My dog Lulu gets so excited about leaving the house, that she’s practically on the exam table before realizing it’s time for a checkup. But some dogs struggle with visits to the white, sterile surroundings of a veterinary clinic.
“Dogs learn that the vet is a scary place,” says Kristen Collins, a certified professional dog trainer with the ASPCA's Animal Behavior Center. “Who can blame them? They get poked and prodded and we can’t explain why they are doing painful things to them, and they get defensive. Once the problem happens it is difficult to treat because you still have to take the animal to the vet.”
Difficult doesn’t mean impossible. With a healthy dose of desensitization and counter-conditioning, you can change unwanted behavior. Collins offers these tips to help transform your fearful dog into a tolerant patient.
Start with baby steps — and treats: Look at what frightens the pet, and break the process down into tiny steps. “Usually they start to get frightened when they get to the clinic, open the door and see where they are,” Collins says. “Make a plan that involves going to the vet, going inside, getting treats and leaving.”
If the fur flies early on, start with treks to the parking lot, then the waiting room and eventually the examination rooms. Most vets will happily play along, especially since it eases the process during real visits.
“I am perfectly OK with pets coming in just to get cookie treats,” says Dr. Annie Price, owner of Ormewood Animal Hospital in Georgia. Price welcomes clients to bring pets in, sit in the lobby and leave. She brings her own two dogs to the office all the time, whether for a checkup or not.
Practice makes perfect: Desensitizing pets to the veterinary experience also means re-enacting some of that poking and prodding. “I have a dog who is afraid of restraints,” Collins says. “She had ear infections as a young dog, so we go through the motions of what happens at a veterinary clinic.”
Instead of bad things like shots, Collins’ pooch gets treats and good food in exchange for tolerating mock exams. “It’s important to put time into repairing the damage that’s been done.”
Don’t give up: Collins admits that cats can be a bit more challenging. “The are much less tolerant of unpleasant handling,” she says. “Also they are not as food motivated as dogs.”
If your cat is anxious, avoid forcing the issue. Collins warns that it will only cause more damage. Replace treats with your feline friend’s favorite toy, scratching post or other treasured item. Make sure it accompanies them during those trips to the vet. “Change what the animal fears by associating bad things with things the animal likes,” she says.
Call in reinforcements: Patience is the key to helping your pets overcome anxiety about vet visits. If your efforts at counter conditioning don't work, consider hiring a certified professional dog trainer to address any underlying problems. You also can request that your veterinarian recommend a doctor who makes house calls. But some procedures, such as dental care, must be performed at the office.
Remain positive. Eventually, that trek to the vet should become less stressful.