Does your dog have anxiety at your vet’s office?
He growled at the veterinary technician on his first trip to his vet for his wellness exam. He was abruptly whisked off the exam table away from his brand new guardian and brought back into the treatment room to finish his exam. No explanation was given to his new guardian only that they will need to do the exam in the back because he’s a BITER. When Riley was brought back into the room he was shaking, afraid, drooling, tail tucked pulling at the leash to get the hell out of there and his new mama was just as frightened and as confused. Everything about this scene went horribly wrong.
Dog anxiety is far too common and often neglected by veterinarians because of a lack of education and too little time to spend trying to address this issue.
RILEY, a 30 pound, West Highland Terrier mix; very cute yet deemed aggressive by the veterinarian . He was rescued at the age of 2 and 4 years later I get a call from Riley’s guardian pleading for help because Riley has bitten 2 people in the last year. Is he sick I wonder and began my normal inquiry into what, if any, history she has on Riley and what’s happened since she rescued him and what happened in these two instances where he bit a couple of people.
After a 45 minute consultation I agree to work with Riley and his guardian after we get a medical clearance from his veterinarian. As an old vet tech from the late 70’s I knew all too well that this dog had a RED Mark on his medical records, meaning caution/aggressive. When I asked how his vet visits went over the last 4 yrs she replied that he was just there for his yearly vaccines and it went well. Hmm, I wondered to myself, asking the question I already knew the answer to yet, needing to ask so that I could begin educating her. “Did they give the vaccination in the exam with you or did they take him to the back?” “Oh” she says, “They always take him to the back” Ugh. My heart sank.
This poor dog didn’t stand a chance. With an uneducated guardian and an uneducated veterinarian, Riley was doomed to live a life of anxiety at the vet hospital and meeting new people and a third bite was quite probable.
What happened next I’m so sorry to admit is much more common than you know. This RED mark on a dog’s medical record is because no one took the time to make this dog less anxious and fearful. He was doomed in more ways than you can imagine. A dog with anxiety needs time, patience, training and a willing veterinarian.
The reason given for Riley’s exam today was given at the time of setting up the appointment, asked again upon check in and then again by the technician upon the initial exam before taking the vitals; temperature and weight. I explained my reason for coming as the trainer called in for help but wanting a medical clearance before doing any kind of behavioral modification training.
Notes I’m taking in my head as this unfolds:
- The technician was a man and this dog is afraid of men.
- The owner doesn’t know she CAN ask for a woman.
- The tech asked why he was here 3rd time. They are not paying attention.
- The tech didn’t take vitals nor touch the dog.
- I explained my presence, who I am and asked if there was anything on this dogs chart that indicated he was aggressive. He replied immediately, YES, it has caution on it and went on to explain that when a dog growls they put this on his chart for all other staff to be aware and then the dog is taken back for any procedure from that point on.
- I asked if the owner was told that this was your procedure, to which he replied, “I don’t know but this is how we do things here”
- He’s on auto pilot. Get them in and out and onto the next appointment. Vets are busy people. I understand this however, it’s backfiring and we need to do something about this for everyones sake. Read on there’s hope, real hope and I’m so excited about it.
Where the rubber meets the road:
In comes the vet with a bit of an attitude. She’s been preempted by the tech of my presence and my questioning. She asks why he’s here. We explain now for the 4th time.
Vet states that since he’s afraid and she now can’t examine him in the back that she’ll need to muzzle him. My blood begins to boil but remain calm as I realize her resistance in making this dog feel more comfortable so that an examination can be performed without a muzzle is just ignorance.
I ask the vet if she can get on the floor with RILEY without a muzzle and she says “I’m not going to put myself in a position where I can be bitten.” Fair enough I said, “Will you take some of his treats and try to make friends?” She agrees. Riley sniffs but doesn’t take the treat and that’s perfectly normal and fine at this point. I suggest just leaving the treats on the floor.
I keep everyone engaged in conversation re: RILEY’S Red Mark and how this was never discussed nor was it addressed so that his guardian can work towards his recovery. The vet states that they can’t have their staff put in harms way, yet I press on that it would be to everyones benefit if some time were taken to help him feel safer when he comes in, in the future. I asked if they were willing to let our client come in for short periods of time to get a treat and leave adding to the time and challenge over time. She agrees.
While we were in conversation, RILEY is relaxing and I ask the vet if she’s willing to touch him without eye contact or talking to him when he’s looking away just lightly, retrieve then treat. She agrees. Riley accepts the treat. I continue with conversation taking everyones attention and energy off of Riley while asking her again to touch a little longer and a little more pressure than just hair. He allows it without an issue. The vet realizes what’s going on and says that she won’t examine him today but to let this be a positive experience.
At this point I’m watching RILEY’S body language and energy and KNOW without a doubt that he is ready for more and a tiny bit more at this stage would be much more beneficial than calling it a day. I ask our client to lift him onto the table and suggest to the vet that she continue with the stroking and treating and while we’re all engaged the vet moves on to a full palpation exam on Riley’s body because she felt that his abdomen was soft.
A soft abdomen is one of the first signs that a dog is willing to be touched/palpated. She knew this (thank goodness) and why she moved into a full yet gentle physical exam which Riley allowed while taking treats along the way. My hearts a dancin’ now.
The exam was done with interruptions to treat in between each body part touched. This is important because it’s about the comfort of the dog not the end journey of the exam.
The next tell tale sign are the ears being touched. I suggest that we touch and treat but not use an otoscope (the instrument used to look inside the ear). We all agree, this can wait till next time.
Not only did RILEY allow this, he did so like a champ, relaxed body, soft eyes, relaxed tail, no hiding, even appeasing lowered head while taking treats. He was a model patient on the table and we were given the clearance to move forward with the behavior modification training to help with Riley’s aggression and biting.
The vet felt that he was in good health and that this time was necessary, well spent and quite successful. I asked that the Red Mark on his records, be deleted from his chart and if she would agree to be his only vet and that we have a female technician as part of his behavior training, for now. She agreed. We are on the right road. YIPPEE! This vet went from resistant to being open to learn how to help a dog feel less anxious realizing the benefit for the dog, herself and her staff. I couldn’t have asked for more.
The entire exam took place in less than 30 minutes. Most vet appointments are generally 15 minutes. In a perfect world this could be a decent amount of time but when dealing with pets and vets we need to be on dog time. This means that we need to have much more consideration about creating vet visits where dogs feel safe, not anxious, because vets are working on a certain time frame.
I’m excited to say that the AAHA: American Animal Hospital Association has released for the first time ever, guidelines about behavior management. You have no idea how happy this makes me. This is a huge step in the right direction as vets are asked on a daily basis to put dogs down for behavioral issues far more often than you’ll ever want to know. This is the revolution train I’ve been on and one big reason why I created the Dog Decoder App.
Thanks to all of you who were part of the team to help create these guidelines. Our hats are off to you. Now vets and their staff will have the opportunity to learn how to read the body languages of dogs creating less anxiety in our dogs making hospital visits less fearful, much safer and happier for everyone. It’s a WIN WIN WIN.
KUDOS to all of you who made this happen. Dr. Marcy Hammerle, Dr. Christine Horst, Dr. Emily Levine, Dr. Karen Overall, Dr. Lisa Radosta, Dr. Marcia Rafter-Ritchie and lastly and never forgotten Dr. Sophia Yin. Thank you also to Dr. Marty Becker for his continued work for Fear Free Vet Visits. Together we can make a difference.