You got the postcard reminding you that Vinnie is due for his annual check-up. Your heart sinks. You hate taking Vinnie to the vet because Vinnie really hates going. He may tell you this by shaking uncontrollably, panting excessively, shedding, drooling, crying, refusing to go into the office, or pacing in the waiting room. My dog was so scared that he barked continuously upon arrival, was hyper-vigilant (looking everywhere for a potential threat) and shaking. Even worse, my normally sweet, friendly terrier bared his teeth and tried to bite two techs and his vet! We had to muzzle him – it broke my heart to see him so upset.
With a bit of patience and practice, we can turn the scary vet’s office into a Disneyland-like outing for Vinnie. And all the vets I’ve discussed this with said they would LOVE to see more of their clients doing this simple exercise.
1. Drive Vinnie to the vet’s office and park, but don’t get out of the car. Sit there for 2-5 minutes while giving Vinnie small bites of his favorite treat every 2-5 seconds. For my terrier, it’s string cheese. After 2-5 minutes, start the car and leave. You can go home or you can take Vinnie for a pleasant outing. Repeat this as many times as necessary until Vinnie is clearly excited to park outside the vet’s office.
2. Now that Vinnie is excited to arrive, you’ll get out of the car. Start as far away from the office as needed to keep Vinnie calm – this may be right outside the door or across the parking lot. Whatever distance Vinnie is comfortable with, start there and work toward the office door while providing small bites of that favorite treat every 2-5 seconds. After 2-5 minutes, get back in the car and leave. Build on this exercise until you can walk past the office door without Vinnie getting upset. Practice stopping right outside the door, give treats and leave – don’t even touch the office door!
3. Once Vinnie is comfortable outside the office, you’ll open the door. But JUST open the door, give him several bites of treat and walk away (not inside). Do this several times until he is comfortable with the door opening. This may take multiple training sessions, or you may be able to move on in the same session.
4. Check in the lobby before you begin this exercise. Know where other animals are relative to the door. Ask people to relocate further from the door if your dog becomes snarky with sudden encounters with other animals. When Vinnie is comfortable in the open door, go in and directly to the scale. Weigh him, praise him and give him treats while he’s on the scale, then leave the office. Walk around for a couple minutes, then repeat the exercise. Three to five repetitions per training session.
5. Enter the lobby, weigh Vinnie (treat and praise) and sit in the lobby, treating and praising for 5-10 minutes and then leave. If the lobby is empty, while keeping Vinnie on his leash you can move with him, allowing Vinnie permission to wander around and investigate the smells in the space. Invite any available staff to greet Vinnie. They can say ‘hi’ without reaching out to pet him, and allow Vinnie to decide if he wishes to approach to sniff in greeting. The staff can offer him a treat or two.
6. If an exam room is available, and the staff agrees, allow Vinnie to go into the exam room and sniff around. Give him some treats in that space. If he’s relaxed, ask him for a couple of simple, known skills such as Sit or Paw. Hang out in the lobby for 5-30 minutes. If he’s relaxed enough, ask for skills in the lobby. Tricks are especially fun, so if he knows tricks, practice those. If he’s able to do them, be sure to give high praise and several treats. At this stage, space out those treats from 2-3 seconds to 30-60 seconds to every few minutes.
Our goal is to make the office a stress-free and fun place where Vinnie consistently gets treats and greetings. This is how we turn the vet’s office from a House of Horrors into Disneyland.
Finally – schedule Vinnie’s appointment at least 7-10 days out. Be sure to have at least 3 practice visits before the appointment and 2 more within a week after the appointment. This way, the actual exam is just a blip in the middle of lots of fun experiences.
At the actual appointment, have plenty of treats. Ask the vet and techs to take time to greet Vinnie before they try to examine him. Have them give him treats and allow him to get comfortable with them. For things that aren’t too scary, give him a treat as soon as that part of the exam is done (e.g. give him a treat after each ear is checked). For the scarier stuff, treat throughout the experience (if Vinnie will eat). For example, while the thermometer is in his rectum, feed the entire time. He’ll tell you which bits he finds scariest. If you’re a nervous pet parent, you may choose to step out of the exam room – or the vet may take Vinnie to another room. This is often the best way to calm Vinnie because he feels your anxiety and it ramps up his anxiety.
These training sessions don’t need to last long. You can do them on your way to or from other activities with your dog. Ideal training times are first thing in the morning, lunch time or the end of the day – when there are the fewest patients. Practicing during quiet times will help Vinnie feel safest. If you can only do one session per month, that’s OK; more frequent sessions will see faster results. Ideally, aim for a minimum of 3 times per week, but daily for a while is even better.
Finally, if Vinnie is still likely to react in fear (snap or bite) during an exam, the best thing to do is acclimate him to a basket muzzle at home and practice with the basket muzzle on during the above exercises. Helping Vinnie feel comfortable with the muzzle on avoids adding extra stress during the exam. And having the muzzle on will relax the staff so they can do their job more easily. A great video demonstration of how to acclimate a dog to a basket muzzle (by Domesticated Manners) can be found on You Tube at: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1FABgZTFvHo