How many of you have experienced this scenario? It’s the day of your dog’s vet appointment. You haven’t said a word about it, but when it comes time to go, your dog is nowhere to be found — until you look in a closet or under the bed. Or, if your dog doesn’t hide, he won’t go to the car with you even though riding in the car is normally one of his favorite things and you wind up having to drag or carry him out.
Your first question is probably, “How does my dog know?” Your second is most likely, “What can I do about it?”
In answer to the first question: You’ve probably been sending signals to your dog, whether you know it or not, from the moment you first scheduled the appointment. If the trip to the vet is traumatizing enough that your dog becomes extremely fearful of the experience, then you can bet that your dog has been watching for any sign indicating that it’s about to happen.
Dogs are very good at relating cause and effect, figuring out that one event leads to another. Over time, they can build that chain of events back pretty far. It would not be unlikely for a dog to figure out that a particular smell (the reminder postcard from your vet) means that an appointment is coming soon, for example, or that saying your name and hers to someone on the phone is a sign.
And even if you don’t think you are, you’re sending signals right before going to the vet in the things that you do and the way that you do them.
So it’s a lot easier to deal with your dog’s feelings about the vet than it is to analyze everything you do every time and figuring out how to completely change that routine — although that’s certainly also an option. However, since you can’t actually remove the “going to the vet” part of the experience, it’s much better to reduce or eliminate your dog’s fear of the trip.
One thing that you can do well in advance of the trip is desensitize your dog to the experience, which involves a (relatively) strange person feeling their belly, looking in their mouth and ears, and so on. When your dog is calm and submissive, practice some of the vet’s procedures on them. No, you don’t have to take their temperature — but you can feel their chest and belly with both hands, lift their lip to look at their teeth, or hold each of their forelegs for a few seconds.
Some dogs are fearful of getting on the scale at a vet’s office. If you’re wondering why, it’s because the platform wobbles. If your dog is small enough, you can simulate this experience by getting them to stand on a bathroom scale. If your dog is bigger, you can improvise with a low coffee table made wobbly by putting something like a matchbook under a leg. (Of the table, not the dog.)
Using treats or whatever positive reinforcement works with your dog, practice getting them to stand quietly on the scale (or table) for a certain amount of time. Getting them up to fifteen seconds should be more than sufficient time for a vet’s scale to register their weight. (Longer than that, and your dog will probably lose interest after having not been rewarded yet.) You’ll also eventually want to teach your dog to get on the scale or table at your prompt.
Another scary thing at the vet for some dogs is the high exam table. You can also practice this one at home if you have a sufficiently high table, although you probably don’t want to use a kitchen or dining room table, or a kitchen counter.
If you’re unable to get your dog used to the high table, don’t be afraid to train your vet. Ask her if it’s all right if she examines your dog on the floor. Of course, a really good vet will have already figured this out after the first attempt at the table and will do it anyway, but there’s nothing wrong with asking and it will make the experience easier for all of you.
The most important thing to do to keep your dog calm during a vet visit, though, is to remain calm yourself. If you’re not nervous about the experience, you won’t give your dog any additional reason to be, and she’ll know that, while she’s with her calm and confident Pack Leader, she’ll be safe.