Does your dog think veterinary visits are scary?
If you wish you could make those necessary visits a little easier on your dog, you’re in the right place. Schooner the Great Dane is 165 pounds of muscle. He’s a big boy and — even if I could — I’m not going to make this guy do anything he doesn’t want to do. When we got Schooner back from the service dog agency, I noticed that he was a dog who thought veterinary visits were scary. And we’ve got the best veterinarians — people who know exactly how to accomplish fear-free veterinary visits. They did everything right, but Schoons is a sensitive soul despite his imposing presence.
I was worried that if I didn’t address this budding anxiety and fear, it might ramp up at each subsequent visit. Ramping up how? Well, a lot of scared dogs try avoidance first. That looks like hesitating to go into the veterinary hospital or into the exam room. It can include hiding behind furniture or you, or even sitting in the corner facing away from you. If that’s not successful (meaning: if the technician and/or veterinarian come closer), the dog might escalate his reaction. This could lead to lip lifting, snarling, snapping, or even biting.
Neither my veterinarian or the technicians (or me! or Schoons!) want a bite to happen. No way, no how. So to that end, I took some of my own (sage, if I do say so myself) advice.
Happy veterinary visits
Vet Hospital = Fun
First, we need to make the veterinary hospital itself a fun and cool place to be for the dog. How do you do that? You pack some crazy-delicious treats (chicken, cheese, steak — you get the idea) and you hang out with your dog at the veterinary hospital. I took Schooner’s settle mat, tons of amazing treats, and the clicker.
Our first visit was rocky: Schooner didn’t want to eat any treats for at least the first five minutes. His tail was tucked, he was panting, and restless. He just wanted to leave. I sweet talked him, read a magazine (pretended to, at least) and every so often would offer him a tasty treat. When he began to take treats regularly, I got the clicker out and asked for some easy hand touches.
Our progress began to snowball once I got some training started — I think it’s a combination of (1) taking his mind off of the anxiety, (2) getting his parasympathetic nervous system revved up, and (3) giving him something he knows he can do (and likes to do).
We kept those visits short and light. I didn’t ask him to greet any of the veterinary hospital staff, he didn’t have to get on the scale, or go into an exam room. My only goal was that I get him in the door and get him to relax. Mission accomplished!
Better Living Through Chemistry
To further accelerate Schooner’s progress, we introduced an “event medication,” to help alleviate some of his fear and anxiety. I would dose Schooner with the medication a couple of hours before our visit, he’d mellow out, and our training sessions became even more valuable because we could make more progress at each visit. I added some other adjunctive therapies, too, like Adaptil and Through A Dog’s Ear, to help further prime Schooner for good learning experiences. There are many more medication options available today than were available even a few years ago. And they work better, too. Instead of sedating a dog, the newer anti-anxiety medications actually work on the fear itself instead of putting your dog in a loopy, “out of it” state.
In addition to the weekly fun veterinary hospital visits, I implemented a training plan at home, where Schooner was already super comfortable. It looked to me like Schooner was most nervous when two people approached him, especially if either of those people was holding something that might be used on him. (When my husband and I were giving Tango his weekly Adequan injection [I feed Tango peanut butter while my husband injects the Adequan], I noticed that Schooner made a beeline out of the room — and stayed gone for several minutes.) He would even run from just me occasionally, if I was holding something “suspicious” like cotton balls. [Because cotton balls can be dangerous, of course — everyone knows they are an instrument of terror. Where does he come up with these strange thoughts?!]
So, with some help from a colleague, Laura Monaco Torelli, I implemented a training plan to systematically address Schooner’s sources of anxiety and fear. Here’s what I did:
- I had some of the typical tools out during a regular, fun-behavior training session. What does that look like? I’d have a stethoscope, otoscope (super inexpensive to buy from Amazon), cotton balls, and maybe some ear cleaning solution on the table when I was teaching Schooner a fun behavior like “speak” or “bow.” I never used those tools on him during the training session, they just hung out on the table with the treats. This made sure the appearance of those tools didn’t predict icky things for Schoons.
- When the mere sight of the tools didn’t bother Schooner, I made a slight change to the training plan. I would pick up one of the tools, ask Schooner for a fun behavior, then click and treat him when he did the behavior. Still: no real interaction with the tools. They’re still just hanging out with us, I’m not using them on Schooner yet. I’m still building goodwill with Schooner, trying to destroy any not-so-great associations Schooner has made with those tools.
- After he’s cool with me holding a stethoscope, for instance, I’d touch him briefly with the tool, ask him for a fun behavior, then click and treat it when he offered the right thing. It’s still really easy for him to get this right. I didn’t attempt to listen to his heart with the stethoscope, look in his ear with the otoscope, or do anything to him. I just brought that “thing” into the training session.
- Next, I needed to add another person to the training session, since this is what seemed to spook Schooner the most. So I dropped back on the tools I was using — the stethoscope and friends were still there on the table, but I wasn’t actually holding them or using them at this point — and then brought another person into the training session. I volunteered my husband as he’s the only other human in the house. To do this, I simply moved the training session to wherever my husband was at the time. Watching tv in the living room? (Sorry, honey, I’m training the dog so turn up the tv if you need to be able to hear over the clicks.) That was a fairly easy bridge to cross, and we accomplished that task quickly. On to the next step, then, which was to have my husband stand nearby. He could still watch tv, I just needed him to (1) be standing (because a veterinarian and/or technician won’t be sitting in the LA-Z-Boy at the veterinary hospital) and (2) close. Again, this was a fairly easy step and we progressed quickly to the point where I had to pull the husband’s attention off the television for some help. I had him put his hands gently on Schoons while I asked Schooner to do something easy (like touch his nose to my hand). Lots of clicks and treats all the way around for all that good progress.
- So we had all the components added to the mix (except the actual veterinary hospital, but I’m working on that independently with those happy fun veterinary visits I mentioned earlier), so it was time to bring those pesky tools back into the picture with the extra person there, too. As you might imagine, this was accomplished using small baby steps. Husband held stethoscope while I asked and paid Schooner for easy behaviors. I held stethoscope and paid for simple things like sit, down, settle, touch my hand while husband touched Schooner. You get the idea: slow, steady, systematic training
Veterinary Hospital Take Two
In the meantime, I’d been practicing our fun veterinary visits about once a week when my schedule allowed (it’s an hour’s drive, round trip). We moved from “hang out and have fun” to getting a little bit of work done in the veterinary hospital. That meant that when Schooner was comfortable in the waiting room, I then started venturing into the exam room leaving the door open to the waiting room. As expected, this slight change and foray into the dreaded exam room meant we took a little step backward in Schooner’s comfort level. No worries, that kind of backslide was expected and wasn’t worrisome. I simply went back to just feeding him, not asking him to do anything to earn those treats. He hopped over that little speed bump really quickly (also expected) and I then moved to the next step: asking him to do easy stuff in the open exam room. “Piece of cake,” said Schoons! Here are the next steps we went through at the veterinary hospital:
- Door to waiting room closed, asked Schooner for easy tricks (and paid handsomely)
- Door to waiting room open, asked a technician to come in and feed Schoons some treats. Predictably, he fell apart a little when a technician came in, but because nothing bad happened (in fact, only good things happened: treats!), Schooner quickly adjusted
- Took Schooner on a happy veterinary visit with another dog who had to get an exam
Next up, the results of our practice and training are in!
I’ll let you know how the practice veterinary exam went, what worked, what didn’t! Stay tuned for Part 2!