5 tips for vet visits
It all stems from a bad experience when I was a teenager: 4 “space-creating” extractions on one day, not enough anesthesia, teeth flying across the room… It was horrific. (I try not to talk about it.)
I tend to avoid the dentist at all costs. In fact, between the ages of 16 and 40 I didn’t go AT ALL. And yet, I still have all my teeth (apart from the 4 that were STOLEN from me as mentioned above).
However, the other day a tooth cracked and a chunk fell off. So, surprise surprise, I found myself in the dentist’s chair again this morning having a filling.
Now, I’m not phobic. I walked (reasonably willingly) into the surgery, behaved normally and sat quietly while I was treated. I didn’t even bite anyone.
But the feeling of being surrounded, pinned to the chair by too many hands and scary-sounding implements in my mouth, unable to communicate, meant I did have to focus really hard on distracting myself as the process went on, and on, and on, for what seemed like hours (and was more like 30 minutes in reality!).
The best way I know to distract myself when in situations of high stress is to think about dogs, and I suppose it was inevitable that my thoughts turned to how very scary it must be a dog visiting the vet clinic for any kind of procedure.
You see, I at least knew what was happening to me. I knew why I was there, I knew what the dentist was going to do at each stage, and I knew that, once the injection was done, there would be no pain. I also knew it was for my own good (although this was harder to remember as I staggered up the stairs, procedure finally over, to part with £100 for the privilege. Not very reinforcing…)
Your dog knows none of these things. Your dog is likely to be at least mildly stressed, and at worst completely freaked out. The more anxious your dog is, the more likely it is that pain will be involved on some level as muscles become tense and greater levels of restraint are required.
So what to do? You can’t explain to your dog that it’s all going to be ok. Or can you…?
1. Visit the clinic regularly. Don’t take your dog to the vet only when necessary; pop in to say hello at least once a month and make sure your dog gets plenty of tasty treats during the visit. Puppies learn really fast, so visit often with your little one and make sure the first few visits are fun not scary!
2. Be aware that your dog is likely to be feeling super-sensitive while sick, so ensure you protect his / her space and don’t let other dogs be a pest. You don’t feel sociable when you’re not well and neither will your dog.
3. Stay calm! If you get stressed or frustrated, your dog will certainly pick up on it. So stay relaxed and talk to your dog in normal, happy voice, whatever is happening.
4. Take breaks during treatment. If a procedure is taking a while, a break of just a few seconds allows everyone the chance to relax and take a breath. You know your dog best, so don’t be afraid to say stop!
5. If your dog is already vet-phobic, seek the help of a qualified behaviourist or trainer who uses force-free methods to gradually re-introduce your dog to vet visits. This might include methods such as driving-by the clinic but not stopping, parking up outside, approaching the door without entering etc., but always in tiny increments, reinforcing at every stage and NEVER doing too much so that your dog becomes stressed or just shuts down. In extreme cases you may need to change clinics and start making a positive association from scratch with the new one.
Above all, remember that your dog is ENTIRELY JUSTIFIED in being a bit worried. Your job is to reassure, support and minimize any stress as much as possible.
And feed treats. Treats are a great test of stress levels: if your dog isn’t eating there is a big problem. As long as there’s not a medical reason preventing your dog from being allowed food, take really good human-grade treats with you (chicken / cheese / ham / sausage according to your dog’s health and preferences) and KEEP FEEDING. This is no time to be mean! Every time your dog gets fed you are both ameliorating the stressful event AND creating a good association with the situation. You are improving your dog’s memory of of the visit and increasing your chances of making next time a calmer experience. And the calmer your dog is in the clinic, the better for everyone.
Meantime, I’m back to the dentist next week for another filling. I’ll be taking my own treats this time…