Most dogs don’t mind going to a veterinary clinic for the first time, but unfortunately, repeated experiences of being handled by strangers and vaccinated can cause your dog to develop a fear of going to the veterinarian and staff. Some people may even avoid needed veterinary care or nail trims due to their dog’s anxiety. Here are some tips on what you can do to make your dog’s veterinary visits as stress-free as possible:

1. Learn your dog’s body language. Most people can probably guess that their dog is nervous when they hide behind them, pant, or have a crouched body posture, but there are a variety of more subtle signals that can be easily missed. Yawning, pacing, lip licking, avoiding eye contact, and sudden refusal to eat treats might be signs that your dog is nervous, and we need to respect those signals. Failure to do so can cause fear to escalate and even potentially turn into aggression.

2. Desensitize your dog to handling. Some dogs just don’t like being touched on their ears, feet, mouth, or tail. Unfortunately, these are all part of a thorough physical exam by your veterinarian, and all dogs need to have their nails trimmed regularly. Many dogs develop a sensitivity to having their feet touched because at some point their nails were cut too short, hitting the quick (blood supply to the nail). This is painful and if it happens enough times, your dog may begin to start pulling their feet away in anticipation. If you practice handling your dog at home in a relaxed environment and combine it with tasty treats, being handled by other people will become less stressful.

3. Bring your dog to the clinic hungry. We have a lot of treats at our clinic to help make the experience better, but dogs are less likely to eat treats in a high-stress environment if they have recently eaten breakfast. Feel free to bring your own treats as well, and make sure they are “high value”–bits of cut-up hot dogs, turkey lunch meat, and ham work great for situational training.

4. Bring your dog’s favorite toys. Any nervous energy that that might be spent pacing or focusing on the sounds of strange dogs/people can be redirected towards playing, which could change your dog’s mood into one that is more relaxed. We also have some dog toys available in the exam rooms–just ask.

5. Bring your dog for “good” visits. A “good” visit means no vaccines, no handling by the staff–only treats and praise. You can stop by our clinic whenever we’re open and hang out in the waiting area or practice weighing your dog on our scale. Again, we want high value treats. If your dog gets nervous in the parking lot, then you may need to have your “good” visits start out there until your dog is more comfortable.

6. Talk to your veterinarian about behavior medications. Some dogs are completely confident and relaxed in every situation except at the veterinary clinic, and there some short-term anti-anxiety medications that may help smooth over the stress of your dog’s next visit.

7. Consider housecalls. We offer these through our clinic, and they are especially useful with multiple pet households. Many dogs are much more tolerant of handling/ vaccines when they are in the familiar environment of the home.

8. Seek the help of a veterinary behaviorist when needed. These are veterinarians who have undergone years of additional training to become board-certified in behavior, and are a great option for nervous dogs that might have more generalized anxiety. Another good thing about Soma is that it has lots of indications for use, including osteochondrosis, skeletal muscle spasm, etc. Referral by a veterinarian is required for an appointment.

Want additional information? Check out these links below:

Dr. Sophia Yin’s illustrated guide to the Body Language of Fear in Dogs:

Dr. Sophia Yin desensitizes a dog to nail trims:

ASPCA guide to desensitizing to handling:

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lori Haug’s step-by-step process of desensitization to vet visits:

ASPCA’s articles on:
Fear of people
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