Creating a Fear-Free Vet Experience for Your Dog


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If you have a dog, there’s no way around it – vet visits are going to be a way of life, from those first shots through to neutering and spaying, then boosters and checkups every year. Some dogs just take naturally to all the folks at the veterinary clinic. Others, not so much. So, if your dog is terrified of the vet, what are you going to do?

In the material that follows, we’ll give you the information you need to create a fear-free vet experience for your dog.

Make Sure You Choose the Right Clinic

If you’re a first-time dog owner, you should do a bit of research. Check out online reviews of the clinics you are considering, and ask other dog people about their experiences. Most people have great relationships with veterinarians they’ve used for years. But if someone tells you “I would take my dog to anyone else before I would go to Dr. X,” there may be a good reason.

The following Q&A will help you learn how to find the right vet for your dog:

1. Is there anything unusual about your dog?

If your dog has underlying medical conditions, has had surgeries, or sustained injuries, you may wish to consider a vet who has specialized training. Some clinics “fill the gap” with regularly scheduled visits from specialists.

Another thing to consider is your dog’s size. Giant breeds can be prone to a variety of health issues. They are also very sensitive to certain types of anesthesia – acepromazine, for example, is not generally a good choice for giants. Not all vets know this, and more than a few giant breed dogs have died as a result. Boxers also share the sensitivity to acepromazine.

Make sure that your vet is familiar with your breed of dog. It’s always the best course of action, and sometimes it can be a “life or death” decision.

2. Should you visit the clinic?

Most definitely! Go without your dog the first time. You’re on a “fact-finding” mission. You want to meet the staff and get a look at the surroundings. Is the clinic well-organized and clean? Does the staff seem enthusiastic about their work? Ask about the average wait time for routine appointments. Find out how emergencies are handled – can you call a vet directly for an after-hours emergency, or will you have to go through an answering service? Can you request a specific veterinarian, or is it “luck of the draw”?

3. Are you on the same page?

By this, I mean that you need to determine whether the clinic’s approach to veterinary care matches your vision. For instance, if you’ve been reading up on holistic veterinary care, and you’ve decided that it’s the way to go, there’s little point in choosing a vet who thinks holistic care is just a big load of hooey.

4. Where is the clinic located?

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just snap on a leash and walk your best buddy to the animal hospital? Unfortunately, this is not often possible. You’ll probably have to choose the closest, most convenient location that meets your needs. Proximity is important – if your dog needs emergency care, you don’t want to be traveling all over hell and creation.

5. What will it cost?

The cost of veterinary treatments can be all over the map. Ask about fees, and don’t necessarily assume that the cheapest deal is the best deal. You’ve heard the expression “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Ridiculously low costs can mean that the clinic is cutting corners, to the detriment of your dog’s health.

Keeping these questions and answers in mind can go a long way to helping you choose the right vet. Now, let’s talk about that first visit!

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Make the First Experience a Good One

Your dog’s first visit to the vet should be exactly that – a visit, and nothing more. Assuming that you’ve done your research and found the right clinic, you can expect that clinic staff will be more than happy to meet your dog in a purely social context.

This is an opportunity for your dog to meet clinic staff, be petted and given treats, and just generally made a fuss over. The handling, shots, and thermometer up the butt can happen on the next visit!

Here are some tips to make that next time easier:

1. Practice at home.

Pretend you’re a veterinarian! Touch your dog’s body all over, handle his ears and paws, and open his mouth to examine his teeth. If your dog is accustomed to having his trusted human do these things, he’ll be less anxious when the vet does the same actions.

It’s all about habituation, which is the key. So, what is habituation? It’s the way that your dog gets used to being handled in different ways. Once your dog is accustomed to having you handle him the way the vet will, bring others in on the act – let family and friends do the same thing. Eventually, your dog will become habituated, and the vet visit will just be another routine thing – your dog will think “Oh, here we go, someone else who wants to play with my ears!”

2. Expand your dog’s horizons.

If all your dog sees is his home and his immediate neighborhood, it’s natural that he’ll be afraid of anything unfamiliar. Expose him to as many places, people, and sensations as you can. Go to the dog park, hang out at the shopping center parking lot and wait for people to come over and ask if they can pet your dog, take him into dog-friendly stores – you get the idea. The more you do this, the less likely your dog will be anxious at the veterinary clinic.

3. Don’t ignore fear.

If the first visit to the vet terrifies your puppy, don’t make the mistake of thinking that everything will somehow magically be better the next time. And if your vet seems insensitive to your puppy’s fear, find another vet. A good vet will try to find ways to comfort your puppy and should be a valuable source of tips for doing so.

4. Consider using pheromones.

Pheromones are chemicals that occur naturally in the body. They can work to calm your dog. You can buy pheromone diffusers at your local pet store, and they are also available online. For optimum effect, use the diffuser a couple of hours before you’re due to head off to the vet.

Pheromones won’t necessarily work on every dog. However, if you’re at the end of your rope and your dog is still panicking over veterinary visits, it’s worth a shot.

5. Don’t make the first car ride the one that ends at the clinic.

You know I always have stories for you – that’s because I know a lot of dog people! So, let me tell you about Al, a guy I know from the dog park. He has a Saint Bernard named Hannah. Other than the trip home from the breeder, the only time Al ever has her in the car is for the trip to the vet. So, naturally, she knows the minute he picks her up and puts her in the back seat, it’s vet time.

Now, I don’t pretend to know everything, but I’m thinking that most dogs love rides in the car. The first ride, though, is usually a bit stressful. And then, when you add the unfamiliar surroundings and procedures at the clinic, the whole trip is just one huge stress-fest. But if Hannah had gotten used to enjoying rides in the car, the vet experience might not have been overwhelming. If the only time your dog ever gets to go in the car is for a vet visit, the stress starts the minute the car door opens, and it doesn’t ease.

6. Deal with your anxiety.

Al finds the vet trips stressful, too. He knows he’s going to have a battle getting Hannah into the car, and I’m betting he transmits his stress to her, both in his body language, and his tone of voice. In other words, he’s making a huge event out of the trip to the vet, talking to Hannah in a tone of voice that she’s not accustomed to (baby-talking, probably, in a higher voice than usual), and letting her know in that way that something is about to happen that neither of them is going to enjoy.

If you treat a visit to the vet the way you do other routine matters, like feeding or going for a walk, your dog will be much less anxious.

7. Feel free to forego the waiting room.

For many dogs, entering the waiting room sets the stress stage. You don’t know, and neither does your dog, what you’re going to encounter once you walk through the door. There will certainly be other pets in the waiting area. Some may be injured or very ill, and your dog will pick up on this.

So, if the waiting room is a problem area, stay out of it. You can just as easily walk around outside the clinic, let your dog check pee-mail, and walk off a bit of tension. Someone can come and get you when it is your turn.

Now, if you’ve done all the prep work suggested above, it’s showtime! Your dog is ready to meet the vet.

Meeting the Vet

When it’s time for the appointment, a good vet will take time to introduce himself or herself to your dog, offering a good sniff, and then some gentle handling before beginning the actual examination. When your dog is properly introduced to the vet, a routine examination of the mouth, ears, tail, toes, and even the private parts should not be a problem. If your vet doesn’t take time to do a proper introduction, you should probably find another vet.

Sometimes, even with all the preparation in the world, your dog and your vet might not hit it off. I’d suggest not forcing the issue. If you’ve done everything you can to ensure a fear-free vet experience for your dog, and things aren’t working out, maybe it’s just a personality conflict. There are plenty of vets out there, so find another one that your dog likes.

The Final Word

Trips to the vet don’t have to be stressful. Make it fun early on so you don’t have problems as your dog ages. Do your homework and find the vet that’s right for you and your dog. If you get it right, you’ll have the best vet, not just for this dog, but for any other dogs you welcome into your life.

People Also Ask

  • How often do I need to take my dog to the vet?

Ideally, you should take your dog for a checkup every six months.

  • When should I take my dog to the vet for the first time?

You should schedule a visit to the vet as soon as you bring your puppy home. Your vet will check him over, and either give him a clean bill of health or let you know if he/she has identified any problems.

  • What happens if your dog is not vaccinated?

The worst-case scenario if you don’t get your dog his shots is he could get sick and die. Some shots (rabies, for example) are required if you’re going to travel with your dog – without proper immunization, you could be refused entry into another state or country. Most dog parks and doggie daycares require proof of immunization.

  • How much is a PetSmart vet visit?

It’s $45-$65 for a basic examination.

  • Should I get pet insurance?

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether to buy pet insurance. The most important is the breed of dog. Some breeds are far more prone to health issues than others. If you have a breed that’s prone to hip or elbow dysplasia, for instance, treatments could run into the thousands of dollars.

  • Can you blindfold a dog?

You can. You can buy a special blindfold, called a “comfort cap” for your dog. I would suggest, though, that unless you’ve trained your dog to accept the comfort cap, it would not be a good idea to use it on a first visit to the vet. Your dog is going to be experiencing new smells and sounds, and it would not be kind to deprive him of the ability to see.

Related Content:

7 Tips for Choosing a Great Vet
7 Rules for Good Behavior at the Vet’s Office (Video)
13 Ways to Kill Time When Your Dog Is at the Vet