Updated: Apr 6, 2022
When Veterinarians focus on a wellness plan for any species, a substantial emphasis is centralized on preventable illnesses. But when vet visits are stressful, it affects our decision to make an appointment. As a side effect, our pets do not get the annual screening they need to keep them happy and healthy for as long as possible, which impacts their overall health and wellness. Veterinarians want to see their patients regularly, screen for diseases, treat them when they're sick, make sure they're happy and healthy, and watch them go through all the stages of their life from puppyhood to their golden years. Over the years, veterinary medicine has evolved to incorporate a more patient-centric approach. Now, not only the medical needs of patients are evaluated and addressed, but their behavioral health is treated accordingly. Thanks to a program called Fear Free, other Veterinary professionals and practices are learning to follow suit to provide more well-rounded care to the pets that we love so much.
When patients are stressed, they are more challenging to manage, and their treatments are difficult to perform. Zazie Todd, Ph.D., and notable author of the popular blog "Companion Animal Psychology" wrote a blog about an experiment that demonstrated the need for early intervention and client education. In this study, only one-third of participants seemed to tolerate all kinds of clinical handling carried out by the veterinarian (1). In addition, dogs who were stressed at the initial stages of the visit were more likely to be tense at subsequent visits (1). Based on this study, a great emphasis should be placed on training dogs early to accept handling in preparation for veterinary care.
Fear Free also participates in numerous research studies aimed at education. One such article was a data-driven study on The Positive Impact of Fear Free Certification in Veterinary Practices. They pointed out data from the Bayer Veterinary Care usage study (2011), analyzing factors that affected patient care. They found that pet owners felt their pets hated going to the vet (58.2% feline and 37.5% canine pet owners) (2). Coincidentally, they noted that just thinking about going to the vet caused enough stress that it affected their decision to make an appointment (37.6% feline and 26.2 % canine owners) (2).
Owners can think about their pets' relationship with their vet as an emotional bank account. This analogy was first coined by Dr. Susan G. Friedman, Ph. D., a faculty member of the psychology department of Utah State University. I use this phrase often because any negative experience is a withdrawal and positive experiences are deposits. If your dog's emotional bank account is in the negative, then here are some great ways to make deposits:
1. Stop by the Vet Hospital even when your dog isn't sick
Have you ever noticed that your dog knows every time you're going to go to the vet? Dogs are intelligent and have keen eyes. They can recognize patterns of behaviors and learn quickly when that pattern of behavior conveys specific information... like going to the vet. The easiest way to counter condition them is to go to the parking lot on a day that isn't too busy, park, give your dogs some treats and promptly go home. Now instead of anticipating a negative experience upon arrival at the facility, we can start to teach them that going to the vet equals treats. Take your time and try to work your way up to entering the building.
2. Train your dog to love the mat and use it at the Vet.
I can't emphasize this enough. All good things should happen on the mat. If your dog is afraid of getting on the scale, you can place the mat on the scale and provide a comforting place to sit. During appointments, the mat can also signal reinforcement and can help calm your dog during an exam.
3. Bring them hungry, and bring the best treats
Bring only the best and save those treats for vet visits only. Let your dog get excited because "we're going to the place where I get sausage and chopped cheese!"
4. Bring your dog to visit the staff
Some practices offer "happy visits". Happy visits are opportunities for pets to come to the hospital during a specific time of day, get paraded around the hospital, get treats from multiple staff members and doctors, or have toys to play with. This is one of my favorite ways to make a deposit. It also helps your dog to get to know other staff members and get comfortable with them too.
5. Train your dog to love handling
Just because your dog accepts handling doesn't mean they love it. Invest in structuring training sessions to help your dog learn that when they are touched, they earn reinforcement. Practice with other people and vet staff.
Visit the Fear Free Happy Homes website for advice, videos, and more information on how you can help your dog with vet visits https://www.fearfreehappyhomes.com/
1. Todd, Zazie. “Study Shows Just How Stressed Dogs Are at the Vet's .” Companion Animal Psychology, 26 Oct. 2016, www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2016/10/dogs-stressed-at-vets.html.
2. Dunn, Louise “The Positive Impact of Fear Free Certification in Veterinary Practices” FearFreePets.com, 4 Nov. 2019. https://fearfreepets.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The-Positive-Impact-of-Fear-Free-Certification-in-Vet-Practices.pdf