Recently, I was lucky enough to complete the Fear Free Pets certification course. While the course is focused on teaching veterinary professionals how to help eliminate fear, anxiety and stress from vet care, the information that is meant to be shared with pet owners is top notch. And as someone who has a dog who tends to be a bit nervous at the vet’s office, (and in the waiting room) a breath of fresh air and super easy to implement.
Dogs experiencing what the Fear Free course calls FAS (fear, anxiety and stress) will often:
- Attempt to make themselves smaller
- Flatten their ears
- Have “whale eye”
- Tuck their tails
- Be jumpy and/or mouthy
- Be hyper-vigilant
- Bark, whine, growl, cry
It’s important to try to avoid FAS as much as possible, for good reason:
- Animals experiencing fear, anxiety and stress are more likely to “act out”- bite, scratch, attempt to escape, vocalize
- People with animals who experience FAS are less likely to engage in routine and emergency vet care
- The more incidences of FAS an animal experiences, the more likely he/she will “sensitize” to the entire veterinary experience. This can start before you even leave the house (Many dogs are already at this point, unfortunately, and may need more help than can be provided in a short blog post. Contact a qualified trainer who can help you and your dog through desensitization and counter-conditioning. You may also want to consider talking to your vet about how meds can help if your dog is already scared about going to the vet’s office.)
- Short-term and chronic stress can shorten lifespan
Since it seems selfish to keep this all to myself, here’s a rundown on the pieces I have found most helpful:
- Take your dog for car rides to places other than the vet! Dogs quickly figure out the route to the vet, your tone of voice before getting in the car and that the car ride predicts something scary and/or painful may be happening soon.
- Make sure your pet is secure in the car: use a car harness and seatbelt. Dogs who are loose in the car can get tossed around, which can add stress to the ride.
- Consider playing soft music (new research shows dogs enjoy audiobooks, too!) and avoid sudden starts and stops and startling noises.
- Many dogs are uncomfortable with having sensitive parts of their bodies touched. You can help your dog feel more comfortable with body handling by touching a body part gently and immediately popping him a treat. You can gradually increase the amount of pressure and time, but make sure you are always giving him a treat for it. This can start to translate to when you are in the veterinary setting- especially if you make time for “Happy Visits”. But, this may also call for the services of a qualified trainer.
- Consider bringing your dog to the vet for “Happy Visits”- swing by the vet’s office for nothing more than treats (Use the good stuff! Chicken, pecorino or another high value food. We want the vet’s office= good stuff association to be strong!) and petting. This will help boost positive associations with the vet’s office and the people working there. It will be less scary for your dog when he actually needs to see the vet if he’s had some emotional “padding.”
- Consider the following if your dog is showing signs of stress
* wait in a more private, quiet area
* ask staff to call your cell phone and wait either outside or in your car
* book your appointment at a quiet time of the day when you are less likely to encounter too much stimuli
It’s important to understand that vet visits are stressful for your dog for a number of reasons, including:
- Environmental Stressors: bright lights, fast moving objects, unfamiliar smells
- Physiological Stressors: pain, hunger and thirst are often factors to consider
- Psycho-social Stressors: unfamiliar people and animals, being separated from owner (who animals typically look to for safety)
- Dogs, especially, are very sensitive to smells and the vet’s office may seem especially unpleasant to them
There are plenty of things you can do to help your dog during the exam, as well:
- Allow dogs to stay on the floor if possible or provide a non-slip surface to stand on.
- Provide high value treats throughout and ask the staff to feed your dog, as well. This will help boost positive associations and distract him during the exam.
- Do not drag, yell at or hit your dog. Remember that this is an experience that we want to help make more positive. Use food to lure him along.
- Know that punishing your dog for being scared and stressed may actually elevate stress and can lead to aggression.
- Dogs may benefit from an Adaptil collar, or the spray on a bandana (be sure to read the directions). Calming wraps may help some dogs, but it is very important that the dog is not able to make the association between the wrap being put on and an impending vet visit.
Here’s Academy for Dog Trainers staff member, Casey McGee of Upward Hound and her dog, Bruce, working on stationing exercises while he receives an ultrasound. This is the direct result of following the training plans being tested for the Academy’s Husbandry Project- the goal of which is to provide fully-vetted, field tested plans to dog owners and veterinary staff to help build cooperative care with dogs.
And here’s Academy student, Melanie Cerone, working on the early stages of the stationing plan with her dog, Wyatt, first at home and then at the vet’s office.
Keep an eye on this space, as I am currently working on a course designed with the specific purpose of helping dogs feel more comfortable with nail care- a big bugaboo for lots of dogs (and their people!)