Keep Your Dog Calm When Visiting the Vet

Learn how to help your puppy or dog feel comfortable at the vet’s office.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #18

Many a dog dislikes going to the vet, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This week I’ll explain how to teach your puppy that vet visits are no big deal, and how to help your grown dog if she begs to differ.

Your Dog’s Point of View

Think about vet visits from a dog’s point of view. You have no idea why you’re there. The place is crowded and smells weird. Someone you haven’t had a chance to get to know is all over you, poking and prodding. If you’re not feeling well to begin with -- say, you’re working on a little ear infection -- then some of those pokes and prods may hurt. The stranger may stick needles in your rump. If you try to escape, another someone you don’t know will hold you still. And what does your best friend do? Stand there sweating bullets and telling you it’s okay. News flash, two-legged friend! It is not okay!

Play Doctor with Your Puppy!

If you have a young puppy, it’s easy to counter many of the factors that make vet visits not-okay. Think about the handling a vet would do, and get your puppy comfortable with it in a relaxed way at home. Open her mouth, inspect her teeth, then pop her a tiny piece of chicken. Look in her ears, then toss a ball for her. To simulate taking her temperature, lift up her tail and touch her anus with a Q-tip. Then give her a treat. Feel your way gently along her abdomen, then pick up her leash and take her outside. Press a pencil point slightly into her thigh, as if giving her a shot. Follow that up with, you guessed it, a treat. In short, teach your puppy that being handled in weird ways is not only safe, but a pretty decent predictor that fun and treats are on the way. Ask your friends to practice handling your puppy, too. That helps her learn that it’s safe to be touched by people she doesn’t know as well as she knows you.

Take Your Puppy to the Vet Just to Visit

Unfamiliarity is often part of what makes vet visits problematic, so include the vet’s office among the varied pleasant experiences you give your puppy while socializing him. No exam, no shots; just go to the office with a pocketful of treats that the vet staff can give him while they cuddle him and coo over him and in general make friends. A couple of fun visits will turn the background sounds and smells of the office into old news for your sophisticated puppy. And a history of pleasant experiences with strangers will help him grow into a friendly adult dog.

After these dress rehearsals, your puppy will probably take his first real vet exam in stride. If you know you’ll be anxious, it might help to ask the vet to narrate each step of the exam to you, so you always know what’s coming next. Distract your puppy with chest scritches and treats during the vaccinations, and keep your own demeanor quietly upbeat.

Helping Adult Dogs Feel Better About the Vet

Say you have a newly adopted dog and you don’t know how he feels about the vet. I suggest holding off on any handling practice till you’ve gotten to know your dog a bit. Ideally, of course, he comfortably accepts handling. Good shelters and rescue groups perform behavior evaluations on the dogs they take in; a dog who responds aggressively to normal human handling shouldn’t be placed in a nonspecialist home, if at all. However, behavior evaluations are imperfect, and not all rescue groups are conscientious about what dogs they’ll place.

Whether your dog is newly adopted or not, if he does growl, snap, or bite during a vet exam, get help from a professional skilled in behavior modification. The same goes for significant skittishness or outright fear. But suppose your adult dog is just a bit timid about the vet -- you don’t have to drag him in the door, but his tail droops and he hasn’t got his happy on. In that case, you can give a more informal approach a try. Just remember that it’s always harder work to undo a problem than to prevent it. Frequently walk or drive your dog on the route to the vet’s office without going in, so that route stops being a good predictor of distress. Then take him to the office to pay lots of treat-heavy social calls. Teach your dog fun tricks that he can do in the waiting room -- can you get a playful mood going? Fun is incompatible with fear.

Pay Attention to Your Vet’s Behavior

In considering your dog’s behavior at the vet’s, also consider your vet’s behavior toward your dog. Vets who rush animals or handle them, let’s say, briskly are acceptable for many confident, relaxed dogs. But if your dog dislikes visiting a vet who comes on strong, ask the vet to be gentle himself. If he can’t or won’t, switch vets! A vet with a light touch may be able to examine a skittish dog more thoroughly, so the change may even have a positive effect on your dog’s health.

Your questions and comments help me choose topics for future shows. Email me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com or call 206-600-5661. Visit me on Facebook – just search on The Dog Trainer. That’s all for this week. Thanks for listening.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).