By Christine D. Calder DVM DACVB
Is your dog afraid to go to the veterinary hospital for a checkup? You are not alone! Did you know that over three quarters of all dogs are afraid to visit the vet? Some dogs will tremble and hide. Others freeze in place waiting for the visit to be over as quickly as possible while others take it the next level, barking, snarling, snapping, lunging, and biting. Regardless of which behavioral strategy your dog displays, all indicate your dog is afraid. In fact, some dogs are outright petrified.
When young, many dogs will have a neutral response to veterinary procedures and handling; however, as they mature, problems can arise. A negative experience (from the dog’s perspective) can occur once or many times over resulting in an escalation of fear and anxiety. Each dog will respond differently to these experiences depending on its genetic make-up and early life experiences (or lack thereof).
What does this fear look like?
Dogs that are uncomfortable or fearful, may initially choose an avoidance strategy attempting to escape, fidget, cower, and freeze. If the procedure continues, behavior can escalate resulting in growling, snarling, lunging, snapping or even biting. It is important to realize that when a dog cowers or freezes in place, the procedure may be easy to accomplish however, this behavior is often misinterpreted as compliance or obedient. A false sense of security for the humans can occur and an escalation of aggressive behavior from the dog over time is then a possibility.
What else can affect my dog’s behavior?
In addition to the above, a variety of medical conditions such as pain, sensory decline (loss of hearing and eyesight), cognitive decline, and other health conditions can lower individual tolerance levels for handling, restraint, and other procedures. A complete physical exam by your veterinarian will help to determine if an underlying medical condition is present and if treatment is needed.
What can be done to help my dog?
If your dog is fearful at the veterinary hospital, your veterinarian may prescribe a short acting medication. For some dogs, additional injectable sedation may be needed; however, with pre-administered oral medications on board, the sedation process should be less fear- provoking, allowing for a smoother sedation and recovery process.
What can you do?
Before arriving at the hospital, a handling plan should be in place. Ideally, your dog would be muzzle trained and arrive wearing a basket muzzle. When approached, veterinary professional should approach your dog from the side rather than straight on. Eye contact should be kept to a minimum. Kneeling and inviting your dog into the human’s personal space is ideal instead of the other way around. Unfamiliar people should never reach for your dog or force your dog to interact with them in any way.
Tossing treats can sometimes be helpful; however, some dogs may become conflicted with this technique. Usually, these dogs want to eat, but are afraid of the hand coming forward to offer the actual food resulting in a snap or bite - sometimes with little warning. It is often better to toss the treats on the ground and behind your dog rather than deliver treats directly from a hand. Better yet, the pet owner should deliver the treats to reduce defensive reactions from the dog.
In addition to treat tossing, using familiar cues for behaviors such as “sit”, “come”, “down”, “touch”, “place” and “relax” can help coax your dog into position when needed rather than using force. Inviting your dog to jump up onto the exam table instead of being picked up off the ground can help keep fear and anxiety to a minimum for many dogs as well.
What about long-term treatment to reduce fear at the veterinary hospital?
Long-term treatment involves the use of low stress handling and cooperative care techniques. Veterinary staff have an opportunity to learn these techniques through continuing education in the form of online modules and courses. Some veterinarians learn low stress handling techniques in veterinary school.
Cooperative care is about giving dogs an opportunity to communicate “no” and “yes” with their human caretakers. If we give control back to the dog during these procedures, then the dog is less likely to be anxious or distressed. With cooperative care techniques, dogs are taught specific behaviors or cues to communicate “yes”. We call these voluntary start behaviors. They include eye contact, targeting to a mat, and a chin rest (chin resting on a hand, lap, or chair). Once a dog learns this start behavior, then behavior modification can be used to change the dog’s perception and response to these procedures.