Regular veterinary visits are essential for your pet’s health and wellness, but they can be stressful for dogs. And it’s no wonder. They usually only go a few times a year, and when they do, they get poked, prodded, and stuck with a needle. But vet visits aren’t optional, so try these simple at-home exercises and tips to make your dog’s future vet visits stress free.
The Importance of Handling Exercises
Hopefully, your puppy has already had at least one positive interaction with a veterinarian before you get them home. Breeders should introduce puppies to vets as part of their socialization program. But no matter how old your dog, your first step is to train them to accept restraint and examination which will greatly reduce their anxiety when they get to the vet.
Start with simple handling exercises. For a dog who is comfortable with touch, add massage into your daily interactions, preferably when your dog is tired. Include the paws, ears, mouth, belly, and tail to simulate a vet’s exam. Include lots of praise and treats so your dog learns to associate handling with rewards. In time you can become a bit more invasive, for example squeezing the paws, and even add some gentle restraint to help prepare your dog for the real thing.
The areas most dogs and cats have trouble being examined are the mouth (teeth) and paws (nails.)
If your dog is touch averse, you need to be more precise. Your goal is to change your dog’s emotional response with desensitization and counterconditioning. In this case, you should pair every touch with a treat. In the beginning, you can feed a treat at the same time as you handle a body part to help distract your dog. But as your dog relaxes, you want to touch first then treat. So, for example, you might reach for your dog’s ear then remove your hand and feed a treat. Next, briefly touch the ear then feed a treat. Next, touch the ear for one second then feed a treat, and so on until your can finally lift and examine under the ear.
Training Can Help Smooth Vet Visits
Besides handling, there are other training exercises that will come in handy at the vet’s office. The first is to teach your dog a standing position. It’s far easier for a vet to exam a standing dog than one collapsed in a non-cooperative ball. Stand is easy to teach with lure and reward training. With your dog in a sit, place a treat at their nose and slowly pull it away to lure them up into a standing position. Once you’ve taught them to stand on cue, you can add stay to keep them there until released.
You can also teach your dog to go to their mat or bed. “Go to your place” isn’t specifically for the vet, but teaching the behavior builds strong positive associations between the mat and rewards. That makes the mat your dog’s happy place. If you take the mat to the vet visit it will provide your dog with a comforting and familiar place to stand or lie down.
Teaching your dog to nose target can also help. “Touch” is all about directing your dog’s nose to the palm of your hand, and wherever your dog’s nose goes, their head and body will follow. Therefore, you can use “touch” to position your dog for the vet’s convenience. Additionally, dogs love this behavior because it’s an incredibly easy way to earn a reward. So, you can use nose targeting to distract your dog during exams or procedures.
If you have a smaller dog, teach them to be comfortable on elevated surfaces as they will likely be placed on the examining table for their vet visit. Start with something lower like a coffee table, then move to taller objects. Pair the elevation with tasty rewards to build a positive association. You can also place a non-slip surface on top of the table to give your dog stability, and always keep hold of them so they can’t try to jump off.
Visiting the Vet Just for Fun
Many dogs only see the vet for exams or when they’re already feeling sick, so it doesn’t take long for them to develop a negative view of the office. But what if you took your dog to the vet just for fun? In that case, the office would no longer predict poking and prodding but treats and pats instead. Ask your vet if you can take your dog in just to say hi. Make sure to call ahead to determine the office protocols. Have any available staff stroke your dog and feed a few delicious treats. Sit in the lobby for a few minutes while you feed treats and let your dog pair the food with the sounds and smells of the clinic.
It’s also important that car rides don’t predict a trip to the vet, otherwise your dog’s stress will begin as soon as you enter the car. Make sure you take your dog out to other places such as the dog park or even just for a drive. Then, when you are heading to the vet, it will seem like just another fun outing.
Taking the Right Tools to the Vet
Your dog’s vet visit can be so much easier if you take the right tools. First, pack a pile of your dog’s favorite treats. Feeding your dog during their exam will help distract them as well as build positive associations. Ask the vet and other staff to feed a few as well. It can also help to take a toy to divert your dog’s attention away from a needle or other uncomfortable procedure.
For anxious dogs, consider pheromone treatments or calming treats. Pheromones mimic the smell of a nursing mother dog which relaxes even adult dogs. Look for a spray or collar so you can take it to the vet with you. Calming treats can be used before the appointment to provide your dog with relief. You may also try to schedule for a time when the office is not busy so no one feels rushed. Finally, if your dog is really struggling with vet appointments, talk to your vet about other options. It’s important they can carry out a complete examination with the least amount of stress for your dog.