Our dogs deal with a variety of experiences in their everyday lives. Some of them are pleasing and create a positive response, such as playtime and mealtime. Others are disturbing and create an alert response, such as loud noises or another dog barking. And then, there are those that are confusing, anxiety-inducing or threatening, such as being approached by strangers or going to a public place that has a multitude of unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells.
For some dogs, a visit to see the veterinarian can be one of those confusing and anxiety-inducing experiences. Not only are dogs surrounded by unfamiliar activity in the lobby, they are also handled and touched by strangers during their appointment. All of this can be an overwhelming experience that can trigger aggressive behavior, including, lunging, snapping or biting.
A nervous, fearful dog can also make it difficult for the veterinarian to properly perform a physical exam, a nail trim, administer a medication or diagnostic test, which limits the care that the veterinary team can safely provide. While, in some cases, it may be necessary to sedate an aggressive dog for its exam or tests, there are many things that owners can do to help their dogs respond more calmly to potentially stressful experiences.
Nurture Socialization Skills
Learning socialization skills is key towards helping dogs overcome anxiety and fearfulness in new situations. Dogs that are able to respond calmly and appropriately when exposed to new things – whether people or places – tend to be happier and, in many cases, healthier companions. Supervised playtime with other friendly dogs, meeting and interacting with other people, and visits to public places where sights and sounds may be unfamiliar are all good ways to desensitize dogs to new environments and nurture socialization skills.
Start out easy and pay attention to how your dog is doing. Be flexible and adjust accordingly. Remember that some dogs will display anxious behavior if they become overly stimulated by an activity, so shorten it when needed. Socialization is a learned skill that often takes time and patience.
Teach Basic Obedience Skills
Along with socialization, it is important to train your dog on basic obedience skills, such as sit, down, come and stay, to ensure that the dog will respond to you when asked. If you’re not sure how to proceed, our Behavior Specialist will be happy to advise you on the type of training most appropriate for your dog’s needs.
What About the Visit to the Vet?
Some dogs are happy for new adventures no matter what they are, even if it means going to see the veterinarian. However, not all dogs are happy about it, and their anxiety and reactive behavior often begins at our front door. To help those dogs have better, calmer visits, we recommend the following tips:
- Slow & Steady – Remember that your dog is reacting out of fear, so the goal is to lessen that fear. One option is to plan on taking things slower. When you schedule your dog’s visit, request a one-hour appointment and arrive on time so nobody is rushed. You will be charged for a one-hour appointment, but it may be well worth the investment.
- Zen Dog – One proven way to help people and animals relax is through calming touch and massage. Instead of hugging, holding or stroking your dog, which can actually increase fear, try giving your dog a gentle massage. Start behind the ears and slowly massage all the way along the spine. Rubbing under the chin and the chest has also been shown to help dogs relax.
- Make It Fun – Dogs are quite observant, and they read and respond to our moods. If you are nervous, your dog will be too, so change your mood about the visit. Don’t focus on your dog’s fear, instead, bring a favorite toy and special treats to help your dog focus on something it likes. Talk to your dog in an upbeat, happy voice. If there is nothing to be afraid of, act like there is nothing to be afraid of.
- Make a Friend – An exam room can be intimidating and confining for a dog. When the veterinarian or technician enters the room, stand up, step forward and greet them in a calm, happy voice. This lets your dog see that you consider these people to be friends, not a threat, and you are comfortable with them in that space.
- Muzzle Up – Train your dog to wear a muzzle. A muzzle does not mean that your dog is a bad dog, it just means that your dog sometimes reacts inappropriately. It is important to note that if a dog never learns that biting is an option, it is far less likely to try biting. When the muzzle is introduced in a positive way, dogs learn to accept it in the same way they accept a collar and leash. And, by putting the muzzle on before you arrive for your appointment, the muzzle is not associated with a bad experience. If you need help with muzzle training, a private consultation with our Behavior Specialist can help you get started. Additional muzzle training guidance can be found at muzzleupproject.com.
- Ask For Help – If you or the veterinary team are concerned about your dog’s behavior, schedule an appointment with our Behavior Specialist in advance of your dog’s exam. Coaching on the above techniques and other techniques that help dogs react calmly in anxiety-inducing situations can lead to happier, less stressful visits for your dog and for you. Consider signing your dog up for our Healthy Helper class, which focuses solely on preparing dogs for calmer visits to the veterinarian. In situations where a dog’s anxiety level cannot be safely managed using training techniques, a discussion with our veterinarian regarding sedation for an exam visit may be needed.
Striving for Happy Visits
At Lone Tree Veterinary Medical Center, we’re here to help pets, whether it’s for an annual exam, illness, injury or other reason, and it’s important that visits are not overly stressful for pets or their human companions. Hopefully, these tips will be useful and, as always, please contact us if you need additional assistance helping your dog with its next visit to see us.