Even a routine check-up at the vet can be stressful for your canine companion. Behaviourist Inga MacKellar discusses some preparation strategies that can help make those all-important visits less distressing for anxious dogs.
From our canine companion’s perspective, going to the vet isn’t always an especially pleasant experience. A dog’s unease may originate from his earliest visits and be associated with inoculations, microchipping, or being unwell – all of which can make visits to the clinic a bit tricky.
Providing your dog hasn’t developed an actual phobia, a good preparation strategy is to make occasional social visits to the clinic so he doesn’t just associate it with being poked and prodded. If you pop in for some worming pills or just to say hello (with a little prior notice) the practice staff will make a fuss of your dog and perhaps offer him a treat. This will encourage him to think of it as a happy place to visit.
During the social visit, take along your dog’s favourite toy and play with him in the waiting room (if it is quiet and empty of other pets). This can also help develop positive associations with being at the surgery. You can help him get used to some of the equipment, too. For example, treats and toys can be used to lure your dog onto the weighing scales at the surgery so he gets used to standing on them ahead of his appointment.
Preparation is key
In the surgery, your dog will be examined on a table. Being put on a table is quite an unusual situation for dogs, but you can help familiarise him with it at home ahead of the visit. If your dog is small to medium sized, practise gently lifting him up onto and off a table for short periods of time. I recommend using a folding table kept specifically for this task, ensuring the table surface is not slippery (which will panic him) – covering the surface with a rubber mat will do the trick. Reward him with a treat or a cuddle when he’s on the table to reinforce the positive association. If your dog is large or too heavy for you to lift, then do not attempt to lift him – large dogs are nearly always examined by the vet on the floor, instead of on surgery tables.
Help prepare him for being handled by the vet by giving him a quick mock examination while he’s on the table – look into his ears and eyes, and gently open his mouth and hold his feet, and pretend to listen to his chest with a toy stethoscope if you can. The more often you repeat the experience in a non-threatening place, the more normal the situation will seem at the clinic. If you think your dog may wriggle, try to keep his attention focused by holding a treat or a toy in front of him. For large dogs, practise the mock examination on the floor.
Keep calm and carry on
Our pets pick up on our anxiety, so being calm, organised and in control helps. Don’t forget your dog’s health records and always take him to the vet wearing a collar and lead. If you’ve had a bad experience in the past – for example, if your dog has been a bit aggressive on a previous visit – you might be understandably apprehensive. Nevertheless, it’s important to remain relaxed and approach the visit to the vet just like any other day.
If your dog is a particularly anxious patient, you can prevent unnecessary stress by avoiding taking him into the waiting room. Ideally, go to the vet with another person who knows your dog and can wait in the car with him until the vet is ready to start the consultation. Another plus with two people is that while one of you pays the bill or arranges a future appointment, the other can take your dog straight back to the car.
Sometimes, owners who are worried about what others think if their dog gets a little bristly and barky, react by giving their pooch a telling off. It’s reassurance that’s needed, so talk to him in a soothing voice, slipping him a treat now and then while he’s calm to distract him – this is especially important if the vet is about to take your dog’s temperature or something similarly invasive. If treats aren’t working, try stroking him or distracting him with a toy to keep him as calm as possible during the visit.
You can help make vet days fun days by spending some special time with your dog after the appointment. Taking him for a nice walk immediately after a visit to the surgery (unless he is unwell), or playing a quick game with him in the surgery car park before and after the appointment, can help develop more positive associations with appointment day.