We all know that a visit to the doctors or dentist can induce anxiety, but this is nothing compared to the feeling when a fur baby suddenly falls ill. A lot of the fear and concern we feel as an owner largely stems from the fact that our dogs cannot clearly communicate to us how they feel or where it ‘hurts’.
Our dogs are very sensitive so if they sense fear, trepidation, or stress in their owners it will project onto them and they will often mirror that behaviour. So before you have even stepped into the waiting room the panic has already begun to set in. Understanding what stress looks like in our dogs is key as it is not always clear that the behaviours our dogs are demonstrating are down to anxiety. Signs to look out for are:
- Panting or drooling
- Vocalising-whimpering, whining and barking
- Freezing-playing statue
- Defensive behaviours such as growling, hackles raised or lip curling.
- Toileting accidents
Here are some of my top tips and a nine-step guide to helping you and your dog have as stress-free a vet visit as possible:
Tip #1 Keep Calm
Keeping anxiety and stress at a minimum starts with the owner, and how you manage your own stress response when faced with taking your dog to the vet. Whether it is for a routine appointment or due to an emergency the key is to keep calm. Remember, you will project your emotional response onto your dog so keeping yourself calm will help to relax them too.
Tip #2 Exercise before the vets
If your dog is physically capable, then it can often be a good idea to take your dog for a walk prior to the appointment. Physical activity can help manage all kinds of behavioural concerns, that’s because it really does help! Exercise provides stimulation and can increase overall health and happiness. It may even wear them out prior to a vet check-up which could help them to relax whilst in the clinic.
Tip #3 Desensitise
For the most part, your dog will not be familiar with the myriad of smells and sounds at a vet clinic. Most dogs will only visit their vet once or twice a year, and more often than not, it is because they are unwell. The unknown is scary and the key to making it a less frightening place to be is actually quite simple. Visiting the vets regularly before they actually need to be there. Think positive reinforcement, just walking in for treats, to say hello, or simply jump on the scales will make the vets suddenly seem like a far less negative place to be because nothing threatening happens every time they go in. Many of the following tips will also help with the desensitisation process, just remember perseverance and commitment is key.
Tip #4 Don’t keep them waiting!
Keep the time in the waiting room at a minimum and try to visit during off-peak times of the day. Quite often the waiting room can be the most stressful part of the vet visit. There can often be multiple pets and their owners waiting in the same space which means greater potential for more tension in the room. If you know your dog is very anxious perhaps try to visit during quieter times of the day. If, when you arrive, the waiting room looks very busy or crowded it may be a better idea to wait outside until the vet is ready to see you or ask if there is an empty room you can sit in, or if possible ask if you can wait in your car.
Tip #5 Perform your own health checks at home
Doing a weekly nose-to-tail health check in the comfort of your own home is beneficial in so many ways. Not only will it give you a good insight into any potential changes in your dog's condition and health it will also start to feel like a very normal procedure to your dog. Don’t be afraid to let other family members or even friends give this a go too. Having their ears looked into, their paws handled, and just generally being given a good once over by different people in a comfortable, familiar setting will give your dog an advantage when it comes to having those same examinations in the vet clinic. You could even use a toy stethoscope or otoscope from a child's doctor’s set to get your dog used to what would otherwise be a strange unfamiliar object….perhaps leave the temperature part to the vet though!
Tip #6 Teach ‘calm’ on command!
It is a useful command to teach all dogs but especially those that can become easily stressed or excitable. The method to this training is actually not that complex, it starts with teaching your dog how to be calm in regular settings at home. Once your dog knows how to settle and be calm in normal situations you then slowly increase the level of distraction around them. By slowly increasing the level of distraction you will eventually have a dog that is able to settle on command in more stimulating environments, this may even include a visit to the vet!
Tip #7 Start somewhere new!
If you are really struggling with your current vet practice and the sense of fear is simply too embedded in your dog, then it may be too difficult to desensitise them. In this situation you may have to wipe the slate clean and start somewhere new; a new vet practice with new people. Look out for practices that are Fear-Free certified, this means the staff have had additional training on how to limit the stress and anxiety associated with coming to the vets. Alternatively, you could consider a home visit service. Home visit vets have been growing in popularity and may be an ideal solution for a dog that still struggles to cope despite best efforts to desensitise or train them.
Tip #8 Consider calming aids
If your dog is in the middle of ongoing treatment or has a sudden ailment or injury you might not have time to build up their vet tolerance gradually. In cases of severe anxiety, there are calming/anxiety aids that may help. These can come in the form of a herbal supplement, pheromone sprays, a calming collar, or pressure wraps which are designed to apply gentle but firm pressure to your dog's torso-which feels like one big hug! Medications or sedatives are an option though should really only be considered as a last resort and with the advice of your vet. For some dogs, the effects of a sedative can make them feel disorientated and will actually heighten anxiety.
Picture courtesy of barkpost.com
Tip #9 The power of a treat
Never underestimate how important rewards can be in desensitisation training. Providing your dog isn’t attending for a gastric complaint, there is nothing wrong with reserving those treats for a trip to the vet. With a few tasty morsels to distract them, suddenly the experience doesn’t seem too bad!