Behaviourist Dr. Kendal Shepherd on … Training your dog to like the vet
Written by Napo HQ
18th May 2022
8 min read
It's a good idea to take your new puppy to the vet before they need any treatment or checkups, to get them used to the new sights and smells. On every trip to the vet, introduce positive associations as rewards for good and calm behaviour before you leave the house, and continue them in the surgery. Bring tasty treats with you and ask your vet to reward your dog for some commands they know. Always praise and reward good behaviour throughout your dog’s life, including at the vet.
It is quite common for dogs to be scared of the vet and averse to visiting the clinic, and no wonder – health checks, needles, and surgeries can be a scary experience!
So, what can an owner do to help make a vet visit a more pleasant experience for their pup? And what can we do to help a dog that is already nervous - and therefore potentially reactive - in the vet surgery?
Clinical animal behaviourist Dr. Kendal Shepherd gives owners important and helpful advice on what to do to help your dog not be scared of the vet.
So, why do so many dogs hate visiting the vet?
In order to get their job done, vets often have to do things to dogs which are unpleasant and may be painful, particularly when the animal is already feeling ill or has been injured.
At the very least, the way vets sometimes behave towards a dog might be considered extremely rude in canine social circles!
Dogs have evolved to be tolerant of most human activity, but we can’t just rely on this to enable them to put up with everything we expose them to. An effort must be made on everyone’s part to make experiences like vet visits as pleasant for them as possible.
I have a new puppy and it’s their first visit to the vet soon. How can I help them to stay calm and happy, and not develop a fear of the vet?
This is the most crucial vet visit your new dog will ever make. The expectations of an adult dog, for good or bad, may be imprinted on their brain during their first ever vet visit.
Bad early memories will be very hard to erase later, but ensuring the puppy enjoys their first visit will help protect them from future unpleasantness.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to take your puppy to the surgery before the first vaccination simply to introduce them to new sights, sounds and smells, to meet the staff and for them to all give your puppy some treats.
Being stroked and held firmly while being fed tasty titbits is a great way to introduce your puppy to strangers’ hands, and to help them learn to tolerate restraint. Ideally, nothing potentially painful should be done to your dog during this first vet visit.
Early puppy classes and training should also include practicing handling and restraint exercises, which should then be mimicked in the consulting room.
Have treat rewards readily available for when your puppy is doing well during this training, and never assume ‘My puppy will always be good and not need food’.
I have a dog who is already scared of the vet. What can I do to help them to relax, and stop being so scared?
Try to think about how you
want your puppy to feel and behave, rather than what you want to stop. You don’t want them to be fearful and potentially aggressive, as they're anticipating bad things.
What you really want is the alternative emotion and behaviour of calm hopefulness that something nice might happen.
So, think about the first event that informs your dog they're going to the vets and not for a walk in the park. It may be that they have to get into the car, rather than being walked, or it may be the moment that you turn into the surgery car park rather than go straight on. It is at this point that pleasant associations must be built up, rather than waiting until your dog is actually inside the vet’s waiting room.
Offer treat rewards and positive reinforcement for good and calm behaviour from the moment you begin your journey to the vet.
Simple obedience commands are very effective antidotes to fear and anxiety as long as they are rehearsed enough everywhere, not just where you need them to be effective.
Visit the surgery and its surrounding area sometimes just to practice obedience and to make positive associations with it with the use of food.
When in the consulting room, act exactly as if you are in training class and give your dog the guidance they need.
What can I ask my vet to do to help my dog be more comfortable during the visit?
Vets may not always take kindly to being told what to do by their clients so whatever you do, be tactful! It may be better to say, "My dog trainer said it would be a good idea to...." than you instruct, "I think you should.....". Try to demonstrate what you’d like them to do, rather than instruct.
If there is no tasty food on offer (dry kibble will not do!), bring some with you.
Suggest that your dog might be happier to be examined on the floor or outside than on a table confined in a room.
Voices should be kept low and calming and beware of the clatter of metal instruments.
Show the vet the command words and gestures your dog knows, particularly those which make examination easier.
What else can I do on a day-to-day basis or at home to help my dog be more confident, and less scared of people, in general?
You may not be able to change your dog’s basic personality or temperament, but you can change the way they express their personality - in other words, their behaviour.
Try to put yourself in your dog’s shoes in every situation and think about what they would best like to happen. Once you have thought about this, you can then use this knowledge in many situations to manipulate their behaviour so that your dog gets what they want, and you get what you want,
at the same time
For example, if you have a dog that is nervous around new people, instead of forcing them to approach someone to say hello, start by having the new person throw a tasty treat over the dog's head from a little distance away, so that your dog has to move away to get it. Or, reward your dog yourself for calm behaviour while the new person stays at a distance. This way, your dog gets two things that they want; distance from the person that is scaring them, and a tasty treat for calm behaviour. Slowly but surely, you can start to build up their confidence.
What are some sure-fire signs that my dog is feeling nervous, or stressed, at the vets?
The most obvious signs that a dog is stressed (and often the only behaviours we take seriously) are the components of aggression – curling the lip, growling, snarling and trying to bite.
Until a dog bites, they may often be thought to be ‘fine’. But there are many more subtle signs of stress that are ignored or, even if they are noticed, are misunderstood.
Pulling back when entering the consulting room is not evidence that your dog is stubborn or disobedient; it shows that they're stressed and nervous.
Wriggling when being examined is not your dog being ‘naughty’; it their way of trying to deflect and escape a situation that they think is a danger.
Continued panting, sitting with a paw raised, turning the head away and showing the whites of the eye are all signs that a dog is feeling threatened and that they wants the threat to stop.
Frantic wagging of the tail, panting, and jumping up are more accurately interpreted as signs of stress than ‘happiness’. Petting or handling your dog at such times may actually make matters worse.
If you notice that your dog is doing any of the above things, rewind the situation a little and introduce some calming, obedience commands, and reward his good behaviour.
What should I NOT do at the surgery if my dog is scared of the vet?
First of all, think of how you are feeling yourself. Dogs are extremely good at picking up on our emotions and reacting accordingly. If you are worried about how you think your dog will behave, particularly if they may become aggressive, or if you feel sorry for them and cuddle them because they're scared, your dog may think this is how they're supposed to feel as well.
You must not get angry at your dog while at the vet surgery, as they may blame your negative emotional change as well as their own on the veterinary surgery itself.
During the pandemic, when most dogs had to be taken away from their owners for examination and treatment at the vet, the overwhelming consensus of an informal survey of vets was that the pets were far better behaved in their owner’s absence! This just shows; what dogs really don’t need during an already nerve-wracking experience is a close companion who also seems nervous, upset or angry.
My dog is not really scared of the vet (or anyone) at all! Does that mean I don’t have to do anything?
No! If you own such a dog, you have either socialised them very well, or you have simply been extremely lucky with the dog you live with (and the latter is actually more likely!).
A dog behaving well does not necessarily mean that the humans around them have got it right all of the time; some dogs are simply born more tolerant and forgiving of the strange things that humans get up to, than others.
However, whether you have taken pains to create it or it happened by chance, never take your pup’s great behaviour for granted!
Good behaviour is just like physical health and, as such, can be damaged at any time if it is not cared for and preserved.
A dog behaving well without being asked is just as deserving of reward as a dog in training. So, you should continue to provide rewards for good behaviour throughout a dog’s life.