Most dogs are not thrilled about a trip to see the veterinarian. Typically, it is just a mild case of anxiety where the dog is trembling and trying to head back out the door. However, routinely dogs have full blown panic attacks, where they are screaming, flailing about, sometimes uncontrollably peeing or pooping, and maybe even behaving aggressively.
The best solution for a positive experience at the vet is preparation well in advance of the appointment. Many dogs are under-socialized. Fear of the unfamiliar can trigger the fight-or-flight response. Dogs will either try to run away from or show aggression toward whatever they are fearful of. To help prevent dogs from getting to one of these extremes, owners should proactively work on socializing their dogs. Socialization should start as early as possible in puppyhood, but it is never too late to start. Dogs should experience all types of situations, including random visits to the veterinary clinic.
Plan to visit the vet’s office when you don’t have an appointment. Just sit in the waiting room giving the dog treats. If the clinic is not too busy ask if you can take your dog into the exam room for a few minutes. Keep the visit short and positive. If your dog has a reputation at your vet clinic of being difficult, the clinic staff will likely be happy that you are working to help your dog be more comfortable there.
If your dog doesn’t have major issues at the vet then randomly visit every now and again. If your dog has big problems at the vet, you may want to visit every day for a few minutes until the dog becomes more accustomed to it. For most dogs three or four days in a row will make a big difference.
If you have a vet visit planned and won’t be able to prepare your dog ahead of time there are many things that can be done to make the visit easier for everyone involved.
If you know your dog will definitely present a problem during the visit, talk to the veterinarian ahead of time to develop a plan. Depending on what the dog is going in for, the vet may be able to provide a calming aid for the dog to take before arriving at the clinic. It may be as mild as a vitamin combination, or an actual sedative.
Extremely nervous dogs should not be in the waiting room. This will likely cause them to be even more nervous. Hold off bringing them inside until the moment they are ready to be seen in the exam room. Vet staff should be in the room before the dog comes in, so the dog feels like he is coming into their territory. If the dog has been in the room for several minutes before the vet staff enter, the dog may feel like they are entering his territory, causing some dogs to become even more confrontational.
Allow the dog a few minutes to get comfortable with the vet staff . Slower may actually be faster in this situation. It can be very concerning for a fearful dog if the veterinarian or the technician immediately starts touching them. Taking the opportunity to let the dog get settled in the presence of this stranger can make all the difference in him being cooperative or resistant.
Sometimes the dog owner is helpful in keeping the dog calm, and sometimes the owner makes the situation worse. Recognize if you are super nervous yourself. This will likely transfer to your dog and make things worse. If so, it might be best if you leave the room. However, if you are a calming influence on your dog, your presence will be helpful.
It is better for the vet staff to approach a nervous dog from the side facing the dog’s tail. This is much less confrontational to the dog than approaching face to face. And unless it is absolutely necessary, vet staff should avoid making eye contact with the dog for more than a couple of seconds. Too much eye contact is the biggest mistake people make when dealing with nervous dogs.
In the most difficult cases the owner can blindfold the dog with a bandana, or one of their own shirts. Dogs are highly visually stimulated. When the visual is removed most dogs immediately calm down. Covering the eyes blocks the stimuli, and if the owner’s shirt is used to cover the dog’s head, the dog is gets the scent of the owner over the smells of the exam room. Also, in the worse cases, no one should speak other than the owner who is giving reassuring words to their dog.
I rarely have to resort to using an official muzzle with dogs. Often, the muzzle itself will escalate the situation, especially if the dog associates the muzzle with past unpleasant experiences. If needed, I prefer to use the leash that is already attached to the dog to prevent it from biting. Wrapping a flat leash around the dog’s muzzle two or three times works great for getting through things like nail trims, or being vaccinated. And most dogs don’t have a negative association with a leash like they do a muzzle.
With proper socialization trips to the vet don’t have to be difficult. But if you find yourself there with a fearful, panicky, or aggressive dog, these tips and techniques should help make the experience a bit more manageable.