How to make your dog's vet visits less stressful


30 July 2015

The veterinary surgery is the one place all domestic dogs visit - planned or unplanned - at least once in their lives. With some preparation, you can make the trip a far more pleasant experience for all concerned.

Whether you have a puppy, a rescue dog, or a dog who is perfectly fine at the vet's, all dogs need good experiences to create positive associations. For dogs or puppies who are already fearful, these methods and techniques can help as well.

In the first in this three-part series, we are looking at giving your dog every chance to associate the vet's with pleasant things. And, in each feature, we will also be looking at some simple home preparation exercises to help make life easier.

Frequent, happy, healthy visits!

There is an important reason why most veterinary surgeries have a pot of treats on the reception desk. These can be as significant as the information leaflets that surround it. The treats are used to help create the best positive association your dog can possibly have with that surgery. The walk from the car to the reception desk is remembered for a good reason - a tasty treat! Straight away, the association is a good one. You want your dog to remember that the last time he visited he got the good stuff! Bringing your own treats is also a good idea; some small pieces of chicken in a treat bag are ideal. As you get your dog out of the car… treat; go through the doors… treat; speak to the receptionist… treat. You can't overdo this.

Don't wait until your dog is genuinely unwell or an emergency occurs. Most surgeries encourage you to pop in with your dog, say hello, weigh your pet on the scales, and leave. It is good practice to do this at least once a month.

Food treats make the visit a good one. Frequent, happy, and healthy visits prepare your dog for the invasive stuff, such as injections, temperature readings, and emergencies.

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Vet visit dos

  • Visit frequently; happy and healthy visits; no appointment necessary.

  • Weigh and record your dog's weight on every visit.

  • Phone ahead if your dog is nervous or has bitten anyone in the past.

  • Phone ahead if your dog reacts badly around other dogs.

  • Stay relaxed yourself and talk calmly to your dog.

  • Bring treats with you (if your dog is eating and permitted to eat).

  • Treat your dog at every opportunity.

  • Use gentle encouragement where necessary.

  • Remember your vaccination card.

  • Write down the issue (for example, where is the lump or bump located?).

  • Put your dog in the car if he is nervous and you are dealing with reception (book in, payments for instance).

Vet visit don'ts

  • Allow your dog to wander around on an extending lead.

  • Allow your dog to approach other dogs (another dog may be nervous or ill).

  • Allow your dog to approach a cat box (this can terrify the trapped cat).

  • Reprimand your dog (he may already be anxious).

  • Appear over-anxious yourself (try and speak happily to your dog).

  • Talk or stroke your dog when the vet is using the stethoscope (the vet needs to listen carefully).

  • Drag your dog if he is anxious (this is stressful and a dog will instinctively pull the other way).

Training exercise: A sit on the scales

You can keep an accurate record of your dog's weight by making use of the clinic's scales, and you'll be helping your vet by walking into the consulting room with your dog's current weight.

On every visit to the surgery, this should be the second thing you do after saying hello to the receptionist. Have a pen and paper ready (or write it on your dog's vaccination card) and ensure the scales are turned on. You are aiming for about a five-second stand or sit on the scales. The sit is easier as it keeps your dog still and in one place.

  1. Take a small treat, such as low-fat cheese, and hold it between your thumb and forefinger.

  2. Stand next to the scales and show it to your dog, holding it near his nose. Lure the food back over his head, so his nose follows it, and as a result, his back half will crank down so his bottom is on the floor in a sit. Give him the food lure as a reward for this sit. Do this three times next to the scales.

  3. Holding the food in the same way, lure him on to the scales. Imagine you have a piece of cotton attached to his nose and you are slowly pulling it. He goes where his nose goes!

  4. Once he has four paws on the scales, lure the food over his head (see number 2).

  5. Ensure his whole body is on the scales, if not lure him off and back on as in number 3. Never drag your dog with the lead. Most dogs will pull back and get anxious.

  6. With your dog in a sit, delay the reward for five seconds during which time you can read the measurement. Once you have noted the reading, allow your dog the food lure as a reward and gently praise him, ‘Good dog!'.

  7. With regular practice, bluff that you have the food lure in your hand. Use the same actions but reward your dog after you have the reading. This hand movement becomes your hand signal for a sit.

  8. If you practise this method during your regular visits, your dog will almost rush to the scales to sit on them. You get a reading and your dog earns a tasty reward.

Home prep training exercise: He loves injections!

All dogs need to be injected with a needle, either for a vaccination or for a blood draw. While many dogs barely notice, for others the sight of a syringe can provoke a fear response. Don't wait to find out!

Some simple home preparation can help all concerned. If you ask your vet nurse nicely, she should provide you with a plastic syringe (without the needle!) to take home for this exercise.

  1. Have some treats on you or nearby (on a table top or counter) but out of sight of your dog. Hold the empty syringe behind your back.

  2. Show your dog the syringe and allow him to sniff it and investigate it.

  3. Within three seconds pop a treat into his mouth and move the syringe away from him behind your back again. Repeat three times.

  4. Now hold the syringe as if you are about to inject the scruff of his neck, and as you are holding it there, give him a treat. Be the vet.

  5. Hide the syringe behind your back for 10 seconds and repeat three times.

You can perform this exercise any time at home and in the waiting room as you await your appointment.

You are trying to get your dog to really want to see the syringe because it predicts snacks! Vaccinations soon become less scary and can even make your dog happier because they are associated with tasty food.

Prevention is ongoing

For any visit, try to stay calm and self-assured and if in any doubt communicate. Speak to the receptionist who can help you.

Remember, scared animals bite vets. The main message here is prevention. Visit your vet's as frequently as you can, particularly when your dog is healthy. The more frequently these pleasant visits are carried out, the easier it is for all concerned in the future. You are laying down solid foundations and keeping your dog free of stress and anxiety.