Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to Help Your Dog Enjoy Veterinarian Visits

By Langley Cornwell

Veterinarian visits used to be difficult for us. Our dog would revert back to her shy and fearful behavior whenever we had an appointment. In fact, she would start trembling and whining when we pulled into the parking lot. While we had mostly conquered her insecure behavior in other areas, vet visits brought it all flooding back. It was an effort just to get her out of the car and through the front door. We knew we had to get serious about helping her. Our goal was to make trips to the animal clinic seem as natural as trips to the dog-friendly pet supply store.

The emotional state of your dog during a vet exam is particularly significant. If your dog remains stressed or fearful during a vet visit, anything that happens to her while she’s there can become something she will want to avoid forever. This unfortunate belief can result in the dog overreacting to even the simplest, most non-confrontational handling by the vet staff. With patience and training, however, veterinary visits can be less stressful. Now our dog actually looks forward to going! Here’s how we did it.

Practice visits coupled with positive reinforcement. The veterinarian we use is sympathetic to our dog’s shy and fearful behavior. He kindly allowed us to bring our dog around for random informal visits, without having an actual appointment. On these unscheduled visits, we always had plenty of her favorite CANIDAE treats on hand. We passed the dog treats out to the receptionists, technicians and other staff members so they could offer them to our dog.

Originally, she was not interested and stood statue-still in a crouching position. On subsequent visits, she finally started tentatively sniffing around. Progress! At least she wasn’t frozen in one spot, trembling and crying. As she gradually became more accustomed to the sights and smells of the clinic, she started to relax. Finally she began accepting dog treats from the staff. This took awhile, but she ultimately became familiar with the facility without the association of shots/handling/scary stuff. 

This technique works best if the only people offering treats to your dog are the veterinarian staff members. Avoid the temptation to give the dog treats yourself. You want the dog to connect going to the vet with getting treats from the staff.

If your dog is extremely fearful of vet visits and doesn’t seem to be making progress with the treat trick, don’t feed her on the day of her appointment. If she’s hungry, she may accept the delicious treats more readily and start connecting the veterinarian’s office with yummyness. Our vet told us about one of his canine patients that was so fearful his owner started feeding the dog his meals right at the clinic a few of times per week.

Practice handling. When we’re at home and our dog is totally relaxed, sometimes we lift her ears and gently touch the soft, pink inside. On other occasions we may hold her face and look at it closely. Sometimes we lift up her paws, one at a time, or lift up her tail. We don’t do all of these desensitizing techniques during one sitting, of course, but every once in a while we do simple things to get her accustomed to basic body handling. This way, she doesn’t freak out when the vet or technician starts poking around during an exam.

Be calm. Once your dog has overcome her basic fears and you’re at the veterinarian’s office for an actual appointment, be mindful of your dog as well as the other dogs (and cats) in the waiting room. If other dogs approach, don’t grip your dog’s leash in a panic, anticipating some sort of disaster. Remain calm and expertly navigate through the situation. Your dog will take her cue from your behavior. 

Leave happy. After the appointment, always leave the veterinarian’s office on a positive note. If your dog shows fear or reacts badly to something, wait until she calms down before leaving. You may need to take her to an area where she will calm down, show some type of relaxing behavior like sitting or shaking hands and then offer her dog treats. Then give her the ultimate reward – leave the animal clinic. 

Photo by Adam Lisagor

Read more articles by Langley Cornwell


  1. Thank you for all these tips! I have one dog who is terrified of visiting the vet so I will definitely be trying these next time we have to go. Very helpful post!

  2. What great advice! We always try and encourage our clients that come to the vet with pets that are nervous and scared to come in for happy visits, lots of pets and treats and that is all. For the ones that really do this it makes a huge difference!

  3. Mika loves vet visit but Eva doesn't. She used to love it but she isn't too fond of it anymore straight after her girlie surgery.

  4. I absolutely adore the kind thoughtfulness here. I intend to use bits of it for my cats. Why not.


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