Can you imagine getting a new puppy, working with him on confidence-building and training, establishing fear free veterinary visits, and suddenly things change in a heartbeat? That’s exactly what happened to me when my once happy and carefree dog developed an intense fear of vet visits.
Instead of feeling anxious, nervous, or having a dog afraid of vet visits, there are many easy things you can do to ensure success during vet appointments. If you’ve adopted a dog with an unknown history of fear-based behaviors, this article will help you, too. Perhaps your dog is fine in most situations but he is afraid of the vet. Welcome to the pack.
As a Cocker Spaniel mom, I know all too well about multiple medical issues and the need for specialists from cardiologists to ophthalmologists in my dog’s lifetime. So, when my dog started shaking, panting heavily, and appeared in overall distress during a visit to the referral hospital, I knew something had to change.
Here’s what happened, how we manage our dog’s vet visits, what to do if your dog needs the confidence to overcome his vet fears, and easy ways to do this from the comfort of your own home.
Why Do Dogs Dislike Going To The Vet?
If the only time a dog sees the inside of a car for vet visits where people poke and prod him, is it any wonder some dogs dislike going to the vet?
Anyone tending to your dog’s needs should cast an aura of calmness on your dog. I realize vets are busy people and vet techs are often overworked with multiple priorities from both the facility and their clients. There are, however, veterinarians who practice a fear-free mantra, mentality, and practice.
Dogs have a keen sense of smell. Ask anyone who has a visually or hearing-impaired dog about their animal’s heightened sense of smell. In her book, Being a Dog: Follow the Dog Into A World Of Smell, Alexandra Horowitz writes, “Every dog has hundreds of millions more cells devoted to detecting smelly stuff than humans do. Dogs have from two hundred million to one billion receptor cells, depending on the breed, compared to the six million in our noses.”
The number of odors a dog could detect is theoretically in the billions, according to Dr. Stuart Firestein, who is a neuroscientist at Columbia University. Firestein finds questioning the number of odors a dog can detect as nonsensical as asking how many colors or hues humans can see. The possibilities are endless.
A dog remembers the scents of that which he loves, adores, desires, disdains, and fears.
Using Scents To Help Dogs Afraid of Vets
It makes scent ‘sense,’ then, to use a dog’s limitless olfactory drive in tandem with confidence building to alleviate any anxiety about vet visits.
Lauren Walsh noticed her Cocker Spaniel, Cash, was very sensitive to his world, particularly because of near blindness due to cataracts. Although surgery restored his vision, it did little for his confidence.
“It was hard to take him new places and meet new people because he lacked courage,” Walsh, of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, shared. “I started doing nose work with him [and Raleigh] about three years ago as a hidden form of therapy.”
Nose work is a sport modeled after professional K9 detection work like narcotics, bomb, and human remains detection. Dogs are trained to recognize and search for cotton swabs scented with specific odors; birch, anise, and clove essential oils are the ones used in U.S. organizations devoted to the sport.
Walsh says Raleigh always had fun hunting for critters and hidden food, so she welcomed the opportunity to do nose work when a class came available in her area. The duo had so much fun together that Walsh got her other Cocker, Cash, involved in the sport.
The trio got the nose work bug, as Walsh is now an instructor in addition to working full time as a mechanical engineer. They enter competitions and have great fun together.
“I have such a deep relationship with both my dogs because of nose work, and it has empowered all three of us,” she mused.
How Nose Work Helped Overcome Veterinarian Fears
Building confidence through nose work translates into other aspects of a dog’s life, according to Walsh. Her dogs trust that she has their back, and in turn, they trust in themselves.
Any dog of any age can engage in nose work, from those with bundles of energy to senior pups and even dogs with physical limitations like deafness, blindness, and three-legged “tripawds.”
Because vet offices can be scary places for dogs with lots of smells and sounds that we, as their owners may not be as sensitive to, nose work may help.
If you’ve ever seen someone with confidence enter a room, that’s the feeling a fear-free dog gets when he visits the fear-free vet’s office.
“Nose work can be as expensive or as affordable as you want it to be,” Walsh shared. “An inexpensive way to do nose work with your dog is to simply hide food around your house and let your dog hunt for it, finding food is self-rewarding and as a result build confidence. In-person classes vary in price depending on where you live but $20-$25 is probably average.”
In addition to online classes, pet parents can connect with local dog training clubs or private training facilities. Here’s a sample of Cash in action on the trail of scents:
From Fabulous To Fearful Dog In One Vet Visit
My Cocker Spaniel has always been a jolly fellow, greeting strangers, adoringly staring at them from across the room, and assessing the approachability of someone with the stealth thought process of a wolf assessing a landscape. When my merry boy developed an intense fear after treatment for an immune system disease, I was crushed.
Dexter no longer held his head high as we approached the vet’s office. I noticed on the ride over, he would begin sniffing towards the sky, almost ‘mind-mapping’ where he was headed. Within a few minutes of the arrival, he would shake, pant, and plant his paws firmly so as not to exit the vehicle.
I never wanted to be one of those people who carried her dog into the vet’s office, trembling with trepidation, until the day arrived and I succumbed.
“The poor thing,” I heard someone in the waiting room whisper too loudly.
I don’t care what people think, but I do care about how my dog feels. He sent me a “no-go” signal loud and clear, and I promised both Dexter and myself to make positive changes.
He spent nearly a week in the hospital about two years ago for an immune system disease that came on like a freight train. The disease, IMT or immune-mediated thrombocytopenia, shut his platelets down and nearly cost him his life. During his hospital stay, he endured many tests, pokes, prods, kennel time, foreign smells and sounds that are now committed to his memory.
If you’ve ever rescued or fostered a dog, sometimes they come with “fear baggage.” You can’t undo what’s been done, but there are ways to help a dog gain confidence and diminish fears.
8 Easy Fixes For A Fear Free Veterinary Visit
Before I tell you what I did to help my dog regain his confidence and stop feeling as anxious for medical visits and treatments, there are some things you can start doing right away to get your dog acclimated to the vet.
1. Find a Fear-Free Based Veterinarian
Until I started writing about dogs, I honestly never knew about vet visits that encouraged a dog’s confidence and squashed their fears.
I met the founder of Fear Free Pets, Dr. Marty Becker, at a conference several years ago, and became enamored with his message of in-home enrichment coupled with “taking the pet out of petrified” while visiting the veterinarian. Fear-Free certified veterinarians care for a pet’s physical health and their emotional well-being.
Dexter had his first encounter with a veterinary practice that practices a mindful and calm environment attentive to the animal client’s experience. On arrival, a vet tech places a bandana infused with a calming spray on each client while we briefly wait in the front lobby.
We never wait long before being escorted into a room. The vet tech talks to us first and reviews the case with the veterinarian before she lays hands on the dog. Inside the exam room are synthetic pheromones in the form of plug-ins.
A soft mat is placed on the exam table so the dog will not slip. The veterinarian does not immediately enter the room and begin poking or prodding the dog. The exam room is clutter-free with natural lighting and calming colors.
Checkout happens in the exam room, too. All instructions and test results are reviewed, payment is made, and on our way out, the vet tech hands us our receipt and any requested records. The visit is less stressful, more efficient, and I highly recommend enlisting the services of a fear-free professional or talking to your own vet about fear-free measures to take before your dog’s next visit.
2. Visit The Vet For A Placebo Appointment
On your next visit or perhaps by calling ahead, ask if you can bring your dog for casual, non-threatening, no-procedures-done pop in. Walk your dog around the clinic, let the animal visit with someone at the front desk, reward good behavior, praise with encouragement, and leave.
Repeating these casual visits every few weeks will help the dog establish a happy routine. After most vet visits, we also do something fun with our dog if he is physically able and not sick. We make a big deal out of the after-visit experience and take him to play ball, for a walk at his favorite park, or to walk around a pet-friendly supply store in the area.
3. Touch Your Dog At Home
We are firm believers in the art of the touch. Touch can not only save your dog’s life, but it also teaches him that ‘hands-on’ is a good thing.
Since the time Dexter entered our lives, I’ve touched his feet, head, neck, and basically every part of his body. I learned to groom my dog at home, and this has become both a bonding experience and a confidence builder. If Dexter shows any anxiety at the veterinary office during a physical exam, I am allowed to be close by.
Touch can also save your dog’s life because lumps, bumps, and other nasties may be found during a simple belly rub, mouth exam, or skin massage.
4. Calm Thyself
I admittedly disclose that I started to become apprehensive when we pulled into the vet hospital for weekly visits. After a dog has a life-threatening illness, the vet often wants to see the dog for more regular check-ups and bloodwork. My heart would race and I found myself repeatedly looking at my watch to see how long we were in the waiting room. Patricia McConnell, PhD, famously reminds us in her book, The Other End of the Leash, that dogs interpret our behavior based on how we speak, how we stand, and yes, how we behave. I might have inadvertently sent a message of fear from my end of the leash to my dog’s.
Wherever your mental happy and calm place is, go there when your dog is faced with an anxiety-inducing situation.
You know that person at the vet who drags their dog through the doors and towards the waiting room? Don’t become that. If you are that person, admitting there’s a problem is the first step to recovery. I’ve got your back here and your dog’s, too.
5. Work With A Vet That Takes Position Into Consideration
Gone are the days of forcing a dog to comply with a vet exam by wrestling him or pinning him to the table. A fear-free vet will work with the dog to determine how to best keep him calm and where (floor, table) during the exam and any procedures.
6. Play Brain Games With Your Dog
Do you remember the days of playing board games…long before video games came along? Your dog needs mental stimulation, too. As a child of the 70’s and a teenager of the 80’s, board games were a staple in our household. I know my parents used to tell us to “stop fighting” and go play Monopoly, Trouble, CandyLand, or Battleship. Imagine if your dog could have the same fun and get a boost in confidence, too.
When I play these games with Dexter, he genuinely has fun. I love watching his face light up when he discovers the hidden treat treasures. In return, Dexter gains confidence, wants to engage with me, and as a dog mom, that makes me feel good. Who doesn’t want their dog to get the warm fuzzies because you are his parent?
One of these indoor dog games is called Dog Casino. The Dog Casino is a fun and challenging way to get a dog engaging in play and even help them slow down if they tend to eat their meal fast. Our dog loves removing the bones and opening the sliding compartments to reveal all the treats that are hidden inside.
Never scold a dog or yell at a dog for not doing what you want. Slowly work up to more advanced levels and gameplay as the dog gains confidence and understanding, like this:
7. Nose Work For The Win
Take a page out of Lauren Walsh’s doggy handbook and try your hand at nose work. You can be official about it and check out Fenzi Dog Sports Academy – School of Scent Sports. Introduction to Nosework is offered every term and allows you to work at your own pace. There are a few different pricing options so you can choose what is best for your schedule and budget.
Additional links of note for those who are interested in getting serious about nose work include the National Association of Canine Scent Work, The AKC Scent Work website, Performance Scent Dogs, and United Canine Scent Sports.
For those who want to do engage with nose work at home to build confidence, bond with their dog, and keep them active on rainy or snowy days, here’s how to teach your dog to play nose games.
One caveat: I would highly recommend not hiding treats all over your house for indoor fun play. If you leave your dog alone, he may decide to go on a sniffing spree and tear into a couch or behind a dresser, etc. You don’t want to create accidents, so carefully consider the space used for nose games.
8. Dance With Your Dog
This is the big news I’ve been teasing on social media. The summer of 2019 has been devoted to perfecting my dog’s dance moves and working on confidence building.
Dexter is the proud holder of several titles beyond ‘keeper of my heart.’ He is an AKC Canine Good Citizen as well as an AKC trick dog both beginner and intermediate levels. I don’t plan to have my dog do television, commercials, or movies; my dog and I worked towards our AKC trick dog titles for other reasons: keeping him active, mentally stimulated, and confident.
As the President of the Dog Writers Association of America, a woman approached me at one of their yearly galas and told me I should consider dog dancing with Dexter. She said we had a wonderful bond and could see us engaging in the sport.
I didn’t want to professionally compete, but I did want to do something new and fun with Dexter. Three to four times a week from the comfort of our own home, Dexter and I gained synchronicity, strengthened our bond, and he started looking forward to the sessions like a pro.
Here’s a snippet from a recent practice session followed by step-by-step instructions on how we achieved confidence through dance:
Now, when we have a vet appointment, I do a lot of the same things with Dexter as we enter the building, during our short wait, and even afterward. There’s no music playing, but he is so focused on the act of listening to me, receiving a reward, and doing a good job, that he tends to even forget he is at the vet. He is a more confident dog and I love that doing something fun for both of us has created fear-free veterinary visits.
How To Learn Dog Dancing
If you want to learn dog dancing to help strengthen the bond with your dog and/or to help your dog gain confidence, it’s really fun and easy to do.
As a bonus, a dog who performs a few tricks for you is likely to be a dog who won’t pull on a leash. Dogs who share that unspoken bond with their humans are more inclined to channel that bond outside of trick training and performing time. It’s a win-win for today’s modern dog parent.
I’d recommend you and your dog work towards the AKC’s Canine Good Citizen title and then move on to AKC trick dog titles. Even if you don’t formally go through the testing, the training for those programs transcends into becoming a doggy dancer.
For example, here are some of the basic tricks we learned for the AKC’s Novice Trick Dog program. These specific tricks are incorporated into the longer dance routine we do together.
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Get clearance from your dog’s veterinarian before starting any sort of training. Keep some basic tenets to training a dog in mind, whether you want to try for a title or just to have some fear-free fun with doggy dancing:
- Never spank nor hit a dog. In her book, It’s Me or the Dog famed positive reinforcement trainer and star of her own dog behavior show on Animal Planet, Victoria Stilwell, writes, “When you hit a dog, you teach him to fear you, break his trust, and you weaken his confidence. Insecure dogs are the ones that are more likely to lash out in an aggressive display.” Dogs are bigger spirits than we as humans. Watch an abused dog as he or she is rescued from a kennel; I’ve lost count to the number of dogs I’ve seen wag. They trust us, believe in us, and give us second chances. Give them a break, don’t hit, don’t slap. Teach, strengthen the bond, and simply love. Putting your hand(s) on a dog as a form of punishment is not only wrong but as harmful to the relationship you want with your dog.
- Use positive reinforcement.
- Never force a dog to do something.
- Start slow.
- Work in short bursts- no more than 10 to 15 minutes and always end on a positive note.
- Don’t get frustrated or mad at the dog: Patience is key.
- Introduce your dogs to others at a young age. If your dog is older, consider talking to a positive reinforcement animal behaviorist.
- No matter your dog’s age, keep them mentally happy and engaged. One of the greatest joys of being a dog parent is bonding with your dog.
Does your dog ever get afraid at the vet? With a little practice, positive reinforcement, and using the tips above, your dog can go from worrier to warrior and conquer his fears at the vet.
Would your pooch like to try dog dancing or nose work? Tell us in the comments below.
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