Does your dog get nervous when you take the familiar route to your veterinarian or dig their heels in when you try to get them into the waiting room? Have you noticed trembling, lip licking, excessive panting and drooling, avoidance of eye contact, tense body or even aggressive behaviour when your dog is subjected to veterinary handling and procedures? Your dog is not alone. Many dogs and other companion animals are less than impressed with vet visits. Some animals show only mild signs of anxiety when faced with the vet while others go into outright panic mode. It’s bad for your dog and it doesn’t have to be that way. Low stress handling and changing your dog’s negative emotions through ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ are methods which are becoming increasingly popular and for good reason. The potential to make life easier for your dog, yourself and veterinary staff is significant.
What’s the problem?
If your dog suffers from fear and anxiety, it negatively affects their behaviour and can have serious implications for their health. Many behaviour problems in dogs are in fact related to fearfulness, anxiety and phobias. Apart from feeling miserable, your dog is also more likely to react aggressively if they deem necessary. Unless your dog’s fears are addressed, chances are they’ll become worse.
Manhandling animals at vet clinics has been an unfortunate but long-standing reality. Often it is considered necessary to get a certain procedure done. What may happen as a result is increased difficulty to restrain and treat your dog every time they need to see the vet. Instead of aiding with the examination, overpowering your dog may become even more of a struggle and more frightening for your dog and examination results may be compromised because of your dog’s distressed physiological state. Overall, the experience is not pleasant for anyone involved.
What can I do to help my dog?
First of all, your dog’s trust in you is paramount. It is the basis for a healthy relationship which enables you to train your dog efficiently and live with them in harmony. This is why it is best to be honest with your dog. If you do have to subject your dog to a procedure they will not enjoy, do not trick them into believing they are safe. It is better to show your dog what you are about to do – and even use a word or phrase as a heads-up (“here it comes”, “proceeeedure”) – than ambush them. For example, present the bottle with the ear drops and let your dog smell it before you administer it (if your dog runs off at the smell or the presentation of the bottle, you know where to start with your ‘desensitisation and counter-conditioning’ program! – see below).
Ideally you start practising body handling and procedures when your dog is still a puppy since this is by far the best time to influence how your dog feels about things. But even if your dog is older, they can learn to willingly tolerate and even enjoy going to the vet. If your dog is not already fearful, the procedure is straight forward “conditioning”. Your dog learns that specific situations – e.g. entering the vet’s waiting room, being on the exam table, being poked and prodded etc. – predict good things, usually in the form of extremely tasty treats.
If your dog already has negative emotions towards body handling and veterinary procedures, you need to approach the conditioning process with more caution. The first goal is to make your dog feel safe in situations that have made them feel afraid before. To achieve this, the exposure to the situation has to be at a much reduced level compared to the final, real-life procedure. For example, instead of dragging your dog into the waiting room, you start walking up and down the street outside the vet office, then briefly pop into the waiting room and leave again straight away, etc. This is the ‘desensitisation’ part.
Much better results are generally achieved with the combination of “desensitisation and counter-conditioning”. Counter-conditioning means to change a particular emotion to be the opposite, usually to change a negative emotion into a positive one. With this technique, the change in emotions will normally happen faster and you will end up with a happier dog. Your dog has not only lost their fear but may even look forward to previously dreaded situations.
How do conditioning, desensitisation and counter-conditioning work?
Conditioning (also referred to as “classical conditioning”) creates an association in your dog’s brain between two events. What we are specifically interested in here is the creation of a positive emotional response to vet visits and everything that may include. Conditioning happens all the time, not just to our dogs but to us as well. The results of conditioning are evident when your dog starts jumping around when the door bell rings (visitors!), or when you jump into action when your dog makes retching noises (she’s going to vomit on the carpet!).Conditioning your dog to enjoy vet visits requires exposure to a variety of experiences such as various types of handling, use of instruments and machinery, smells, locations, etc. Usually, the final procedure has to be broken down into smaller components during practice to avoid overwhelming, and potentially scaring, the dog. For example, if you want your dog to be perfectly fine with having ear drops applied, practise handling their ear separately from presenting the bottle with the ear drops before bringing the two elements together. Insert as many steps as necessary (depending on what your dog will accept) until you reach the final goal. First practise the handling at home, then at your vet’s.
For example, your first step when conditioning ear handling could be a simple ear touch:
If you repeat this often enough your dog learns that having their ear touched means they get tasty food. Work your way up in level of difficulty until your dog is perfectly fine when you lift their ear.
For more detailed information see Vet Visits by Crosspaws.
- Desensitisation and Counter-Conditioning
Desensitisation is the reduction of a negative emotional response. A negative emotion such as fear may have been installed in the dog’s brain via conditioning by frightening or unpleasant consequences following a certain trigger (e.g. car rides predict vet visits, vet visits predict pain). When using desensitisation the animal’s emotion is gradually neutralized by incremental exposure to the trigger but without ever presenting negative consequences (e.g. lots of car rides which don’t end at the vet, vet visits without examinations).Generally, it is more powerful to not just neutralise the trigger but to follow it up with something the dog really loves, such as tasty food. If this is done repeatedly until the dog shows a positive rather than negative response to the original trigger, the dog is said to have been counter-conditioned.
The combination of desensitisation and counter-conditioning is low risk (desensitisation means the dog is never pushed over their fear threshold, so the fear doesn’t get worse) and provides the best outcome for the dog (a positive response to the previously negatively charged trigger rather than merely absence of fear).
What about my veterinarian?
Your veterinarian has an interest in giving the best possible service to their clients, so you should expect them to be more than willing to assist you and your dog. For example, ask if you could visit regularly with your dog during quiet times of the day and simply hang out in the waiting room or an empty exam room to desensitise and counter-condition your dog. Most vet staff will also be happy to stop by and give your dog a treat. If you are concerned about your vet’s handling of your dog, bring up the topic of ‘low stress handling’ techniques (see links below) and see how they respond. If your vet is dismissive of your attempts to help your dog through desensitisation and counter-conditioning or your concern about their handling of your dog, I suggest you vote with your feet. You and your dog deserve better.
For more details on how to condition, desensitise and counter-condition your dog to veterinary procedures, see:
Vet Visits, Crosspaws
Low stress handling resources:
Implementing Low-Stress Handling in Your Practice, Ohio State University
The physiologic effects of fear, by Dr Valarie V. Tynes
Less Stressful Veterinary Visits, The Whole Dog Journal: Review of Dr Sophia Yin’s teachings on low stress handling