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Helping Your Shy Dog at the Veterinarian

September 10, 2013

Many dogs are perfectly comfortable going to new places and meeting new people, including the veterinarian. However, there are many dogs who are shy or fearful of new things and/or strangers, and for them a vet visit can be very stressful. Here are some tips to help your shy or fearful dog weather a trip to the veterinarian.

To start, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With a new puppy or dog, think of frequent trips to the vet clinic in between your regular appointments as a routine part of training and socialization. Come to the clinic, practice attention and simple commands such as “sit,” or simply sit in the lobby and feed your dog treats. As time allows, ask our staff to offer your puppy or dog treats and attention as well. The more neutral or pleasant experiences your new dog or puppy builds with our clinic, the more easily s/he will weather appointments that may involve less pleasant experiences like vaccinations or drawing blood. However, keep in mind that genetics may trump all the hard work in the world; some dogs, like some people, simply seem to be “programmed” to be shy regardless of what we do. Other dogs remain relaxed and happy-go-lucky no matter what their previous experiences have been. However, it is worth the effort to do what you can to stack the odds in your favor.

For an adult or new dog who is already shy or fearful, there are several techniques you can use to help reduce their stress, including:

1. Let us know if your dog is shy or fearful, and if your dog has particular triggers (being touched on the ears, for example). This lets us know what to expect and how to best adjust our own behavior when handling and examining your dog. If your dog is afraid of other dogs or of commotion, mention this when you call to make your appointment and we can try to schedule your appointment at a quieter time. Some shy dogs try to hide or escape, and others may growl or snap; if your dog is the latter please let us know so we can handle your dog safely.

2. Try to stay relaxed yourself. Dogs can be like living mood rings, picking up on our own stress and anxiety and feeding off of it. We understand that some dogs are shy or fearful and that this does not make them bad dogs or their owners bad owners; no one is judging you or your dog. There is no reason to feel anxious about what might happen; it is our job to accommodate ALL our patients to the best of our ability and your dog is extremely unlikely to do anything we haven’t seen before or are unprepared to handle. Along the same lines, be sure to allow plenty of time to get to your appointment, as your dog may pick up on any time stress you are experiencing.

3. Do not be afraid to comfort your dog. Behavior can be reinforced, but contrary to previously-held beliefs you CANNOT reinforce an emotion (fear). You will NOT reinforce fear or make it worse by comforting a fearful dog, nor will you make it worse by distracting them or reinforcing calm behavior with treats. For liability reasons, we cannot allow you to restrain your dog for procedures, but feel free to speak to your dog and move about the room so your dog can keep you in sight.

4.  In the exam room, do not force your dog to interact with our staff. In general, if we know a dog is fearful or shy, we will try to move slowly, speak softly, use plenty of treats, and allow dogs to approach us as much as possible. We also want to avoid making a dog feel trapped; for example if one chair is in the corner of a room and one chair is more in the middle, choose the chair in the middle with more open space around it. Many shy dogs feel more comfortable on the exam table where they are at eye level with people instead of being towered over, while other dogs do better on the floor. Some dogs may need to be muzzled for part or all of their appointment; this is for safety rather than a reflection of our opinion about how “good” or “bad” your dog is.

5. Consider using a Thundershirt, a snug-fitting shirt available at local pet stores or online. It will have to be removed for the physical examination, but a dog’s anxiety about a vet visit can start as soon as you get in the car or make a certain turn on the route to get here. Like swaddling a baby, the Thundershirt seems to help many dogs relax somewhat in stressful situations.

6. There is a line of calming music CDs called “Through a Dog’s Ear” that, if played in the car on your way to your appointment, may help calm some anxious dogs.

7. Some dogs benefit from medication to help alleviate anxiety. Please call the clinic to speak to one of our veterinarians about specific drugs if you think this would benefit your dog.

8. There is a training technique called “Desensitization and Counterconditioning” (D/CC) that can be used to help dogs overcome many fears and behaviors by replacing their negative associations with more positive associations over time. D/CC requires a substantial commitment of time and effort and a full explanation is beyond the scope of this post. If you are interested, please call the clinic to help develop a plan for your dog.

We may never convince a shy dog that the veterinarian is a fun place to visit, but our goal is to reduce the stress of a visit as much as possible for you and your dog. If you have any additional concerns or questions, please feel free to call the clinic and speak to one of the doctors.

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