Your veterinarian and the veterinary hospital staff are vital people in your dog's life. A dog who copes with veterinary care with no stress about the people, the handling or the place has a huge advantage in life. There's a great deal you can do to help your dog become this kind of dog.
In the Beginning
When you first get your puppy or dog, a veterinary visit is in order. Ideally the dog is healthy and the visit will consist of routine examination and perhaps some needle sticks for vaccination or blood testing. If the dog becomes severely stressed or is difficult for personnel to handle at this first visit, ask the veterinarian to help you find a behavior specialist to work on the problem before it gets any worse. This dog will likely have problems in other aspects of life, too, without the right intervention.
More likely the dog will show moderate stress. Your reaction might be that this is to be expected, so why worry about it? For one thing, it can get worse, especially when the dog requires more difficult procedures. And for another, why leave your dog unhappy about something that will be a regular part of life, when you can turn it into something the dog handles comfortably? At the same time, you may well be lengthening your dog's life.
Talk to the veterinary staff at a time things are not busy at the hospital. You may need to call and leave word for them to call you back when convenient. Ask what days and times tend to be quiet there, suitable for you to call ahead and then bring your dog by for treats and petting. Be considerate of the regular schedule, as well as busy times. After all, you wouldn't want someone else taking up their time with something that could wait, if it would distract them from urgent care your own dog needed.
Bring along tiny, tasty treats so you can give your dog lots of little bits. The dog enjoys the smell and the experience of a treat more than its size. A high number of repetitions will make the experience more rewarding for the dog. Give treats when the dog is behaving calmly. You don't want to reward nervous or unruly behavior, but you don't want to punish the dog for it, either.
Encourage the staff to give your dog treats if they have time, and to pet the dog if your dog enjoys petting. They're usually savvy enough about dogs to sit or squat down and let the dog come to them, rather than advancing on the dog. Don't expect them to let you take the dog into an exam room, because that takes a lot of their time and the room may need to be cleaned before the next client uses it.
If they offer to let you use an exam room, give the dog treats while the dog is on the exam table and practice lifting the dog up and down from the table so the dog can get used to it (provided the dog is not too large). If a staff person is available and willing, they can also give the dog treats on the table and practice lifting the dog up and down from the table.
It's not necessary to use an exam room for the happy-time visits, so don't worry if that's not feasible. Use whatever part of the area you can use without bothering anyone, even if that's the parking lot. In fact, the parking lot may be exactly the place to start if the dog stresses severely or if the only times you can come are when it's too busy inside.
Take your dog for several happy-time visits during the first months you spend together. After that, continue to do it occasionally. When you're going to the clinic for supplies and they're not busy, include the dog. Make these visits short, especially at first. Your goal is a few happy minutes for the dog, and then hit the road. Not only does this help the staff out in terms of not taking up valuable time, but several short sessions accomplish much more in the dog's ability to cope than a few long sessions.
Use every examination or treatment visit to the veterinarian to enhance your dog's enjoyment of going there, too. Always take treats, unless your dog can't have anything to eat that day due to illness or the procedure that's to be done. Encourage your dog to be happy about visiting the clinic, and reward your dog for relaxed behavior. Not only does this help your dog accept medical care now and in the future, but it also puts you in the frame of mind to best help your veterinarian help your dog.
Take a moment to prepare for the visit. Keep a small notebook or bound book for notes about your dog's medical care, and take it along to the veterinarian. Note ahead of time the symptoms you need to call to your veterinarian's attention, questions you need to ask, and any other details. Bring along any medications, in case the veterinarian needs to check your supply to know how many more pills you need. A small bag to carry these items will help best if it leaves your arms free for working with the dog. Handling the leash and giving treats takes at least two hands!
Use the dog's medical notebook to note instructions as the veterinarian gives them to you, the names of medications, the diagnosis and the follow up care. This notebook is a tremendous aid to communication between you and your veterinarian.
Remember, too, if a problem your dog is having doesn't get better, your veterinarian will not know that unless you report back! People often say they took the dog to the veterinarian, received a treatment, the dog is no better, and now they want to know what to do-but they have not told the veterinarian! When one treatment doesn't work, that information can open the way to a diagnosis and effective treatment, but only if you give the veterinarian the opportunity help you help your dog.
Communicate, too, about your dog's home nursing care. If you're not able to administer a particular drug or treatment, let the veterinarian know so something else can be tried instead. If you're unsure about how to give a particular treatment, ask the veterinarian, and take notes. If you don't remember what to do when you get home, call and ask. Realize the veterinarian may be busy and unable to come to the phone when you call, and likely will need to call you back later.
Handling at the Hospital
In some cases you may be holding your dog for procedures, but in many cases you will not be. Sometimes people holding their own dogs for veterinary care get bitten, and it also happens that the dog gets more upset than necessary, or bites someone other than the owner. The veterinarian has to determine the right policies to handle these potential liabilities.
It takes skill to properly restrain a dog, and the staff has also developed teamwork to coordinate their actions when working together to treat a dog. Don't be offended if you're asked to let the technician hold the dog. You may well see that your dog is calmer when someone other than you restrains your dog!
If you are restraining the dog, follow the veterinarian's instructions exactly. Keep a calm voice and steady body movements. Distract your dog from uncomfortable things like a needle stick by scratching behind the dog's ears-if you have a free hand! Your nerves will be transmitted to the dog, so keep yourself steady. If you can't, let the veterinarian know, and someone else can hold the dog for you.
It's wise to get your dog used to wearing a muzzle, just in case one is ever needed. Associate the muzzle with treats and it won't have to be stressful for the dog. Many dogs are calmer wearing muzzles, because they are then free from having to decide whether to bite or not.
Veterinarians are great fans of good training classes, including puppy kindergarten. Some even hold classes at the hospital, because they see so much benefit in the ability to provide top care for the dogs who have the advantage of class experience. Be sure to provide classes for your dog. It will make you a better handler and your dog a more comfortable and cooperative patient. Good training builds communication between dogs and people, and more ability to handle all situations together. Good training is FUN for the dog, so keep those treats handy!
Just as you work with your dog to put behaviors on cue through training classes and practice, you also need to condition your dog to being physically handled. Use the treats, as well as games and toys and voice and petting and all other things your dog enjoys. With regular conditioning to handling, your dog's enjoyment of being touched will increase.
One way to incorporate this into your routine is to groom the dog daily. This is a wonderful investment of your time that will yield benefits you could never imagine until you try it. The dog gets used to being touched and handled all over, you will naturally include cuddling with the grooming, and the dog's bond with you will deepen. The dog will also become more obedient, cleaner and more attractive! Daily grooming really puts the icing on the cake when it comes to training, care, and building a terrific relationship with your dog.
A Circle of Care
When you communicate well with your veterinarian and condition your dog to enjoy clinic visits, the medical care your dog receives can be the very best. Good follow-up care at home, good communication about what is going on with the dog, and a dog who cooperates comfortably for examination all aid the veterinarian in diagnosing and treating your dog with the greatest success.
Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others. Should the training articles available here or elsewhere not be effective, contact your veterinarian. Veterinarians not specializing in behavior can eliminate medical causes of behavior problems. If no medical cause is found, your veterinarian can refer you to a colleague who specializes in behavior or a local behaviorist.
Copyright 2003 - 2009 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.