Working in the human medical field for a number of years behind the scenes, I became familiar with a phenomenon known as “white coat syndrome.”
Also known as white coat hypertension, this is a phenomenon in which patients exhibit elevated blood pressure in a clinical setting. So basically you go to the doctor’s for an appointment—perhaps a routine physical—but you get unknowingly anxious and your blood pressure escalates. If this is the only time a person has an elevated blood pressure, cause for concern need not occur.
Dogs go through the same thing. I always hope my dog will like vet visits and my dog hates the vet is not something I will ever utter aloud. My last Cocker Spaniel was okay at the vet and so is my dog, Dexter: To a point. Keep reading.
Dogs can and are affected by nervousness at the veterinary office. Does any of the following sound like your dog prior to a vet visit?
The jingling of keys or the notion of a car ride puts your dog into a “try and find me” mode where he or she hides and/or has to be carried out to the car;
Panting, drooling, whining, pacing, howling, and/or shaking ensue en route to the veterinary office;
The act of trying to get the dog into the veterinary office is both unpleasant for the dog and extremely upsetting for the dog parent;
During the visit, kind and caring veterinarians will not scold or reinforce a dog’s already established fears. Case in point: My own dog. He was always super happy, jovial, and kissing everyone at the veterinary office whenever we had a visit.
Until we encountered the CERF Clinic. CERF (Canine Eye Registration Foundation) was founded by a group of concerned, purebred owner/breeders who recognized that the quality of their dogs’ lives was being affected by heritable eye disease.
I am a very diligent dog mom, and folks reading this can probably relate. You want what is best for your dog(s). So when a CERF clinic rolled into town, my spouse and I decided to have our dog’s eyes checked. He is an American Cocker Spaniel and eye issues tend to affect this breed.
At the clinic, an eye examination is performed on your dog to determine the presence of inherited abnormalities. The dog’s pupils need to be dilated prior to examination, much like a person needing their pupils dilated at the ophthalmologist office. Eye drops are administered on arrival at the clinic. Once administered, a veterinary ophthalmologist examines the eyes.
While waiting our turn, the droplet gal at this CERF clinic “snuck” up on Dexter from behind, opened his eyelids and put the drops in. Apparently this was an attempt not to traumatize the dog, but oh how he was traumatized. I could scream looking bad. I actually never even heard the woman coming.
The dog’s vision is temporarily blurred or nonexistent. Couple this being surprised by a volunteer and Dexter decided that anything near his eyes at the veterinary office is not good.
It took me years for Dexter to accept allowing his eyes and face to be groomed afterwards. Though his CERF test was fine and he had no abnormalities of either eye, the trauma of being surprised into a state of blurriness triggered a fearful reaction to anything coming near his eyes.
The groomer is fine with Dexter. I am finally able to get near his eyes. The veterinarian has a heck of a time trying to examine Dexter’s eyes or to administer anything intranasally, like a Bordatella vaccine.
Too close to the eyes.
Dexter is much better than he was with having the vet examine his eyes, but there are millions of dogs out there who fear the vet. Some dogs have been abused and any sort of hands-on approach by a person in a white coat sets up a fear/bite reaction.
If a dog had a traumatic incident at the veterinary office, remembers the scents of the office (and dogs DO recall scent), or maybe even had a negative experience, he or she won’t be happy to return.
Similarly, dogs who only go for a ride in a vehicle for a veterinary or grooming visit are likely not to enjoy the end result.
So What is a Distressed Dog Parent To Do?
Never force or make a travel fearful dog to “face their fears.” This will only reinforce fears, can lead to extreme anxiety, panic, and cause an accident. Using Pavlov’s principle, if the only time a dog experiences the car is to see the vet, both vet and ride can become unpleasant experiences.
Consider the shelter rescue dog. Someone more than likely drove the dog to the shelter and that was his or her final experience with transportation. Be patient, take your time, and learn more about travel training.
Personally, I treat the car like we are on a trip to doggie Disneyland. Take small trips around the block, perhaps even to the end of your street. Reward your dog with praise and treats as if they just won first prize in a cutest dog contest.
If you are a person who says “my heart beats cat” then this applies to you as well. Cats should not feel stressed going for a ride either.
Find a Vet Who “Gets” It
We travel over 90 minutes each way to visit our dog’s veterinarian because he and his staff take a “Pet Centered” approach. I truly feel like the staff looks at the visit from the pet’s point of view. If a veterinarian ever flipped out on my dog, started yelling, ranting, raving, or otherwise did not put the dog’s well being first (while being protected from being bitten), I’d never visit that veterinarian again and would let others know. In fact, our vet won’t even use a muzzle on many dogs because he does not want the dog to associate the clinic with a negative experience.
I adore this article on how one veterinarian trained his staff to be a pet-welcoming practice and thus reducing fear of veterinary visits from the pet’s perspective.
Consider visiting the veterinarian with your dog for a calm visit – just a hello, get a treat, have the vet reward the dog, good boy, and then leave. Praise your dog like he just won Westminster.
From a veterinary technician perspective, Rachel Sheppard has her take on this topic for our ongoing “Medicine Versus Mom” series. You can read “My Kid Has Paws” side of things on the white coat topic and what dogs really think here.
Is your dog fearful of the vet? How does he or she react on arrival? And most importantly, what do you do in response? Bark back in the comments below.