anything you can verbalize. When he calms down, then you can look at him, but not with the look of concern. Remain relaxed and calm, or at least appear that way :-). It is best to be silent. He is already over stimulated. Adding more sound to the situation only serves to add more stimulation, when what we need is less.
Your Veterinarian’s Behavior
Something you cannot control is how the vet and the vet tech behaves. I will discuss this so you can have some insight into why some vets, with the kindest of hearts and noblest of intentions, make the situation worse. Many vets just simply do not understand canine behavior. This does not make them bad people or bad vets anymore than it makes your child’s pediatrician or your own family doctor a bad doctor for not having a complete understanding of human psychology. It is simply a fact. Many vets greet their patients the same way that many people greet a strange dog. They walk in and immediately focus on the dog, saying his name in a happy tone, making direct eye contact, making a direct approach, reaching and leaning over the dog, and trying to “make nice” or comfort him by petting him. The intention is one of kindness and compassion, but it is all wrong.
Another factor that plays into this type of greeting is the fact that many owners would think the vet to be cold if they do not greet their dog in this manner. This absolutely plays a role in things. If a vet is viewed as cold, it will affect the bottom line as many owners will find another one that will greet their dog in a warmer manner. I’m not implying that this is a direct thought process in all cases, but this, at the very least subconsciously, plays a role.
There are a few things that I find go be helpful. When I see that a dog is fearful I will usually not say hello or try to interact at all in the beginning. I speak to the owners, get a complete history, set up my vaccinations, and basically do everything I need to in order to delay interacting with the dog. Some owners will feel like I’m ignoring their dog and I can tell they may be a bit put off because I don’t give an overly exuberant greeting, but when they see how much better the appointment goes, and when I explain my approach, they usually get over it quickly. When I do greet the dog, I squat down, turn my body sideways so I’m not facing the dog head on, squint my eyes slightly while looking in their direction & avoiding direct eye contact, extend my hand palm open and up just above ground level and try to give them a moment to approach me. If they do not, I creep a little closer to them. Getting them to sniff you and allowing it to happen helps a lot. Then my assistant does the same type of thing. A lot of times less restraint is more. When examining the face and eyes, making my eyes smaller by squinting helps a lot. If they start to struggle while I’m handling their face, I’m already squinting, so I slightly avert my gaze downward and to either side. I always give them the option to sniff my scopes before I use them. They don’t seem to find them as scary if they say hello to them first. If they start to struggle during part of the exam, I do not back away. I hold what I have as gently as I can to maintain my hold, but I let up the instant they do, if they begin to struggle, I tighten up again. Sometimes I don’t really have a choice and have to left go, but that’s kinda rare. Silence is paramount. I have sent owners out of the room because they cannot overcome their compulsion to “reassure” their panic stricken dog with a constant stream of “it’s okay” or “you’re a good boy”. I don’t speak because I found that many fearful dogs react to the “ggrrrrr” sound in some of the words I say, same goes with “hhhmmmmm.”. Plus, it’s just another source of stimulation that their brain has to process.
Many people are against sedation because of moral issues concerning “drugs.” Drugs are not always a bad thing. Millions of lives would be lost every year if drugs were not around, yet drugs that cause sedation are seen in a very negative light. This is because many of them are abused by humans. I’m not talking about turning your dog into a drug addict. I’m talking about a legitimate use of a medication to help a panic stricken dog to relax. This is a much better situation for all involved. I have seen dog physically injure themselves in a number of ways trying to escape the clutches of the evil strangers that are accosting him, something that is definitely avoidable. The medications I recommend in this situation are : Benzodiazepines – Medications such as Valium, Xanax, and Klonopin. They are anti-anxiety medications that start to work about an hour after administration. I usually recommend giving them and hour and a half before the appointment. Acepromazine is one that is very commonly dispensed, and one that I am NOT a fan of. Ace does not help to decrease anxiety. It just makes the dog unable to respond to the stress that he is experiencing. His brain is under the exact same amount of stress, but his body is unable to respond.
Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning
In a perfect world, the gold standard for helping a dog over come his fear of the vet would be to desensitized him to the event and counter-condition his response. This is no doubt the best approach, however it is very labor intensive for the owner and the veterinary staff. It would involve multiple visits to the hospital when we do not need to go. I like to call them happy visits. Basically you would bring your dog to the hospital and just hang out without getting an examination or shots or anything else that is scary. This would have to be done several times a week, daily would be optimal. The duration of treatment is highly variable and would depend on how fearful the dog is, how long the fear has been present, what happened (or did not happen) during the dogs’ critical socialization period, and how/if the fear has been reinforced just to name a few. If you have a vet that is willing to work with you in this capacity and you have the time and patience to do it, it is definitely a great idea. If you would like a detailed protocol on what should be done, let me know.
The world in general can be a scary place for some dogs, but the vets office is a special location that causes a great deal of stress and anxiety in even the happy-go-luckiest of dogs. I hope this post will help you understand what goes on in the mind of your dog and how you can help him and not inadvertently make things worse. Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment and/or ask questions :-).
Pictures provided by : otakuchick, normanack, stefernie, and Tobyotter via Flickr.