It can be scary for a dog to visit the veterinarian. It’s an unfamiliar place with many different animal smells. Your dog can sense the discomfort of other dogs already there. It can make your buddy tense before you even set foot inside the office. And then there is that wobbly scale, strange people coming up to touch, squeeze, lift and examine—not much fun for a dog.
Spending time on making veterinary trips a calmer experience pays off quickly as your dog will have to see the veterinarian regularly for shots, checkups and possibly treatments.
The described desensitization exercises should be performed with calmness and patience—not force. The point of these exercises is to make your dog comfortable when visiting the veterinarian—forcing your dog would be counterproductive. However, leash corrections for inappropriate behaviors are always okay and can be necessary should your dog become unruly during any of the outlined steps.
Should your dog growl at any point, understand it is a warning and should be taken seriously—it might be followed by a bite. In case any of these exercises seem uncomfortable or you are not making progress, consider hiring a professional dog trainer.
First, relax! If you get tense at the thought of a veterinary visit your dog picks up on that energy and will follow your lead—freaking out with you. By staying calm and confident you help your dog relax as well. With calmness the whole trip goes smoother.
Meet & Greet
Successful veterinary trips are a matter of good planning and preparation—long before a visit becomes necessary. It’s a good idea to load your dog in the car to take a trip to the veterinarian just to stop by and introduce everyone. Avoid combing this initial visit with any exam or treatment. Just have your dog meet the people who will provide care in the future. Sniffing around and getting some treats from the staff is a good way to get comfortable. Most veterinarians are very open to meeting your dog ahead of time and if you want to make sure your regular veterinarian has time, call ahead and schedule an appointment.
Should your dog show anxiety in the car, work on that first—save the actual visit for later. Practice being comfortable getting into and out of the car using treats or a favorite toy. Practice getting comfortable lying down inside the car and starting the engine—without driving off at first. Evaluate every step of a future veterinary visit and observe how your dog handles it. If there is discomfort at any stage, work on resolving it first before moving forward. Hire professional help if necessary. Keeping your dog calm every step of the way is the key to a pleasant veterinary trip.
If your dog is small and you plan on using a crate for transport, place the crate in your home a week ahead of time and leave it open. Place a blanket inside, some treats, toys, and a water bowl. Get your dog comfortable with the crate long before you need it. Practice closing it and leaving your dog locked inside for longer and longer durations before picking it up and carrying it around. While in the crate, move your dog from room to room and keep up the rewards to make the transport crate a place of comfort for your furry family member.
Once you arrive at the vet office, take a walk first. Walk around the building or neighboring streets. Get your dog familiar with the area and its smells before the initial meet and greet. Repeat that walk each time you visit the veterinarian—make it part of your routine. Only skip the walk if absolutely necessary.
Being touched and handled in unfamiliar ways can be scary for dogs. Some dogs have no problem with a stranger coming up and checking their ears, others will bite that person. Getting your dog accustomed to things vets need to do ahead of time, helps keeping your dog more comfortable during exams.
Let’s review how to get your dog comfortable with the most common exam activities. Practice these over time, long before any exams are necessary. Don’t rush. With some dogs it can take a while to achieve the comfort level required for a stress free veterinary exam. Be patient and enjoy getting to know your dog better, gaining more trust and establishing a deeper bond.
Practice relaxing your dog regularly. Being able to calm your dog—no matter how excited, is a skill worth learning. It will serve you well. Hold your dog by the collar or on leash and keep it short. Apply leash pressure if necessary and breathe calmly. Focus on relaxing yourself and your dog will relax with you. Dogs feel and respond to our energy. By being calm you help your dog relax.
Once your dog is calm—either in a calm moment or while you actively practice calmness—gently play with the ears. Start by petting in a way you know your dog enjoys and slowly move your hands closer to the ears. Most dogs feel very comfortable having the neck between the jaw and ears petted. A hand coming from the side can be easier to accept than a hand coming from above. Caress your dog and move your fingers closer and closer to the ears—don’t lift them up yet—just on the outsides. Get your dog comfortable being touched this way. In the beginning it can be easier to only place your hand on your dog without moving/caressing. Find the starting point that works for your dog and build upon it.
Once it becomes easy, try repeating this with the fingers coming from behind, the top and the bottom. This doesn’t have to be in one sitting. You can work on this as you have opportunities to sit with your dog and do as much as is comfortable for your friend. Avoid doing too much too fast. Take your time. All dogs are different. Some will have no problem with any of this while others need more time becoming comfortable. Keep working on it whenever you can.
Once touching the ears from the outside becomes easy, start lifting them up gently. Do it briefly first and then longer. Start massaging the ears all around and while lifting the ear up, touch the inside gently with a finger or two. Avoid sticking your finger inside the ear canal but gently touch the visible parts of the ear canal. This is where your veterinarian will position the exam tools. Only progress as fast as your dog is comfortable.
PUPPY WARNING: Some breeds—for instance German Shepherds—need to grow ear muscles and cartilage to develop the erect ears some breeds are known for. It is unnecessary to tape their ears to achieve this look but avoid playing with the ears of such breeds during the developmental phase—up to eighteen months of age. It could impact the ear cartilage development. For such breeds avoid hand movements and use careful hand placements instead—meaning touching instead of caressing. It is okay to carefully lift the ears up but don’t massage them. Move them as little as possible.
Many dogs don’t like their paws touched, especially between the toes. Desensitize your dog by gently placing your hand over the paws—one paw at the time, starting at the front. Once your dog becomes comfortable with this, try placing the paw into your open palm. Don’t try closing your hand at first, keep the palm open. Only once that is no longer a problem should you move forward by closing your hand around your dog’s paw. Move the paw around a bit and massage it gently—squeeze slightly at times. Continue by gently squeezing each toe and nail (simulate nail clipping). Try holding your dog’s paws with one hand squeeze and examine it with the other. If your dog keeps pulling the paw away, back up and do less. It’s just not comfortable enough yet. Be patient and get your furry friend gradually desensitized to having the paws handled in this way.
Once your dog tolerates the paws being handled, run your fingers in between the toes and the bottom of the paw. Feel for any abnormalities. It should all feel smooth if the paw is healthy. This is good practice after hikes and walks through fields as fox tails can get stuck in these areas, penetrate the skin, and cause wounds and infections—it can even lead to surgery.
This is also how you get your dog comfortable getting a nail trim. Even if you end up having a veterinarian or groomer clip the nails, help your dog be familiar and comfortable with this process. Produce a nail clipper and let your dog sniff it. Use it first to gently pet your dog’s paws. Introduce the feeling of being touched by that tool. Try getting a nail in the clipper and just hold it without actual cutting. Move slowly and only progress as fast as your dog is comfortable.
In case you do perform a nail cut, be careful not to cut off too much. Dogs have veins in their nails and if you cut too deep, you will hurt your dog and the nail can bleed for up to thirty minutes.
Veterinarians have to feel for lumps and growths on your dog’s body. This is usually not a problem if a dog is comfortable with being hugged and cuddled—many dogs are. Showering your furry friend with love is a good first step but do it with calmness rather than excitement. Teach your dog that hugging only happens with relaxation. As many dogs like being hugged, they quickly learn to behave in a way to earn this reward.
It is good practice to run your fingers through your dog’s fur—every part of the body. Regularly check for abnormalities—don’t just wait for the annual checkup. Every dog will have some skin ailments or injuries during his life and finding them early often makes treatment easier.
Basic dental exams check for plaque and tartar buildup and gum and tongue coloration. Your dog should allow you to lift up the skin around the snout to see the teeth and gums. Practice this by first petting your dog’s nose. Stroke it up and down. Once your dog is comfortable with this, place your hand on his nose and hold it there for a few seconds. A little bit longer next time and even longer still. Get your dog comfortable with ten to fifteen seconds. Then place your other hand at the bottom of the mouth and hold it in place also—the goal is being able to hold your dog’s snout from the top and bottom without complains. To get the bottom hand in place, start by caressing the neck and working your way closer and closer to the mouth until you can hold the snout.
Next, use your fingers and thumb of the upper hand to gently massage the skin around the teeth from the outside. Get your dog comfortable with this kind of external gum massage before attempting to lift the skin around the teeth up.
Pulling the skin up and down to see the teeth and look at them all around is the goal of this desensitization exercise. Work only as fast as your dog is comfortable. Take brakes as necessary and practice this for several days until your dog tolerates what needs to be done.
Optional and Advanced Handling: Keep practicing to get your dog comfortable with your fingers and hand inside the mouth. This is easiest when raising a puppy but with patience it can be accomplished with any dog. It can be necessary to remove things from your dog’s mouth and throat. Your veterinarian will usually not need to do this during regular examination.
Checking your dog’s body temperature is common during veterinary visits. You need a rectal thermometer to practice this with your dog. A digital thermometer should be part of your dog’s first aid bag—they provide fast measurements and can be purchased at most drug stores. Practice with two people or by yourself.
Start by stroking the tail and back of your dog. Run your fingers through the fur and gently grab the tale and run it through your hand. Start at the middle of the tail and stroke towards the end. Then start higher up and repeat. Practice until your dog is comfortable with you grabbing the tail at the top and stroking all the way to the end.
Next, grab the tail and start lifting it up. First a little bit, then more. Practice until your dog lets you grab and lift the tail without any problems.
To insert the thermometer you have you look at what you’re doing. If you practice this by yourself, your dog has to be a lot more comfortable than when doing this with two people. If you have a second person helping, you can hug your dog, and keep it face forward while the other person lifts the tail, inserts the thermometer and takes the temperature. Keeping your dog calm and facing forward is how the veterinarian will want you to assist during the examination.
Exam Table and Scale Desensitization
The veterinarian has large walk-on scales and hydraulic exam tables your dog needs to stand on. These are wobbly at times and this is something you should get your dog comfortable with. You can create a surface like this by using a hard wood board and raising one corner to make it a bit unstable. Dog ramps for cars provide a similar feeling, including a change in height. A treadmill is also a good practice surface. Take your dog on a leash and guide it onto the practice surface. If your dog is food motivated, use a treat to encourage participation. Lead your dog onto the surface and stay in place for a moment. Reward with a treat or petting and move off. Go around and repeat. Get your dog comfortable walking and standing on a somewhat unstable surface. Use treats only as long as necessary. The goal is to do this without treats. Carrying treats around to bribe your dog everywhere you go shouldn’t be a goal. Once your dog gets comfortable standing on a wobbly surface, practice the body exams as described above.
At the Vet Office
When you enter a veterinarian’s office you find other pet owners waiting with their pets. Besides other dogs, there are cats, bunnies, guinea pigs, turtles and other pets. In case your dog has problems with other animals, it is best to bring a second person to check in while you and your dog wait outside. Wait for your appointment where it is least stressful for your dog.
Once in the exam room you first meet a veterinary technician—a doggy nurse—who performs a preliminary exam and checks vitals. This can include taking the temperature, checking the heart rate, and taking a look at an ailment you might be there for. The veterinarian will come shortly after to perform the full exam.
Veterinary staff often wants to take your dog to another room for certain exams and administer treatments—it often is easier and faster for them. Many owners affect the exam by their presence in a way that makes it harder on the staff and your dog. However, if you prepared your dog as outlined and know you have a calming effect, let the veterinarian know that you want to be present, are ok with whatever needs to be done, and they will benefit as your dog will be calmer.
But, please be honest with yourself. If you can’t stand the sight of blood being drawn or your dog passing out after receiving a sedative, let the veterinary staff take over. Your dog only benefits from your presence if you remain calm the entire time. If any procedures make you uncomfortable your dog will be better served being taken in the back.
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Ralf Weber is a certified dog trainer (IACP CDT, CDTA) and behaviorist. A professional member of the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) and an AKC evaluator for Canine Good Citizen, Community Canine and Urban Canine certifications.