Tech Talks by Emily Harbury, LVT
Welcome to 2016! I am writing this month about how you can help your dog have a comfortable, low-stress visit to the veterinary clinic. Few of us look forward to doctor visits; we may dread the weight scale, having to sit on crinkly paper, disrobing, and we often need to endure various levels of pain or discomfort.
It can be the same for our dogs, though different stimulus affects them. If the office floor is slippery, your dog may fear falling. There is an overwhelming smell of strange dogs and cats, some of them exuding scents of pain and fear. The veterinarian himself can be unnerving; he is a stranger who wants to look at and physically examine him. Though the exam is not harsh, your dog probably doesn’t get palpated regularly at home.
Here are some steps to help you relax your dog and make for a less stressful vet visit.
- If you have a new dog, or if you know your dog gets anxious or frightened at the vet, plan frequent visits. Call ahead and see when your clinic should be quiet. Less traffic of both strange dogs and humans will help your dog focus on just the clinic and staff. Bring a hungry dog and numerous high value treats. Let the receptionist and available staff greet your dog and give out those wonderful treats. Maybe ask your dog to step on the scale. Make these visits brief and full of positive memories!
- Make the scale a positive experience. Though you want to know the weight of your pet, it is quicker and easier if you focus on keeping your dog’s attention and let the staff watch the scale. The staff will usually announce the final weight for you; if not, just ask. The vet office is a highly distracting area, it is common for a dog to get on the scale briefly and then be distracted by something he wants to investigate and step off. When a dog leaves the scale, it can result in more anxiety from the owner, which, of course, alerts your dog that stepping on the scale is something you are anxious about and it can become scary. Relax….It is more important to make the scale just another fun thing to do than to get it done quickly.
- If your vet clinic has slippery floors and you know your dog has trouble with them, inform the staff before you arrive. They can often bring out non slid mats and arrange them so your dog has a stable route to the scale and to the exam room. If you voice your concerns, the veterinary staff will offer ideas. We want each visit to be enjoyable for your dog. A relaxed and comfortable pet becomes a calm and easily treated patient.
- Be calm yourself. Most vet visits are routine annual checkups or vaccinations. Some pet owners overreact to the vaccinations. They cling to their dog and repeatedly say “it’s OK” in a worried voice. While this may comfort some pets, generally owners only say this when something bad is happening or is about to happen. It becomes a cue to be afraid or vigilant. Instead, teach your dog other coping methods; ask for a sit and wait while the doctor gives the vaccines. Or gently scratch your dog’s neck. Get those treats out for a quick distraction. The idea is to let the dog know he doesn’t need to worry about what the vet is doing; needle pricks are followed by a delicious treat.
- Sometimes a nervous dog will growl and snarl even before the exam starts. First off, never punish a growl. While punishment may temporarily inhibit the aggressive response, stifling a growl with punishment often intensifies a dog’s reaction and escalates his aggression or anxiety. Instead, try pausing to either stop the aversive scenario or remove the dog if needed. Then you can devise a plan to address your dog’s response in a helpful manner. In some cases, you can interrupt the negative behavior by redirecting the dog to do another behavior, like sit or a hand touch that you can reward. Your veterinarian may recommend a veterinary behaviorist or work with positive reinforcement trainer to help.
- If your dog has a history of negative behavior during his exams, let the staff know beforehand. A quick heads-up will help your veterinary staff stay safe and help them come up with a positive plan to counter-condition your dog’s response.
May we all have a wonderful, healthy, and positive 2016!