My veterinarian laughs when my dogs have their veterinary appointments. Pick one, either Gonzo or Beau, bound in and wait impatiently until they can sniff, lick, and "play" with the vet tech or vet. Honestly, I am not exaggerating. They might as well be going to their daycare. So how did we get here? I know so many people whose dogs are ambivalent or extremely stressed by their medical visits. It's not luck- it's training, positive reinforcement, and lots of patience.
It doesn't hurt that I rescued Gonzo and Beau young. While older animals CAN learn new things, an older animal does have associations (positive or negative) that can impede training and draw out the process. So a little more patience is necessary. I'm going to let you in on my not-very-secret tricks.
Bring One Dog
Okay. I realize that schedules are crazy and no one knows that more than a small business owner, blogger, and mom of three children. I only make an appointment for one dog per visit. Nobody wants to see me roll into the veterinary hospital with two excited 70-80 pound dogs. I wouldn't be able focus on one animal, keep him calm, or listen to the vet.
I don't need to do this much anymore, although I'm always giving myself a few minutes leeway in case of traffic problems. Generally for the first year, I would bring my dog 30 minutes before his scheduled appointment. Why? Desensitization. Often, people would stop by and say hello to my puppy and give him love and affection. He would get to smell interesting things and meet other friendly animals. (Always ask the other owner first if you can introduce your pet). By the time the veterinary technician and veterinarian were ready for us, my dog was happy and relaxed.
I am not a dog trainer, although I have done obedience classes with my dogs and have a good idea of what drives their behavior (Gonzo- toys, Beau- food). But I have never met a dog trainer worth their salt that doesn't use positive reinforcement and really yummy treats. I'm not talking every day kibble or Petsmart brand training treats. I'm talking about using something really yummy. Freeze dried salmon, lamb, or something along those lines are my go to when I go to the veterinarians office. Keep the everyday treats for home and bring out the big guns at the vet. Trust me, you will have their attention and immediately bring a positive association to the visit. Just keep in mind, too many treats may end up in an upset tummy, so tear them up into small pieces or go easy. Lots of ear scratches and rubs work too.
Another useful obedience tool is teaching the "Touch" command. Often those metal scales can be scary for your dog. They are shiny, cold, slippery, and move up and down. "Touch" is a handy trick. I use a training tool to get my dog on the scale by having him touch his nose to my hand. HE makes the move toward ME. I simply place my hand toward the front of the scale and reward him when he's on and commits to "touch". Keep in mind, this takes practice and patience. Your dog must already know the command. Even if he stays on the scale for a second, with all four legs on, reward him. Soon he will also be desensitized to the scale.
Still, often Gonzo will allow himself to be weighed and then prefers to have his checkups on the ground. Luckily my vet gets on the ground with him and doesn't seem to mind.
Help Them Love the Car
Honestly, I'm shocked at how many dogs are stressed or even terrified of the car. My dogs love going on rides. The only way I can get Gonzo back when he's done a runner is to say, "Let's go for a ride!" and jiggle my keys. Works every time. So a vet visit at the end of the ride is nothing scary, it's exciting. Now if your dog is nervous in the car, I would start there. Dogs are taught that cars are a good thing through desensitization. (Notice how this word keeps coming up?)(Desensitization, treats, ever lengthening trips, and always go somewhere fun). Work your way up to a vet visit. Then after the vet, go somewhere fun like the dog park, beach, or a nice long walk in the woods. Assuming of course that your dog is physically able.
Schedule a Canine Massage
I'm serious! Shots, pokes, and prods can be scary for your dog. When my dogs were pups I did not yet have my canine massage training. But I did know enough to desensitize them to my touch. I would stroke ears, paw pads (especially in the webbing), tail pulling (gently). Gonzo and Beau learned positive touch and desensitization so when someone else touches them they associate it with good feelings. Now we encourage owners of new pups to schedule massage with us so that we can do that for them. New people, new touch, and always positive. It's a win-win for everyone.
Always work on positive reinforcement when your animal is heathy so that when they are sick, the veterinarian's office is a place of safety and comfort, not anxiety. I really hope that this helps you with your animals. I always feel so badly when I see animals in distress at the vet's office. Especially when I have a very happy patient eagerly waiting for the doctor.
How do your dogs react to the veterinarian?
Heather Wallace is an Equissage-certified Equine Sports Massage Therapist (ESMT), Certified Canine Massage Therapist (CCMT), Aromatherapist. She is also the writer and editor for the blog, Bridle & Bone. When she is not spending time with her family or working, Heather can be found playing with her two rescue dogs or riding at the barn. The best thing that she can imagine is having a career improving the quality of life for horses and dogs alike.