Using Happy visits to make vet visits fun!
Happy visits are recommended for all animals, but especially for those who are puppies, kittens or nervous adults. “Happy vet visits” are a way to work on counterconditioning (changing emotions from scared to happy) and desensitization (slowly getting used to something over time) to all of the scary things a vet visit can present (carriers, car rides, new smells, unfamiliar people, barking dogs, body handling, restraint, and needles). Teaching your pet to be comfortable during a vet exam should be approached slowly and in a step wise fashion, carefully monitoring your pet for signs of fear, anxiety, and stress along the way.
Signs of fear, anxiety and stress in dogs include decreased interest in food, panting, lip licking, head turns and avoiding eye contact, a tucked tail, moving slowly or freezing, trembling, hiding, trying to escape, growling, and trying to bite. Learn more about how dogs communicate here!
Steps to a Happy Vet Visit
1. Start by getting your dog used to short trips in the car. Use small pea sized pieces of a high value treat (such as chicken, cheese) to reward your dog for getting into the car. Once your dog voluntarily enters the car, you can bring a friend along who can practice easy tricks (sit or touch) with your dog while you are driving.
2. Eventually (after several repeated sessions where your dog is completely relaxed during the entire process) you can drive to the vet office and practice tricks in the parking lot, at first without even getting out of the car. Make sure that most of the car trips you take end back at your house, at the pet store, or at the park for a walk. We don’t want your dog to make the association that a car ride always turns into a trip to the vet.
3. With your vet clinic’s permission, you can try bringing your dog into the lobby to receive high value rewards from you. Try practicing simple tricks like sit and touch with your dog. Keep each training session short (around 5 minutes is great!) and try to end on a good note, leaving before your dog becomes nervous. Always remember to go back a step if your dog shows signs of fear, anxiety, and stress. We want your dog to enjoy each step, otherwise he will not be able to learn that visiting the vet is fun.
4. If your vet clinic doesn't mind, you can ask them to practice gentle body handling and restraint with your dog, all while giving high values (really yummy) treats like squeeze cheese or Braunschweiger from a Kong. Some clinics will even offer official “happy visits,” where a technician trained in animal behavior and low stress or fear free handling will practice different parts of a vet exam with your dog to help him learn that body handling, restraint, nail trims, and getting on the scale can be fun!
5. When it is time for your dog’s next vet appointment make sure you are prepared with the following things:
a. Your dog’s favorite treats and a Kong toy, suction cup bone or large wooden spoon to feed Braunschweiger, squeeze cheese, or peanut butter during the exam. Dry biscuits and kibble are usually not yummy enough in a veterinary setting. You can also bring fresh meat or cheese and practice easy tricks while you are waiting for the vet. Feeding a healthy dog a smaller meal before the vet visit can help keep them slightly hungry so they will be more willing to eat during the exam. Ensure that your vet is OK with you feeding your dog, as some tests and procedures require an empty stomach.
b. A non-slip bath mat or rug to place on the floor, scale, or exam table so that your dog feels safe and secure. Shiny, slippery, or loud surfaces can be scary to your dog.
c. Toys can be a fun way to distract your dog while you are waiting for the vet to examine him.
d. You can try playing calming music on your phone or place your dog’s thundershirt on him.
If your dog is too nervous to practice the above steps, I recommend finding a low-stress or fear free certified veterinarian in your area or scheduling an in-home behavior consultation to develop a behavior modification and treatment plan potentially including calming drugs.