Veterinarians on the Front Lines

Greetings from Oregon. I just finished up with two talks at UC-Davis and a day long seminar in Corvallis, Oregon, sponsored jointly by OSU and Wonder Dogs. The participants and hosts could not have been more delightful, and I thank everyone for making the trip enjoyable and more than worthwhile.

All three events had a large number of veterinary students attending, and it was such a joy to see them there. So many bright, energetic people… truly is inspiring, and especially good to see so many of them interested in behavior.

One of my talks at UC-Davis, specifically for vet students and veterinarians, was on Canine Aggression. I appreciated the opportunity to speak about such an important topic, and thought I’d convey a summary of one of the points I made, which was what can vets do in their clinics if they don’t have the time or interest in becoming a behaviorist or trainer and treating “aggression” problems directly? (I use the term “aggression” broadly, in the sense that the general public does.)

Here’s some thoughts, not just for vets, but also for anyone to ask themselves about the “behavioral wellness” of their dog. (Behavioral wellness is a term coined by CAABs Suzanne Hetts and Daniel Estep) and it is such a good one I’ve incorporated it into my vocabulary.) Here is what I wish vets would do in their clinics, understanding how limited there time is:

1) Ask questions related to behavior, but make them specific! “Any behavioral problems?” is just as likely to get a “no” from someone whose dog has bitten them as from someone whose dog is an angel. Here are some examples of questions I wish vets or vet techs could ask:

~ “How is house training going?” or better yet, “Are you giving your puppy a treat every time he goes potty outside?”

~ “How is your dog doing with normal handling? Any growls or tooth displays when you clean her paws or examine her mouth?”

~ “Is your pup getting out and about without being overwhelmed by places.. (like a crowded farmer’s market) that are too scary?”

~ “Can you leave your dog alone during the day without any problems? Need any help there?”

~ “Is your dog comfortable with strangers coming into the house? Does he get along well with other dogs, either the others at home or dogs he meets on the street?”

Etc… There is an excellent list of questions on Hetts and Esteps’ website, check it out and mention it to your veterinarian if you get a chance. The biggest challenge here is to be specific: one person might say a dog is just “fine” with visitors, even though he’s hiding under the table and growling. The more specific the question, the better, as in “Any growls, for any reason?”

2) Alert owners to problems that you see in the clinic. A vet friend recently told me about a 4 month old pit cross who stood in the corner, stiff and whale-eyed when she entered, and then bark/charged at a vet tech who came into the room during the exam. The owners thought it was normal behavior, and had no clue that it was a sign of potential serious trouble.

3) Have posters and charts up to help people learn to read their dogs. Dream Dog Productions has a great set of posters that should be in vet clinics along with signs of gum disease. Many owners simply don’t know the signs of fear in a dog, unless the dog is cowering like a cartoon character, and the more we can get the word out, the better.

4) Educate owners about treatment when you can. Most behavioral problems are NOT “dominance” problems, and suggesting those methods can cause more harm than good in many cases. (More on that in subsequent posts!)

5) Have resources easily available. Have books, booklets in the clinic to help with behavioral problems (we have a Beh’l Rx form for vets to use to mark the resources they think would help a client); know who to refer to in the area if you see potential behavioral problems and know what training centers and classes use positive methods that are based on solid science rather than opinion; make contact with Veterinary Behaviorists, CAABs and progressive trainers who have a sterling reputation.

I’d love to hear your thoughts: Any vets, vet techs like to chime in and add what trainers and behaviorists could do to help vet clinics prevent behavioral problems?

Meanwhile, not on the farm (but missing it a lot): Even though I’m not there, here is a photo from last week, when friends, Jim and I went in search of apples. It was a great success, and before I left for the west coast I got two huge batches of apple sauce in the freezer. I’ll turn them into apple/wild plum butter when I get back. We also found a wild grape vine (these are truly wild, a native wild plant in Wisconsin) that was groaning with fruit. I couldn’t pass it up, and ended up with about a 1/2 gallon of grape juice in the freezer. Not sure what I’ll do with, might add it to the carrot bread muffins waiting to be made from the mounds of carrots I have in the frig!

Here’s a bushel basket brimming with apples, and a wonderful old tool for harvesting the apples directly off the tree (cider can’t be made from apples that land on the ground, at least not safely).


  1. says

    Having a breed that normally has a bad reputation with the general public, I am particularly interested in #4 on your list. There has been a large shift in mentality toward certain breeds of dogs in State College over the last few years, and I found it incredibly difficult to find an apartment that would allow a German Shepherd Dog. Some rental agencies changed their “allowed” lists so only small dogs were permitted, others out-right said: no “aggressive” breeds.

    This is a bit of a soap-box for me, so you’ll have to forgive the book but I’d like to give an example for discussion. When becoming rather desperate and wanting to prove a point, I called back a rental agency who I talked to earlier in the month about housing for me and my GSD. They replied the initial time he was not welcome because his breed is aggressive. After some argument on the actual temperament of my dog, despite his breed, I decided against the location and moved on. I showed up in person 3 weeks later and asked the same questions (neglecting to mention my call earlier that month). This time I said “Belgian Shepherd” instead of GSD, and when they asked about the breed, I told them the following (hoping to make a point later, not because it was true about the breed): he looks like a German Shepherd but is solid black, he is the same size as a German Shepherd, the breed was intended to do the same job as a German Shepherd and therefore he has a similar temperament. The office worker’s reply was, “well, as long as he doesn’t have the same markings he should be fine.” This seemed to be the common response when I did this to every other [dog “friendly”] rental agency in town. One agency even went as far as to say, “you know the kind of people who have those dogs.” I was and am still furious about the whole matter. The only difference between the theoretical example I gave them and my dog’s breed was the name and the commonly known coat color!!

    *phew.. and take a breath*

    I think the ideas you mentioned are wonderful! Unless the general public has had direct contact with a dog of a particular breed they know very little other than what popular media has decided to tell. Another pet peeve of mine is when people think it’s cute that their 5 pound purse dog bit me or rushed at me growling, or tried to bite my dog. No, I don’t think it’s cute and if my dog had even LOOKED like he was going to act like that he’d be reported and be put down.

    I also loved your example of dominance. I volunteer at a local rescue, and have people tell me frequently when they look at a dog that I shouldn’t worry, they will let the dog know “who is boss.” I never know how to take this statement and it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    Anyway, thank you for the post and I hope your travels go well!

  2. says

    The seminar in Corvallis was absolutely wonderful, and while my family thinks I’m nuts for using my saturday at a learning seminar, I wish I could attend one of your seminars weekly! It was not only informative, but you’re such a charismatic speaker, that the whole event was a blast!

    Thanks so much for visiting the mid-Willamette valley, and I really hope that you got to enjoy some of the scenery before headed down to Cali. Not to be biased, but I think this area is spectacular (I’m great lakes bred, born, and raised 😉

    Hope to see you out this way again!

  3. Hee says

    Dear Ms McConnell,

    I am a HK people, have a dog 1.5 years old.
    She was gave up by 3 people before kept at my home (4 months).
    I walk my dog every day to let her get more chance to understand the world surrounding.
    I’ve spent a lot of time trying to help my dog conquer her fears.
    BUT I am fail.

    I have brought your book to know how can I help my dog.
    But it is hard to know what my dog afraid of.
    In my observation, She is always afraid of any things that she hasn’t seen before, for example strange sound(hand clapping), people with special dressing(Muslim) and even a plastic bag on the floor.

    My question is , Do I miss a main problem?
    I have never hit my dog. But why she has this problem??
    How should I do to enforce her confidence to overcome her fears?

    I am sincerely want to know the answers.
    Please help me, and forgive me for my poor English.


  4. Alessandro Rosa says

    These are all great ideas, but what happens when the answer truly is, “It depends?”

    With Darwin, I know that he doesn’t like walking over subway grates. When he was little we were able to condition him to walk over the grates by laying a trail of American cheese on them, and for a while he was fine, even diving towards the grates for a while, but then he regressed.

    But the triggers aren’t always so obvious and they don’t always fit the models. The same person Darwin let pet him yesterday he tries to escape from today, but maybe tomorrow he will pull to get to. Or that he will remain quiet for long stretches of time when we are not home but on one night starts to howl non-stop for several hours until we arrive home, even though he was fine a few nights before when we were out even longer.

    And what if there is no aggression associated with the fear and anxiety. Yes I want my dog to have the most wonderful existance possible, but if he is not a threat to anyone or anything to what length should I go to try and cure him of his fears.

    I always carry treats; I try to use “Watch” request to draw his attention back to me when he seems scared; I hand treats out to people he seems especially scared of to try to get him to see that only good things are happening; I try to make sure that I am always breathing when he is on lead and not holding my breath, but sometimes he is just afraid. I remember one time Darwin got scared of the fire hydrant that he had walked by and sniffed every day for two months. Then for a few days he wouldn’t go near it, then he was fine again.

    I think that you used the term “Alpha-wannabe” when referring to Willie and some of the fears that he exhibits. Is that trying to say that for the most part this a confident, leading dog, but there is just these times when their flight response gets tweeked big time and they become anxious? Is this possibly what is going on? I have a mostly confident, benevolent dog who just sometimes is irrationally afraid?

  5. JJ says

    Your talk in Corvallis on For Love Of A Dog was simply wonderful. I had already read the book and watched the video and I still learned new things and had a fun time. What a great way to celebrate a 40th birthday.

    I’ve already gone through most of your materials. You go go over some of the concepts time and again. These are concepts that are really pretty simple, but I still struggle with them for some reason. I was thrilled that I finally got the difference between classical and operant conditioning at this last talk. Previously, I kept getting confused. In one method, I give the treat first. The other method, it comes after. One method affects emotions. The other does not–except that it kind of does. … This last Saturday though, it all gelled for me. I was particularly helpful for you to break down the word “operant”. (For those who wonder why I care: It’s not about understanding an academic question. If I don’t understand the concepts fully, then I will be more likely to mess up in training my dog. I’m doing all this because I want the very best for my dog. And I want my training time to be productive. I enjoy working with my dog, but I do want results. I’m not doing it just for kicks.)

    I occasionally have to give long trainings where I work. For me a long training is 4 hours. By the end, I’m totally exhausted and if I had any funny in me to start with, it had long gone out the door. I was in awe through the day as your energy level and kindness stayed high through the entire very long day. That’s a skill to be proud of every much as helping people with their dogs.


  6. Amy says

    My vet clinic goes as far as to put together a Puppy Pack for new owners that includes a list local trainers and classes, tips on potty training, and general wellness information. They even hold a puppy kindergarten at their office.

    Sometimes it is kind of overwhelming to take in all the behavior and training information, in addition to all the medical information, so I think it is a great service they offer to send you home with some papers in hand that you can reference.

    Also, I really like your idea about the posters and charts, I would much rather read something like that, than the heart worm poster I’ve been reading for the past 5 years.

  7. Mary Beth says

    Oh please please please teach our future vets how to read body language and how to speak “dog”. The second vet in a practice that I visit was looking at my dog. I thought he had a shoulder injury because he would yelp when the car would go around a sharp curve, thinking that he was leaning on that shoulder and was sore. The grandmas that I work with all said, “oh no honey” he’s got an ear infection. He’s acting just like a baby”. So we looked in his ears and way down deep it was red and irritated. We treated the ears, then I asked her to flex his shoulders just to make sure they weren’t sore too (or maybe that was me just hoping I wasn’t wrong!). So, she kneels down in front of him, does a few flexion tests, leaves on of his feet up on her shoulder and leans forward and kisses him on the nose!! How rude! I made a fist thinking I could stuff it in his mouth real quick when he went to bite her!! He didn’t. All the socializing and training paid off. He turned his head and looked at me with this “Help!” look on his face. My dog, like many dogs, does not like you getting in his face. He’ll back up, submissive smile, turn away, then slowly escalate into hard eyes and warning snarls and finally a muzzle punch for the totally unaware.
    I was so appalled watching her with my dog, but obviously she had absolutely no idea how to speak “dog”. I watch people try to pet dogs by learning over them and hugging them and all sorts of rude behaviors.
    Once I learned to read dog behavior, as an animal control officer, that’s the single thing I’ve learned that’s had the most tremendous impact on my ability to do my job.

    Listening to your talk about using body language to control two dogs trying to cross a busy highway and adding it to the knowledge I have about dogs flight distance, defense drive, and so on, I’ve been able to catch dogs running in large farm fields that are terrified of me. Had to laugh at the last one. Once I leashed it, it was afraid….so she ran behind me and glued herself to the back of my legs to hide from the leash that I was holding her on. Hmmm, run to the person you’re afraid of?? Ah well.

  8. says

    I am a veterinary technician and a member of the society of behavioral veterinary technicians and what we would really like most is for more veterinarians to become more knowledgeable about behavior. What will that take? Veterinary colleges offering more behavior courses. I think that’s just the simple fact.

    However, I do think veterinarians can stop being so hesitant to prescribe behavioral medications. I do MinPin rescue and have helped so many MinPins to stay in their current homes by suggesting they insist on getting behavioral medical help from their vets. I know that medicine isn’t a fix all, but my experience is it can be a huge help. When I see vets not hesitating to prescribe antibiotics and steroids, but hesitating to prescribe behavioral medicine it makes me a little nuts.

    Good topic!!! I think veterinary technicians could educate themselves better, also, and perhaps be of more help in this field. Hopefully, more and more will learn about the society of behavioral veterinary technicians.

  9. Trisha says

    Lots of great comments. A few of my own:

    To Amy—I agree that it would be great if vet colleges would offer more behavior courses, but do want to emphasize that, in my experience, most behavioral problems are not medical problems. Asking a vet to become an experienced trainer or behaviorist is asking them to learn an entirely new and different field. What I think general practice vets most need to know is an introduction to the depth of the field (ie, how complex behavioral problems can be, and how working with them requires understanding not just behavior but also the sport of being a good trainer) and who and when to refer. Well, actually, I guess I said it all above!

    And yeah for your clinic for sending home puppy packets. Most of the clinics around here use puppy packets, such a great thing to do!

    To JJ–thanks for the reinforcement! The Oregon staff at Wonder Dogs and audience was absolutely the best! Thanks for such great hospitality.

    Alessandro (such a pretty name!) “It depends” is my favorite answer to all behavioral questions! But my point is exactly that: most vet clinics don’t have the time or interest in doing a 45-60 minute evaluation. That’s why they need resources in their clinic and places to refer. And by “alpha wannabee” I mean a dog who wants to be in control, have a lot of social freedom (which is what high status dogs have) but is generally fearful and insecure. Thus, a bully (potentially!) is made!

    To Hee: Oh dear, poor thing. Many dogs come with a fear of unfamiliar sights, sounds and people, either because they were born that way or had little exposure when they were young (or most likely, both). The quick answer is to read a resource about it. Try The Cautious Canine or Help for Your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde. Best of luck.

    And to Sirius Sci–Oh my. I have accepted that the world isn’t fair, but I am still struggling with the fact that many people are not logical. Hang in there, prejudice seems to raise its ugly head everywhere, no matter what the species!

    To Mary Beth and Amy too–oh yes yes. I can’t begin to tell you how many professionals in health care have
    overwhelmed dogs with abrupt, loud and in-your-face approaches. So sorry, but it’s just true. I don’t know how many times I’ve said “Gooooooood boy!!” when my dog was looking panicked when a stranger ran up, gushed loudly and grabbed their head! Once I actually threw myself in between a large dog and a Vet Tech in a clinic lobby when she continued her approach with no awareness that the dog was going to launch.

  10. says

    I’m learning a lot from all of this — wanted to ask what a ‘muzzle punch’ is, exactly? I’m pretty sure I’ve read the term or heard a variation of it before, and maybe I’ve actually seen the movement in action and just don’t know it.

    What does a muzzle punch look like? Is it a sudden, forward thrust of the muzzle without a bite action or …? Guessing here.

  11. Sweet K9 Mom says

    What a pleasure to hear/see you at Davis. Your style is so fun and engaging! I would have really loved to attend your afternoon lecture to the UCD staff and students. I was there for the evening talk (blue scrubs, 3 rows up, I’m sure you remember 😉 ha!)
    I am a RVT working in a private practice and see how important behavior is to the human-animal bond every day. The biggest thing owners need to learn are: understanding body language and that a lot of ‘bad’ behavior is from fear. Ah, but people have a hard time understanding each other don’t they? I think you’ve got to move past just verbal communication and use more empathy and instinct.
    I am also a SVBT member. Would you be interested in speaking for us sometime? I am on the committee for our CE conference. We would LOVE to have you.
    Looking forward to seeing you back to Nor Cal soon!

  12. Jessie says

    Very interesting article!

    I’m not involved in the veterinary profession, but come across many dogs and their owners as a pet sitter and dog walker. You absolutely have to ask very specific questions about behavior in order to get a helpful answer from an owner. If an owner has decided to live with a bad behavior, they won’t mention it-they’ve given up trying to solve it and therefore don’t think of it as a problem. It’s just ‘something their dog does’. I would expect that they don’t mention these behaviors to their vets either.

    When I was working with another sitter, she really didn’t ask any behavioral questions at all. She thought that I was way too ‘talky’. But I didn’t get surprised on walks because I had a very good idea from the owners’ answers to my more numerous and specific questions and observations. And most owners enjoy learning something about their dog!

  13. Mary Beth says

    Susannah, you guessed right on the muzzle punch. Its a sharp quick action, really not any different from the punch from a fist by a human, where the dog hits their target with their nose/mouth. No teeth involved. It can involve a lot of force and really bruise or hurt.
    Fortunately, I’ve never been muzzle punched, but I’ve seen it in action dog to dog and dog to human. Its a HUGE warning from a dog to back off, cease and desist, etc and I think, represents incredible bite inhibition.
    Possibly similiar to a punch from a cat’s paw with claws retracted. I’ve been on the receiving end of those once or twice and ouch! they hurt.

  14. says

    I was actually thinking recently how detrimental the waiting room is at my vet’s office. It’s a small room with chairs that are quite close together, some right next to the door. It seems to make all the dog’s behaviors worse (can’t see the other animals much when they’re in carriers). Pretty much all of the dogs are either trying to play with each other, uncomfortable at the close proximity of another dog, threatening another dog, acting predatory to one of the cats or other animals or doing some other undesirable behavior. The humans get more and more stressed at how badly their pet is behaving in public and what the staff will think. It’s not a good way to prepare for a possibly stressful situation where the animals will likely be handled in ways they’re not used to or have painful/uncomfortable procedures done.

    I know there are much worse faux-pas that vets and vet techs make, but this is one I recently noticed.

  15. says

    Ah ha! I have seen a muzzle punch! My Golden doesn’t do this, but I have a Pom who tries it on now and again, usually when he’s being territorial about me. So it’s a back-off move. In the case of my Pom, telling the other dogs to back off. He never punches a human.

    I saw a young dog air snap at the vet’s a few weeks back. Can someone explain the different messages expressed, then, between a muzzle punch and an air snap? The latter seems closer to a bite, of course (the dog’s teeth actually clicked). But is the air snap a next-level back off signal, or is it primarily a different message altogether?

  16. Kristy says

    Sirius- I heavily symapthize with your situation in finding housing with a GSD. I must inform you that my Belgian Sheepdog has been turned away from housing, doggie daycares, and our insurance company has added Belgian Sheepdog to their list of uninsurables, as all variations of the BSD has been placed on the very same list that you find your dog on. My insurance agent went as far to say that she would only write a policy for Labs, poodle crosses, Little dogs “that cannot do damage”, and beagles. She told me to “go out and get a nice lab or a beagle and we’ll get you all written up”.

  17. Trisha says

    Ah, interesting question about muzzle punches and air snaps (and I want to add “tooth clacking” in here too).
    I’m not sure anyone knows the answers about comparative levels of intensity and whether they are universal or not (some dogs seem to only muzzle punch, some only tooth clack or air snap.) I do know that “muzzle punching” can be done at varying levels of intensity. Will does it on occasion on the back of my leg when I have run into another area and (I suspect) am not doing what he wants me to do. I take it as a slightly rude, but not aggressive “Yo! You!” It most often happens when I’ve been moving fast, and I suspect in his case it also relates to his strong-eyed herding tendencies. I don’t say that as an excuse, when Will does it I’ll turn and say his name in a quiet but shocked voice and go back to working on teaching what I do want (Will go slow when Trisha goes fast). His “punches” are more like a tap. In 20 + years have seen one or two dogs do them to owners so hard that they caused discomfort or pain, but that seems very rare to me as I look back on it. Usually they are much more benign. I would love to know what others think of them, how they are interpreted. (I’m going to write a post on them very soon, but am in the middle of a huge work week.)

    I’ve always taken air snaps and tooth clacking (mouth opened and shut rapidly, very clear noise of teeth snapping) as more of a threat than a muzzle punch. But I’ll have to think long and hard about why I say that. I”m going to write some of my friends who work with wolves and ask what they observe. Tooth clacks usually seem to be given as a dog is directly facing a person, often looking right into their eyes, and they have always felt to me like “Hear that? Those are teeth! Big, white, sharp, bit-ey teeth! And I know how to use ’em!” This is not the same as a dog who is doing “tooth chattering,” which is a much faster action, sounds more like the dog is shivering, and usually seen in dogs who are highly aroused and barely able to contain themselves (could be aroused in any way). I don’t see “tooth chattering” as a social signal, while “tooth clacking” is. Air snaps also occur more as threats to me than muzzle punches. There’s just something about a dog purposefully (I would argue) keeping his or her mouth shut that I find meaningful.

    I have a video I”ll post Sat or Monday (sorry, work week is just huge this week) of an adolescent collie muzzle punching my huge Great Pyr in a way that looks like nothing but a young adolescent human male making a light fist and lightly punching another guy in the shoulder. “Yo! What’cha doing? And what’ca gonna do about me?” After that action by the way, Tulip raises up and “answers” the collie with a milli-second lunge forward, and then they dash off to play. Stay tuned, I’ll post it when I can get a breath….

  18. Alexandra says

    I sympathize with the folks who have had problems finding housing or insurance with their GSDs and BSDs. My neighbor recently got a GSD puppy who is extremely friendly and well-socialized. However, despite him being only 4 months old, people will take one look at him and cross the street. That amazes me, because in our neighborhood, they are far more likely to be bitten by my adorable floppy-eared lab mix who is terrified of strangers. I wish public schools would include some basic education about dog behavior in health classes or something; it might help.

  19. Cassie says

    I am a veterinarian, so I know a little about how little we are taught. I learned quite a bit about behavior in vet school, but I was actively seeking it out. I do think that what we did learn about behavior and body language was not emphasized strongly enough by professors and staff other than the ones teaching about behavior. The feline department was very strict and outspoken about handling during exam, and you couldn’t get through your rotation without learning a LOT about how to restrain cats (or not restrain them, as is more often the case).
    The community rotation, which dealt with “regular” cases, day to day stuff like puppy visits and vaccines was run by the professors that also ran the behavior dept. They were wonderful, and did their best to teach the students about handling during exams. But it was only two weeks.

    I work hard at applying what I know to the clinic setting. I honestly don’t think I know how to function any other way. And I work hard to teach my staff about handling and (minimal) restraint. Puppy owners are asked at length about behavior and given training tips as well as a list of trainers in the area. I remind them that behavior problems kill more dogs than physical ones and that if they have ANY concerns, no matter how small to call and talk to me. I have a great behaviorist in the area to refer to (not a dvm, by the way) when they need more time than I can offer.
    I help owners understand how their behavior affects their pet. I teach the owners with the big baby of a Rottie to PLEASE not scold their dog when it mouths me for doing something scary- that may be the only warning he ever gives me- I’d hate to punish him for telling me to stop before he feels he has to bite. I spend a lot of time with owners teaching them what stress signals are in their nervous dogs- They often think the dog is “doing just fine”, while it is giving me the crazy cow eye and has its head pulled down and away.
    I think I’d personally be happy if vets at least knew:
    -Restraint with minimal force leads to minimal stress, minimal aggression, easier exams.
    -At least some basic body language that means STOP, back up, change technique or maybe just wait a minute.
    -Trainers/behaviorists in the area to refer to for basic training and more serious behavior issues- even if they don’t know anything themselves.
    -Not to label dogs as “bad” or “aggressive” if they growl during exam. It may be the vet’s technique, and at a minimum, they should thank the dog for the warning that they are possibly going to feel the need to bite.

  20. Kris says

    I want to second/third/fifteenth the encouragement for vets to learn more about dog behavior and body language.

    When I adopted my rescue, he had a badly broken canine and a badly infected tooth further back. Between the cost of the surgery and finding a vet to do it (our routine vet is semi-retired and doesn’t do surgical procedures) it took a YEAR. Why? Because even the vets who came highly recommended seemed to be completely oblivious to the ‘I am not happy with this situation’ signs that Pirate was giving off.

    (Pirate isn’t aggressive, but he does have anxiety issues. He’s gotten a lot better since we adopted him, but I very much did not want to put him into a situation where his anxiety problems and communication problems would be reinforced.) (By communication problems I mean that when we got him he didn’t seem to understand that communication went both ways. He made no vocalizations at all, would not indicate when he needed something, etc. After a year and a half of patience and our other dog being a good example, he now ‘talks’ when he’s happy or excited in a positive way, barks appropriately when he should be playing ‘guard’ dog (i.e. ‘that is an unusual sound outside, hello, people, check it out, woof!’), and will give meaningful Looks and gentle nudges/pokes when he needs to go out/food/water/etc. It took time to teach him he was allowed to do these things, though.)

    One of the vets responded in what I thought was one of the worst possible ways – when he tried to back away from her peeling up his lip right away to look at his teeth (how rude!) she called for vet techs to restrain him, which of course made him MORE anxious about everything, because then he was uncertain and restrained. It seemed to be a great way of going about TRYING to get bitten.

    By contrast, the vet we went with seemed very tuned in and when Pirate would put up ‘I’m not certain about this’ signs, he’d back off or change approach or skip to another part of the exam that was more in Pirate’s ‘comfort zone’ and come back to the problem issue. (A specific example is the tooth examination. I’d already shown him I could do it because I lifted up Pirate’s lip initially to show which tooth we were talking about. The vet needed to get a better look, but fairly early into the exam Pirate was not sure about the vet poking at his mouth. So the vet asked me to lift his lip so he could get a better look, and then just gently moved it a little as he needed to see what was up. So Pirate was eased into it through something he was already okay with, and it became more or less a non-event. (It was still quite sore and tender, so he wasn’t exactly happy about having his mouth investigated, but he put up with it.)

    I think it’s interesting also that someone mentioned in comments being ‘happy’ (for some values of the word) with a growl. The first time Pirate growled (when I was cleaning a very raw and tender scrape he gave himself on a stone wall) I was VERY happy, due to the aforementioned communication issues. I was doing something that most certainly hurt, and he was saying ‘hey, that hurts!’ and expecting that I would pay attention. (I did- I didn’t stop cleaning, but I stopped with that particular area and moved to a less tender patch, and worked back to it.) I’d FAR rather he communicate with his voice than feel like he has no options until he gets to the point of air snapping/muzzle punching/biting because things are just intolerable. It’s just not realistic to expect a dog (or heck, most people) to bottle themselves up to the point where they NEVER need to communicate ‘ouch’ or ‘quit it’ or ‘I don’t like that’ – we just need to set the boundaries for what acceptable methods are for that communication.

  21. says

    Pat – I’m not sure where to ask this question, but this post seems most appropriate: how do you manage scary vet visits for your animals so that stress is minimized? My dog had to go to the cardiologist today. After a really bad vet experience last year, we’ve worked really hard on trust and not pushing him into scary situations until he’s had time to acclimate, but this morning I had to let him go with the tech to have some tests run, and I’m haunted by the nervousness in his eyes — especially after I asked him to follow me into the exam room and he did… reluctantly.

    Going to a specialty vet and having a battery of tests run isn’t optional, but I’d love to hear how you manage the situation for your animals. Please? Thanks!

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