Helping Fido Learn to Love the Veterinarian

Most dogs do not relish a trip to the veterinarian.  It can be extremely stressful on our furry friends.  Honestly, who among us enjoys going to the doctor?  Not me, and at least I understand why I’m going there. Our poor dogs don’t have a clue as to why they are put through an exam which includes being hoisted onto a tall cold table, having needles stuck into them, and being poked a prodded from head to toe.

The associations that dogs can make at a vet’s office are very important.  It can mean the difference between a relatively easy visit and one where muzzles and restraints are involved. One bad experience in a vet’s office can create years of frustration for owners and severe anxiety and stress for their dogs.  So, teach your dog from the start that going to the veterinarian isn’t so bad, in fact it can be a great experience!

If you have a puppy, start the process now. It is always better to be proactive and teach a puppy to love the vet.  Load up on treats and toys and pull them out at the vet’s office.  Let staff members give the treats and make sure that lots of good things happen immediately after a shot (or anything that may be uncomfortable for your pet). If you have a “shy” puppy, then you may need to follow the steps below.

If you have a pet that is already nervous or difficult at the vet’s office, then you have to create a new association.  This means starting at square one.  The following is an example of counter conditioning that has been used successfully when trying to change a dog’s mindset when it comes to visiting the vet.

Step 1: Take your dog on a drive and pull into the vet’s parking lot.  Give lots of treats (high value….the really good stuff like hot dogs, cheese, turkey) and lots of praise, then drive away.   Try that several times over the course of the next week or two.  If you do this enough, your dog should start to wag his tail when you pull into the parking lot.  Once this is happening, then it is time to move to the next step.

Step 2: Next drive up to the vet’s office, get out of the car with your dog, walk around the parking lot, treat you dog or play with a favorite toy  and then get back into the car and leave. Again, do this until your dog is very relaxed and wagging his tail the entire time you are there.

Step 3: The next step is to walk into the clinic, stay a short amount of time while playing and treating your dog.  Make certain that you leave while your dog is still having a good time. Again, continue on this step until your dog’s tail is wagging all of the time.

Step 4: Finally, you can move into the office and have the staff and vet dispense treats. Always leave while your dog is in a “good” state of mind.  The idea is to change the association of this “scary place with evil people” to “Wow!  I love this place…and the yummy treats!”

My German Shepherd is a prime example of a dog that has some anxiety. I bring treats and toys, and we actually practice “sits”, “downs” and “targeting” while we are waiting at the office.  It keeps her mind busy, so she forgets to “stress” about it!

The above steps can be moved through quickly (the first steps may not even be necessary with all cases) or each step could take weeks.  It will depend on the severity of the anxiety. Don’t move from one step to the next unless your dog is very relaxed and appears happy.  Moving too quickly can cancel out all of the work you have put into this.  Most vets should be willing to work with you, but it is always a good idea to call ahead of time and find days and times that are not too busy when asking the staff to help you.

A little bit of time can make a big difference in the way a dog handles a visit to the vet.  And an easy vet visit makes life a little more enjoyable for all of us.