Fear-Free vet visits!
* My own personal favorite tip is to wear scrubs or a white coat at home sometimes during training to create a positive association! *
Some dogs are at ease right from the start at the vet clinic, and the more extreme measures are unnecessary at their comfort level. However, if your dog does seem fearful at the vet, some proactive steps will take the stress out of your visits!
1. Always take tasty treats and your dog’s favorite toy when you visit the veterinarian. Distract your dog with treats during the physical exam. Ask the technician and the veterinarian to give your dog plenty of treats as well.
2. Take every opportunity you can to pay social visits to the clinic. Ask the staff to make a fuss over your dog and give him treats. Lead or lift your dog on and off the weigh scale, giving him treats each time he gets on. If your dog learns that the clinic is a fun place to be most of the time, he’ll be a lot less concerned when it’s time for his annual physical exam.
3. At home, teach your dog to accept and even enjoy the same types of experiences he will have at the veterinary clinic by doing mock examinations. Lift him on and off a table. Place a towel or blanket on the table so that he won’t slip and become frightened. Each time he’s on the table, give him tasty treats. When he’s relaxed on the table, pretend to give him a physical exam. Check his ears and give him a treat. Look into his eyes and give him a treat. Briefly shine a light in his face and give him a treat. Lift each leg and give him a treat. Manipulate the toes on one paw and give him a treat. Gently pinch his thigh where he’s likely to receive a vaccination and give him a treat. Extend his front leg out the way veterinarians do to draw blood and give him a treat. Extend his head up to expose his throat the way they do to draw blood and give him a treat. Hold something cold, like a wet cloth, next to his chest as though you are using a stethoscope and give him a treat. Lift his tail as though you’re going to take his temperature and give him a treat. Restrain him in various ways, all the while feeding him treats. Make sure each thing you do to your dog is followed by a treat that he loves. Do so many repetitions that he becomes completely “ho-hum” about this kind of handling. If your dog is too big to lift onto a table, do the exercises described above on the floor.
4. Ask your veterinarian if you can come into the clinic and do mock exams in one of the rooms. Many clinics do surgeries in the morning hours, so the exam rooms are empty. The staff will probably be too busy to help, but it will give you a chance to practice the same exercises you’re doing at home in the “scary” clinic setting. If your dog will play with a toy, always play a quick game in the room at the end of your mock exam. This will further help your dog relax and have fun in the clinic environment. When your dog seems reasonably comfortable, it’s well worth the expense of booking a visit with the veterinarian every so often so you can just practice the procedures without actually having to insert a thermometer or draw blood. That way, your dog gets used to being examined and restrained, but there’s no pain associated with the experience—just plenty of tasty treats and a fun game at the end. Most veterinarians recognize that the effort you’re making to help your dog feel comfortable at the clinic is good for them, too. It’s safer and more efficient for the veterinary staff to work with a relaxed and well-behaved dog than to deal with a terrified, struggling animal.
5. Once your dog truly accepts physical exams and routine procedures, resist the temptation to stop working on the exercises. To prevent your dog’s fear from returning, continue to do the exercises at home once every two to three weeks and occasionally schedule visits to the clinic just for practice. Zoo professionals can train their exotic animals to accept all sorts of medical procedures because they practice mock examinations regularly. Elephants open their mouths to have their teeth cleaned, and monkeys extend their arms through their cage bars to get blood drawn. For every one time a procedure is real and uncomfortable, the staff has practiced a mock version of it many, many times—with no discomfort to the animal and using very special treats as rewards. Regular practice pays huge dividends.