When you take your dog to the vet for a check up does she prance in the front door, tail wagging, tongue flapping, happily greeting everyone she meets? Or does she tuck her tail, drop her ears and try to drag you back to the car? This experience is a common one for dog owners and one that causes much anxiety for them and their dogs. I don’t know about you but I know that if I got poked and prodded every time I set foot into a certain building or room I wouldn’t be so keen on going back. Think about how happy you are to visit your own doctor or dentist. It’s not always such a great experience, right? So how do we help our dogs learn to love the people responsible for keeping them healthy? It starts with a conversation between the owner and the vet.
First, I talk to my vet, explain the situation and go over my goals for my dog and my plan to address them. Whether I just adopted a new puppy or want to address my older dog’s anxiety during vet visits the process will be the same. I will talk to my vet about “social visits” to the office. A “social visit” is a trip to your vet’s office with your dog during which no examination, tests or shots will take place. The purpose of a “social visit” is to help your dog form a positive association with everything and everyone in the vet’s office. I would be much more likely to walk smiling and chipper into my doctor’s office if I got a box of gourmet chocolates or a hundred-dollar bill each time I visited. That’s how we want our dogs to feel about their vet’s office.
In order to make the most of your “social visit” you will need to create your own “I Love My Vet” kit. Your kit should include: a treat pouch which makes treats accessible and easy to carry, plenty of super yummy treats that your dog goes crazy for and are about the size of a pea (better to have too many than not enough), your dog’s favorite toy or chew and a small mat or rug for your dog to sit or lay down on.
Now that you have your kit ready, here is an example of what a “social visit” might look like:
I will have already called my vet’s office and scheduled a “social visit” so that I don’t surprise them when I arrive and to make sure that they have a few minutes to spend with me and my dog. With my dog I drive to the vet’s office and park. I have my “I Love My Vet” kit with me and am familiar with everything in it. The MOST IMPORTANT part of this conditioning process is the sequence you MUST follow. The treats stay in your pouch until AFTER the dog experiences the stressful stimuli. If you try to lure your dog with treats you will not accomplish what you want and the whole trip will be a wasted frustration for both you and your dog. As soon as I turn the car off I give my dog a treat. The reason for this is because most dogs’ association with the vet’s office starts in the parking lot and I want to cover all my bases. I, then, get my dog out of the car (on-leash, of course) and walk around the parking lot for a few minutes. Throughout this process I will be talking to my dog, praising him and telling him how proud I am of him. I talk to my dogs constantly, especially when we are working on something stressful or difficult. I give my dog treats every few steps and as soon as my dog looks comfortable and relaxed I start towards the front door. Once inside the door I give my dog another treat and walk to a chair to sit down. I NEVER lure my dog through the door with a treat. He gets a treat AFTER he comes through the door. I sit, spread out my dog’s mat and ask my dog to sit as well. I give a treat when he complies. If my dog doesn’t comply or stops eating treats I know that I went too far too fast and he is under too much stress. If that happens I will exit the clinic, walk around the parking lot giving treats for several more minutes until my dog is calm again before entering the clinic for another try. When my dog is comfortable and compliant, sitting in the waiting room, I will give him treats frequently especially if he looks around at other pets and people and remains sitting and calm. I will watch him for additional signs of stress (read about stress signs in my blog “What is your dog telling you?”) and if I see any I will slow down or back up to alleviate his stress. I will ask the staff at the office to come over and feed my dog treats as often as they can. We will practice walking onto the scale and my dog will receive treats as long as he sets foot on the scale. Remember NOT to lure or drag your dog anywhere! If your dog is not willing to comply either try something else or skip that activity until your dog is more calm. We will also spend time in an exam room, giving treats as long as my dog is calm and willing to eat. I will have the vet come into the exam room and feed my dog some treats. If my dog is comfortable enough to allow the vet and staff to pet or play with him we will spend a few minutes doing that as well. After a few minutes in the exam room we will thank the vet and the staff for their help and leave the office. The entire visit should take no more than 15-20 minutes.
I will plan to make a “social visit” to my vet’s office every 8 weeks to maintain the positive association for my dog. Taking the time and making the effort to help your dog enjoy going to the vet and trust the people who work in the office will pay off in tremendous ways over the years. Imagine being able to walk your dog into the office, wait patiently in the waiting room, get his weight on the scale, enter the exam room and greet the vet without any stress at all on your part or your dog’s. Your dog will need to visit your vet at least once a year every year of his life. Making sure that your dog enjoys going to the vet will not only make your life less stressful but will make your vet’s job MUCH easier which, in turn, makes things less stressful for your dog. It’s a beautiful cycle of better experiences. So put together your “I Love My Vet” kit and schedule a “social visit” to your vet’s office. You will all be better because of it!