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VETiquette or Etiquette at the Vet’s Office

Everyone hates being sick. Visits to the doctor are never fun. Only when that cough just won’t go away or your friend, who’s a nurse, insists you probably need antibiotics and should definitely go see a doctor do you finally stop dragging your feet and head into see the doctor.

Dogs certainly aren’t lining up to visit the veterinary clinic either. But did you know there are four easy ways you can help your dog feel and be safer at the vet’s while simultaneously teaching them polite lobby manners?

1. Personal Space

You know the feeling: You’re under the weather and you finally worked up the nerve to visit the doctor. Upon arrival, you found a nice, safe chair in which to wait. Suddenly, someone comes uncomfortably close and sits down right next to you. What do you do? Inch away? Ask the person to move? Or do you sit frozen, unhappy, and completely mystified by the person’s utter lack of awareness as you look around at the multitude of available chairs?

Dogs experience the same need for personal space as humans. Some canines express this loudly by barking, lunging, or growling at another dog that is too close for comfort. Others express it quietly, turning their heads away, averting eye contact, or becoming very interested in sniffing one particularly fascinating spot on the floor. Luckily, you can be of support.

Maintain your dog’s “personal space bubble” at all times: Since the size of every dog’s personal space bubble differs, get to know your pup’s individual needs. Look for subtle signs of canine stress. Rapid panting when it’s not hot, whites of the eyes showing, ears pinned back, hunched body shape, or the sudden appearance of doggy dandruff are indications fear. Create a security blanket of space for your dog and frequently reward your pup with treats for simply observing the clinic environment. You will significantly decrease your dog’s stress level by creating positive associations with vet clinic visits, all while your pup learns to remain politely by your side.

Always prevent direct contact between your dog and all other animals/people/carriers in the waiting room. Other owners may not stop their highly contagious, overly friendly, or even aggressive animal from making nose-to-nose contact with yours as they sit texting on their phones or walking by in a hurry. Also, it’s guaranteed that the cat in the carrier next to you has zero desire to be intensely sniffed by your pooch.

Is your dog exhibiting signs of a respiratory illness such as coughing, runny nose, or fever? Double-check your clinic’s procedures for these highly contagious symptoms before your arrival. Many clinics will actually ask you to keep your dog in the car and send the tech or vet out to you. Assist your local community by preventing the spread of illness and potentially saving lives.

2. Popular Places

Ever faced with the dilemma of how to reach the Kleenex box on the counter when someone is mindlessly standing directly in front? When you’re sick and you just want to shout, “Move,” finding your polite words can be quite the challenge.

Dogs face similar dilemmas navigating close quarters of a clinic lobby, especially, because they’re (necessarily) constrained by a leash. While most dogs try to move through another dog’s space politely, they may or may not be successful. It’s not uncommon for spatial negotiations to devolve into a heated “disagreement” between two dogs. Remember, even if your dog is comfortable walking close to unfamiliar dogs, many other dogs are not.

Move through and, as soon as possible, move away from “popular places” in the lobby: High-usage areas that people frequent (with their sick, scared, stressed, and unhappy pets by their sides) are the front door, the counter, the scale, and clinic rooms. Use and then move through these spaces as quickly as possible.

If the counter or scale is currently occupied, be sure to leave a clear exit route for the person and dog before you. Find a place to wait away from high-traffic areas. Speak up, as needed, to communicate your place in line to others in the clinic.

Avoid waiting in “transport” pathways. The path between the front door and the counter, the front door and the scale, hallways, and any narrow spaces (where a dog might suddenly emerge from the back of the clinic desperately seeking their mommy or daddy and the exit), are all places to proactively identify when you arrive. Steer clear of waiting in them. If the lobby is crammed full, you can always alert a nice front-desk attendant that you’ll be waiting for your turn out front with your dog (not directly in front of the door of course).

 3. Politeness

There’s nothing like minding your own business while you wait at the doctor’s when in walks a child who’s proceeding as if the waiting room is his personal jungle gym. He smiles and reaches out to touch your hand, or your phone, or maybe strike up a conversation. “What’s that?” he asks, pointing to the magazine on the waiting room table. How do you respond to this intrusion into your ‘I’m-busy-being-sick’ space?

The doggy equivalent of this experience is when you’re at the vet’s office with your poor sick pup when the door opens and in bounces a happy puppy. The world is his playground. He’s pulling to investigate the exciting sights and smells and meet his potential new friends. People smile at the rambunctious yet adorable new arrival. Leashes tighten as the puppy starts pulling toward dogs and people. A well-mannered adult dog lets out an affronted vocalization, an adolescent dog feeds off the excitement and starts jumping back and forth from the floor to the chair, and suddenly the small lobby space erupts into chaos.

Ever felt like going to the doctor’s office just to hang out and make new friends? Nope, neither have I. The doctor’s office is, in point of fact, a rather serious place of life and death. Neither children, nor puppies, read the “Miss Manners,” column. Therefore, when that happy puppy is at the other end of your leash, it’s up to you to teach a basic semblance of decorum.

Take dog-dog greetings and play outside: Promote calm in the clinic lobby. Even if your puppy or dog is healthy and happy to be there, other animals and people around you may be otherwise.

If you and another person think your dogs might like to greet each other, or even play (assuming neither dog is contagious or in physical pain), politely take them outside to do the greeting, or set-up a future play date. Introductions are smoother in environments where dogs have space to move and communicate; where they aren’t busy wondering when the next needle stick or moment of pain is going to occur.

Keep your dog engaged with you (in your own space), doing tricks for treats. Provide slow petting and soft praise to encourage calm and relaxation. These easy and effective techniques will teach your pup excellent veterinary clinic etiquette.

4. Preparation

How many times has your mother asked, “Did you get your flu shot yet?” Even when you’re feeling great and you visit the doctor for something routine, you still dread the experience. The most basic procedures are typically uncomfortable, if not downright painful. Although humans go (mostly) voluntarily, it often requires a pep talk and some mental fortitude to convince yourself to take care of business. 

Doctor visits for dogs are just as much “fun” as they are for humans. You’ve seen the terrified dog with his tail between his legs, shaking, whining, and pulling toward the exit door. There is so much you can do to help prevent this distress.

Train your dog for vet visits well in advance: The single most important thing you can do to promote your dog’s safety and confidence during vet visits will also produce a well-mannered pup at the clinic. Practice positive husbandry and handling training frequently. Gently go over every body part every day. Pair each experience with food throughout. Remember, dogs train successfully in short, pleasurable sessions.

Pretend random objects are medical tools. Accustom your dog to novel objects (and items with smells such as alcohol swabs) gently making contact with their body. Your dog may look, sniff, and investigate the foreign item. Each item’s appearance should predict an extra delicious treat. Alternate handling and husbandry behaviors with tricks, obedience, and play during the training session so that it’s all fun and games.

Many pet stores have scales available to the public. Next time you take your dog shopping, be sure to stop and feed plenty of treats on the scale.

Visit your vet’s office just to eat cookies and then leave. If you have a social dog, encourage the techs to lavish your dog with attention and treats. You’ll make their day as well as your dog’s.

Did you know that when the vet or techs are unable to evaluate or treat your dog due to handling sensitivity they are typically forced to anesthetize your dog for even routine procedures? Not only does this significantly increase stress and pose additional medical risk for your dog, it is guaranteed to cost a fortune.

You have the power to make a difference. Use these simple techniques to turn your dog into your vet clinic’s favorite patient. Your dog will thank you.

Is your dog already fearful, sensitive to handling, or do you want to learn more about how to teach your dog to like, yes like, nail filing, brushing, ear checks, grooming, and more? Contact your local skilled positive reinforcement trainer and request, “husbandry and handling training, please.”

Carlie Seelig Miller, the owner and head trainer at CSM Dog Training, has been involved in the canine training field since she brought home her very own puppy and has experience with pet dog training, behavior modification, shelter and rescue, competitive dog sports, AKC dog shows, and service dog training. A former teacher, she is passionate about educating humans about canine cognition while training canines in cooperative behaviors to further enhance the human-animal bond. She teaches group classes for Kelly Gorman Dunbar and Dr. Ian Dunbar at Sirius Puppy and Dog Training and private training at www.CSMDogTraining.com. She was voted Best Private Trainer-San Francisco in the 2019 and 2018 Beast of the Bay contests.

Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com

Main article photo by: IPGGutenbergUKLtd / iStock