It’s not surprising that dogs often develop a fear of visits to the veterinary clinic. Few people are keen to go for their annual physical either, but at least they can understand the need for it. Dogs have no idea that the veterinarian is looking out for their well-being. All they know is that once or twice a year they’re bundled into the car and driven to a place with barking dogs and howling cats and people in white lab coats who smell like antiseptic. That’s not so bad, but being lifted onto a cold, slippery metal table to have a thermometer inserted in their rectum is far from pleasant. Then there are the vaccinations and drawing blood, which can be uncomfortable. Then, sometime during puberty, most dogs visit the veterinarian for spaying or neutering. For some, this is their first experience away from home and they’re scared. If your dog has to go to the veterinary clinic for additional concerns—like allergy testing, stitching for cuts and other wounds, or any of a multitude of maladies—he may decide that it’s best to stay away from this place! Some dogs are still happy to visit the clinic but get stressed when they’re lifted up onto the examination table. Some, however, may refuse to get out of the car when they realize where they are. Others are okay until the veterinary technician takes hold of them, and then they panic. They may tremble and pant, frantically struggle, attempt to escape and even become aggressive.
It’s always easier to prevent a problem than it is to cure one. Every dog needs regular veterinary care, so it’s smart to teach puppies and young dogs to accept and even enjoy being examined, poked and prodded. Frequent social visits to the clinic—with no veterinary care given—also go a long way toward protecting dogs from developing a fear of veterinarians and medical care. Most veterinarians are happy to allow clients to drop by the clinic just for clients’ dogs to enjoy a bit of socializing with the veterinary staff.
Many people prefer to have their dog’s nails clipped at the veterinary clinic. If you do, resist the urge to ask the veterinarian to cut your dog’s nails short so that you don’t need to have it done again for a while. Most veterinary staff take off only the dead tips and take care not to cut into the pink quick, the live part of the nail. Cutting nails too short (all the way to the quick or into the quick) is extremely painful for a dog, and it’s a common reason for dogs to develop a fear of the veterinary clinic. Alternatively, you can learn to cut your dog’s nails yourself. (To learn how, please see our article Trimming Your Dog’s Nails.)
Make sure you’re comfortable with the care your dog receives at the veterinary clinic. Many clinics routinely take dogs out of the exam room to conduct even simple procedures. They do this because dogs tend to become more frightened when separated from their families in a novel setting like the clinic. Frightened dogs are usually more inhibited, so they’re easier for the technicians to restrain. But taking a dog away from his family can make him more fearful the next time he has to visit the clinic. So unless your dog is aggressive toward the veterinary staff in your presence, discuss the pros and cons with the staff of having regular procedures, like vaccinations and drawing blood, done with you and your dog in the exam room. He’ll experience some comfort knowing you’re present.
Most veterinary clinics have technicians who are trained how to safely restrain dogs. However, some dogs are more frightened when held by strangers. If your dog is more relaxed and comfortable with you restraining him, then you can educate yourself on how he needs to be held during procedures and discuss with staff the option of you doing the restraining. A technician can provide backup as needed.
Discuss with your vet the necessity of having your dog stay overnight at the veterinary clinic. Young, healthy dogs typically do not need to stay overnight after an uncomplicated spay or neuter surgery. As long as you can provide a quiet place with constant supervision, your dog will be more comfortable relaxing at home than staying at the clinic. Some clinics have no one on staff during the night anyway, so your dog is better off under your watchful care. This is true only if there are no extenuating circumstances or complications with a procedure. If you’re in doubt about your ability to care for your dog or your veterinarian recommends that he stay overnight at the clinic, then by all means have him stay.
What to Do
1. Always take tasty treats and your dog’s favorite toy when you visit the veterinarian. Distract your dog with treats during the physical exam. Ask the technician and the veterinarian to give your dog plenty of treats as well.
2. Take every opportunity you can to pay social visits to the clinic. Ask the staff to make a fuss over your dog and give him treats. Lead or lift your dog on and off the weigh scale, giving him treats each time he gets on. If your dog learns that the clinic is a fun place to be most of the time, he’ll be a lot less concerned when it’s time for his annual physical exam.
3. At home, teach your dog to accept and even enjoy the same types of experiences he will have at the veterinary clinic by doing mock examinations. Lift him on and off a table. Place a towel or blanket on the table so that he won’t slip and become frightened. Each time he’s on the table, give him tasty treats. When he’s relaxed on the table, pretend to give him a physical exam. Check his ears and give him a treat. Look into his eyes and give him a treat. Briefly shine a light in his face and give him a treat. Lift each leg and give him a treat. Manipulate the toes on one paw and give him a treat. Gently pinch his thigh where he’s likely to receive a vaccination and give him a treat. Extend his front leg out the way veterinarians do to draw blood and give him a treat. Extend his head up to expose his throat the way they do to draw blood and give him a treat. Hold something cold, like a wet cloth, next to his chest as though you are using a stethoscope and give him a treat. Lift his tail as though you’re going to take his temperature and give him a treat. Restrain him in various ways, all the while feeding him treats. Make sure each thing you do to your dog is followed by a treat that he loves. Do so many repetitions that he becomes completely “ho-hum” about this kind of handling. If your dog is too big to lift onto a table, do the exercises described above on the floor.
4. Ask your veterinarian if you can come into the clinic and do mock exams in one of the rooms. Many clinics do surgeries in the morning hours, so the exam rooms are empty. The staff will probably be too busy to help, but it will give you a chance to practice the same exercises you’re doing at home in the “scary” clinic setting. If your dog will play with a toy, always play a quick game in the room at the end of your mock exam. This will further help your dog relax and have fun in the clinic environment. When your dog seems reasonably comfortable, it’s well worth the expense of booking a visit with the veterinarian every so often so you can just practice the procedures without actually having to insert a thermometer or draw blood. That way, your dog gets used to being examined and restrained, but there’s no pain associated with the experience—just plenty of tasty treats and a fun game at the end. Most veterinarians recognize that the effort you’re making to help your dog feel comfortable at the clinic is good for them, too. It’s safer and more efficient for the veterinary staff to work with a relaxed and well-behaved dog than to deal with a terrified, struggling animal.
5. Once your dog truly accepts physical exams and routine procedures, resist the temptation to stop working on the exercises. To prevent your dog’s fear from returning, continue to do the exercises at home once every two to three weeks and occasionally schedule visits to the clinic just for practice. Zoo professionals can train their exotic animals to accept all sorts of medical procedures because they practice mock examinations regularly. Elephants open their mouths to have their teeth cleaned, and monkeys extend their arms through their cage bars to get blood drawn. For every one time a procedure is real and uncomfortable, the staff has practiced a mock version of it many, many times—with no discomfort to the animal and using very special treats as rewards. Regular practice pays huge dividends.
Getting More Help
If you feel you need help with treatment or if your dog shows signs of fear or aggression—such as trembling, trying to get away or hide, drooling, panting, whining, freezing, staring, growling, snarling, snapping or biting—contact a qualified professional for a consultation. Please see our article Finding Professional Help to locate a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) or a veterinary behaviorist (Diplomate of the College of Veterinary Behavior, Dip ACVB). If you can’t find one of these professionals in your area and you choose to employ a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT), make sure the trainer is qualified to help you. Determine whether she or he has education and experience treating fear and aggression, since this expertise is beyond what CPDT certification requires.
What NOT to Do
Try not to become distraught and worried when you take your dog to the veterinary clinic. Dogs pick up on people’s emotions. Remain calm and reassure your dog in a calm voice that everything is fine. If you’re upset, it’s probably best not to hold your dog. Instead, allow a technician to restrain your dog while you stay in view. If your dog becomes panicked, it may be best to end the appointment. Take a few weeks to make him more comfortable by practicing the recommendations above before attempting the procedure that frightened him again. If your vet agrees that your dog’s fear is extreme, you can also give your dog a sedative at home before returning for the next visit. If a treatment needs to be done promptly, such as bandaging an injury, and your dog is panicked, talk to your veterinarian about options, such as sedating or anesthetizing your dog, to prevent further emotional trauma. If your dog becomes too upset, it might be nearly impossible to ever teach him to accept veterinary care.