More and more veterinarians are taking low-stress and Fear Free approaches to care. But as pet owners, we can’t leave it all to them. It’s equally important to do our part to make health care less stressful for our dogs. That starts at home – and it’s really not hard.
You may think your dog doesn’t mind being poked and prodded for exams and treatment. But does he love it? Maybe it never occurred to you that was a possibility. It is, and as much as possible that should be your goal. What’s more, without preparation, the dog may be less accepting of being handled than you think.
“You’ll often hear people say, “Oh, my dog is fine,” but when I look at video, I see that dog is not fine at all. That dog might be barely tolerating what you’re doing,” says Deborah Jones, Ph.D., author of Cooperative Care: Seven Steps to Stress-Free Husbandry. “If they’re not happy and we don’t do anything about it, it’s going to get worse.”
Simple exercises can help. Start by treating your dog for being touched.
“Start with non-sensitive areas, then get more personal,” says Debbie Martin, veterinary technician specialist in behavior and Elite Fear Free Certified® Professional. “Start with the chest or shoulder, just to show them what this is about: ‘I’m going to touch you here and give you a treat.'”
This may sound silly. Your dog loves to be touched! Sure, he may love to be petted, but he’s no fool.
“Something I tell people that surprises them is that petting your dog is not handling your dog. Your dog knows the difference,” says Jones. “The moment it gets into something that seems more intentional or formal, they immediately get suspicious about it.”
Teach your dog that being touched in these slightly suspect ways is great: it means he’s going to get a treat. “Rather than just being neutral, it can be a positive experience,” Martin says.
Once your dog gets the hang of it, try slightly odder things: poke, pinch a little, pull up skin and shake it, and then treat. “When someone grabs the skin to give an injection, I don’t want that to be the first time that happens to them. I want them to have practiced that hundreds of time at home so they don’t panic,” says Jones. “After a while they think, ‘People do weird things to you, and it’s always okay.’”
Make it unpredictable. You can’t train for everything that might happen – you don’t have an X-ray machine at home, for example – but you can work on teaching that unfamiliar things mean treats are coming. Wear gloves, touch pets with an object, give a treat.
If you do nothing else, these simple exercises will help enormously. “You don’t have to do it perfectly every day for two years,” says Jones. “Anything is better than nothing, and your dog will benefit from that.”
Once you are doing that regularly, move to more challenging exercises. One is restraint. This is important even if your veterinarian uses low-restraint techniques.
Saying you would never allow anyone to restrain your dog is unrealistic. It’s better to prepare for the possibility. “When there’s an emergency, you don’t want it to be the first time that happens to them,” Jones says.
Practice these exercises on a safe, elevated surface such as a grooming table, the top of a washing machine, or even a sofa. It’s easier for you, and more like what will happen in a veterinary clinic. Put your arms around your pet’s shoulder and hips and give a treat. Do it first lightly and briefly, with many repetitions. Gradually add either stronger restraint or longer duration, but not both at the same time.
Be alert to your dog’s stress signals and stop immediately if he’s uncomfortable. Your dog will not always have the chance for a time out at the veterinary clinic, but your goal is to build up his “bank account” of positive experiences, so make it fun and rewarding. “You’re trying to build up trust,” says Jones. “Never push them.”
Use a special mat as a treatment station. Practice these exercises and give medications or other home treatments on it, always for a treat, and let pets leave if they want.
If you already have a mat your dog is trained to lie on, use a different one that’s large enough for your dog to be able to change positions. Have your dog practice sit/stand exercises on the mat and, if you want to get advanced, lying on their side. Being able to ask your dog to get into a position can help minimize handling at the veterinarian.
“Owners can advocate for their dog while at the vet,” says Martin. “If they’re trying to get them into position for something and you know your dog can do a down or sit, you might just say, ‘Hey, can I ask him to perform that behavior?’”
Similarly, teaching your dog to get onto a platform or follow a hand target to a spot can be helpful in a variety of circumstances, including stepping onto the scale to be weighed.
Both Jones and Martin recommend muzzle training. Muzzles are not just for dangerous dogs: any dog in pain can bite. “I think it’s an important tool,” says Jones. “If they’re happy to wear a muzzle, if there’s a situation where they have to wear it, which is usually stressful – like pain – it’s not an additional stress factor.” What’s more, it will make veterinary staff feel safer, which is better for them and better for how they handle your dog. For more information on muzzles she recommends the Muzzle Up Project. Here’s how to teach a dog to wear a muzzle comfortably.
At zoos, animals are often trained to cooperate in care so procedures such as blood draws and x-rays can be done without anesthesia. If wild animals can learn this, your dog can, too. For inspiration, see our article on how to get your dog to voluntarily do a blood draw.
Most important, maintain your dog’s handling “bank account” so he has a stock of positive experiences to draw on. When he inevitably has a stressful experience such as being touched by the veterinarian in an area that’s painful, you’re making a withdrawal from that account. Afterward, go back to the touch and treat exercises to build up the balance again.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.