Recently, I witnessed an all-too-familiar scene at the vet’s office: a power struggle between a stressed out dog owner and her terrified pet.
At first, the dog merely hung back while the woman anxiously pleaded. Then the dog gave a hard pull backwards, almost slipping out of her pretty pink collar. “Come on, Princess, it’s okay,” the woman beseeched, her voice and body strained with tension.
I had two of my dogs with me and we needed to get in that same door, but my tactics were different. “Oh, boy, we’re going to see Uncle Doctor,” I said in a perky voice, then asked for a sit while reaching for my clicker and treats. “Good dogs,” I cooed. “Now down, stand, sit. Excellent.”
Click, treat, click, treat. I watched my Lila closely to see if she was exhibiting her going-to-the-vet shakes. Not yet, but she was thinking about it. Time for some serious distraction.
“Heel,” I said and turned away from Lila and Alfie, making large figure eights on the sidewalk. Surprised, they instantly shifted their focus, concentrating on what direction I might go next. When I stopped, they sat looking at me expectantly. Click and treat.
At last, Princess’s tail vanished inside the doorway. I decided on another figure-eight distraction before we followed.
As this experience shows, not all dogs have the same reaction when going to the vet. Some are terrified, others are somewhat worried, and some do just fine. If your dog isn’t in the last category, you can turn the situation around.
Your Dog’s Viewpoint
Think about it. Your dog’s feelings are not so surprising.
He isn’t afraid because the vet is scary or mean, or because what happens necessarily hurts. Most modern vets create a calm, comfortable atmosphere and take time to introduce themselves to their patients with friendly pats and treats.
But your dog is entering a foreign world, full of peculiar sights, sounds, and smells. Unknown people bustle about while he is expected to sit still and be quiet. He is confined to a room with unfamiliar dogs who may be communicating in dog language, “This is bad. This is VERY bad. I want outta here!”
And that’s not the worst of it. There’s a cold metal thing he is asked to sit on (the scale), then he gets trapped in a small room with no escape route, where a stranger appears and starts touching him all over, including… Well, no one does that!
Your own demeanor at the vet’s office can make all the difference. Think of Princess’s “mom,” all worry and anxiety. If she had been acting calmly, as though this were a fun outing to the dog park, Princess would have been far less fearful.
So start by working on your own stress level. Take a deep breath and act relaxed and happy. Tell yourself that the experience is going to be fine, maybe even enjoyable.
Practice some training at home that can keep you both entertained in the waiting room. Sit, down, stand, watch me, and shake are exercises you can easily do in an office setting without invading another dog’s space.
When going to see the vet, bring some extra-special treats and notice the happy expression on your dog’s face when you break out hotdogs and chicken instead of the usual fare.
Some dogs won’t take treats when they’re afraid, at first, but almost all eventually will, if you persist. Just ask for another sit and try again. Keep doing the exercises, giving a pat and smile, and occasionally offering a treat. Stay patient and cheerful without forcing the situation, and go through the same routine every time you go to the vet.
Lila – the shaker – wouldn’t take treats until the third visit, but she did follow the commands and enjoyed my praise and pats. Now she looks at me expectantly the moment we get into the waiting room.
When I added Deejay to my personal pack, he quickly learned that going to the vet means doing some interesting training drills and earning really yummy treats. What’s not to like?
Another strategy is to take your dog to visit the vet’s office when you don’t have an appointment. Bring those special treats and your sunniest smile. Do some rounds of training in the waiting room, then ask the receptionist to give your dog a treat. Spend a minute or two cheerfully chatting and then take your leave.
You can also practice putting your dog through mock doctor exams with close friends and family. When you have dog people over, ask them to look in his ears, run their hands over his body, and lift and look at a couple of his paws. Have them make some friendly overture first and offer treats as rewards. Of course, you should watch carefully for any signs of fear that might turn into aggression.
Both you and your dog will be much happier if you take the trouble to cure his vet-phobia. Think of it as just another interesting challenge and you’ll be amazed at the results.