The whaling coming from somewhere back in the clinic is piercing, so much so that I’m frozen in fear just listening to it and I’m not alone. The sounds are deafening and looking around, I see everyone’s face is sheet white, hopeful that this baby is not hurt as badly as she sounds. Of course, we’re all thinking, hit by car, attacked by a dog or something horrible. Seems like hours go by when finally the door opens with a Labrador puppy pulling and sliding across the slick floor racing to her guardian seated with us in the waiting area. My heart pounded with delight to see a healthy puppy running to her mama, yet my gut told me that something went terribly wrong.
This four month old pup, nothing but a hunk of pure energetic love was in for a routine nail trimming and ended up being unnecessarily traumatized.
This story is unfortunately all too common. What goes on behind closed doors in some veterinary practices is not a pleasant topic to talk about, yet it needs attention. It needs attention because there is a huge gap between what a dog needs, in order to feel safe while at the vet and the lack of education most veterinarians and their staff have in how to read the signs of stress and fear in dogs including and equally as important, how to handle them. The lack of education is at the crux of this dilemma. There are no required courses in veterinary school teaching body language, behavior and safe handling skills with animals, so they are not to blame. With limited time to get the job done, our dogs suffer needlessly. Thankfully, though, as we continue to be a more aware and educated society regarding our pets, veterinarians are being called upon to learn better practices. For the purpose of this article, I’ll extend it to groomers, pet sitters, boarding facilities, day care centers or anyone who cares for your dog.
It’s not a common practice with many vets, to allow you to stay with your dog for routine vaccinations, suture removal, nail trims, or other kinds of treatment. It’s something you as a client can advocate for by asking, explaining that your dog means so much to you and you’ve done a lot of work and preparation for safe handling, stress free visits, that you want all procedures done in the exam room in your presence. This means that for routine visits, your dog stays in the exam room with you, for nail trims, suture removal, blood draws, vaccinations, treatment; basically everything except surgery and x-rays. Vets will accommodate you if you ask. Don’t be afraid to ask. There’s a wonderful national best seller, book called Speaking For Spot about pet advocacy for dog guardians, by Dr. Nancy Kay. It explains in great detail how to be your pets best medical advocate.
So, what is dog husbandry, anyway? It’s the care and management of dogs. It’s also often ignored when it comes to training yet, it is the one critical thing that causes the most stress, fear and anxiety in dogs. Dogs don’t like having their body parts examined, especially by strangers (mostly in a rush) in an environment harboring foreign smells, animals sounding off in distress, guardians anxious because their pets are anxious and yet, we do little to prepare them for this as part of their routine care and maintenance.
Preparing your dog to be comfortable with an exam, not fearful and anxious means that you take the time to get her used to being gently handled and restrained for nail trims, being brushed, ear and eye exams, looking inside her mouth, having her temperature taken and more by teaching them, at home. It’s not rocket science, in fact, it’s more simple than you can imagine and it most often becomes something your dog looks forward to. By making the association with being handled and restrained a positive one through teaching basic husbandry skills, your dog will love going to the vet, the groomer, a boarding facility or pet sitter.
It’s easy to do. Think of this just like you would any kind of training; shake, sit, down, stay, etc. By being proactive with teaching these basic husbandry skills, you will help reduce or alleviate any fear associated with being handled and or restrained for any procedure, including giving medications or treating your dog when she’s ill. You will be the beneficiary of not only a well mannered dog but one who is more trusting, therefore one who is more deeply bonded to humans.
Teaching gentle low stress handling and restraining skills at home, is easier than you think.
Take it slowly. I’ll offer two examples but you can easily use this method for anything you want your dog to be more comfortable with or to desensitize a dog who is already anxious with any procedure.
Example one: Teaching your dog to accept having her ears examined or medically treated is simple. This is an intrusion on their space especially if it’s rushed or done by strangers in a hospital environment. Use high value treats, such as small bits of chicken, hot dogs, or cheese for training. Begin by touching your dogs ear for 1 second, then treat. Do this again a few more times as you prolong the time, second by second, each time rewarding with a treat for allowing you to touch and eventually, look into her ear. When your dog is comfortable with you touching one ear, do the other ear. Each step is rewarded with a treat. When you can lift the ear and peer into it for a few seconds and your dog is good with that, then you can progress to putting your finger closer to the base of the inside of the ear, treating each step of the way. Now, you can take it a step further by bringing out a bottle of ear wash or medicine. You’re not treating, or cleaning at this point; you’re only teaching your dog to feel less anxious about the process of treatment. Show your dog the bottle of medication and then put it down and treat. Present the bottle several times and treat. Then show the bottle and let her smell it. Remove it again and treat. Do this several times. Smell or touch and treat. I would end the session here at this point. This would most likely have taken you only about 10-15 minutes max to get to this point. This is enough mental stimulation and a positive association to an ear examination, for one day. The next session, either later that day or preferably the next day; begin with a few touches and showing of the bottle, treating after each one and this time, you’ll touch the bottle to your dogs ear. Just touch for a second remove and treat. Each time adding seconds to the touching of the ear with the bottle. Next, you can lift the ear and put the nozzle end of the ear at the base of the ear, not inside yet, that’s moving too quickly. Just put the nozzle just inside the base of the ear or the tip of the outside of the ear canal, remove and treat. Do both ears and be done for that session. Any time your dog moves away, means you’re moving too quickly. Take a step back in the process until your dog is comfortable and not moving away and then be done. I will often times let a day or two go between sessions if a dog has a previous anxiety with a procedure. Remember, teaching your dog these simple handling skills is setting her up to win for future vet exams. Do this with nail trims, brushing, holding out a leg for a blood draw or, taking your dogs temperature.
Example two: Practice temperature taking by simply touching the tail and treating, several times. Next lifting the tail half way, then treat. After a couple of times, lift the tail higher, taking baby steps, rewarding with a treat after each lift until you can lift the tail high and hold for several seconds, adding time, while treating. You can even smear something sticky like wet food, sticky soft cheese, or peanut butter (without xylitol) on the floor, while you lift the tail for longer periods of time. As she gets comfortable with this, you can touch the base of the tail near the anus for one second and treat. Doing this several times until you can touch the anus area with your gloved hand for a second, adding time as you go and voila’, she’s not anxious or stressed being examined around rear end. If you are comfortable with inserting a thermometer, do so exactly as described above. Touch the anus with the tip of the thermometer and reward with a treat. Until you can insert it for a true reading. If you’re not comfortable doing this, you can do all the training up to this point and ask a trainer to help you through this last part and you’ll be good to go next time you’re at the vet. And you’ll now be skilled enough to take her temperature at home if you think she’s feeling a bit under the weather. No one will have to hold her down, making her anxious and afraid and she’ll be right there in the exam room, with you watching and caring for her well-being, the entire time. Taking the time to teach basic husbandry low stress handling skills will prepare your dog for being more comfortable being examined and treated by you or anyone in the future.
One very easy, simple and important part of making going to the vet or groomer fun is to bring your pup to the vet once a week to get weighed and get tons of treats from the staff, then leave. Go to the groomer when you’re dog isn’t getting groomed just to get treats and leave. This helps change any negative association with vet clinics or groomers to a more positive association becoming a place of joy not fear. This pre-teaching of acclimating your dog to a stressful environment ought to be part of any teaching program for your puppy or an adult dog to help relieve stress for future visits. You’ll love seeing your dog greet everyone with a wiggly body, smiling face and a happily wagging tail, instead of putting the breaks on unwilling to go through the door. What more could you ask for?
While some veterinarians will take your being proactive to heart, many may not want to accommodate you and your dog. If this is the case, it might be best to find another more progressive veterinarian. I’m thrilled to say that the AAHA, American Animal Hospital Association established the Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines in 2015. It was written by a group of certified veterinary behaviorists and technicians, specializing in low stress handling and learning how to read dog body language to assess the emotional state of your dog. Please, make a copy of these guidelines and bring them to your vet, asking that they please read them. Many veterinarians aren’t even aware that these guidelines exist. There is also a program for veterinarians and their staff to get certified in low stress handling. It’s called Low Stress Handling University, founded by the late Sophia Yin, DVM. Please share this program and the AAHA guidelines with your veterinarian, so that they, too, can learn how to make coming to the clinic less fearful and more enjoyable. Veterinarians and their staff, love to work with dogs who aren’t afraid, so it’s a win win for everyone.
It’s time for you to begin a dialogue with your veterinarian, groomer, pet sitter and anyone else who cares for your dog, about these guidelines, dog body language and low stress handling, so that your pet feels safe, not stressed and afraid . You too, can have the peace of mind that your dog will be with you for all routine visits, without having to go to ‘the back‘ knowing that you, your vet and their staff are there to make your beloved dog more comfortable. Your advocacy for your dog will pay off exponentially by deepening your bond because of the foundation of trust you’ve established by teaching these gentle basic husbandry handling skills.
Together, we can help our dogs feel less fearful while enabling veterinarians, groomers and pet sitters do their job easier and more efficiently.
Jill Breitner, is a professional dog trainer and dog body language expert loving and living her life on the west coast, USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language recommended and used by veterinarians, shelters, trainers, educators and guardians worldwide. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, is a certified Fear Free Professional and loves to help you be your pets advocate for a happier and stress free life. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page