When you have a reactive dog, any outing is likely to cause stress, but some planning in advance can really set you and your dog up for success.
Vet visits are a necessary part of our lives and shouldn't be avoided because of our dogs' behaviour. Your Veterinarian should be part of your trusted team and someone you can rely on for medical advice and support.
Keep in mind that most Vets get very little behaviour training in school so your expectations need to be adjusted to accommodate the fact that they are miracle workers in health and wellness but may not be able to support the behavioural side unless they have a speciality in behaviour (Veterinary Behaviourist, or Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist). This is okay! They can't be expected to specialise in everything possible. They're doing their best.
When approaching your Veterinarian about your reactive dog, consider your goal:
- Am I asking my Vet to investigate for pain or illness that could be causing this behaviour change?
- Am I asking my Vet for a referral to a Veterinary Behaviourist, or Certified Applied Animal Behaviourist?
- Am I asking my Vet about nutraceutical or pharmaceutical support for this behaviour challenge?
- Am I notifying my Vet about my dog's behaviour issues to keep them, their team, my dog, and the public safe?
Either way, it's imperative that we notify our Veterinary team in advance of the appointment that our dog has specific triggers and needs to be managed in a certain way.
Reactive dogs may be a bite-risk to the clinic staff so we must notify them in advance and ensure that they are muzzle trained (and basket-muzzled prior to entering the clinic). We can ask them to note the file so that there are as few people handling the dog as possible.
Oftentimes our dogs do better when we are with them (despite popular belief in the veterinary community that the dogs do better without us) as long as we are calm and relaxed, providing support and generous food rewards as distractions. If you're a nervous wreck, you might influence your dog's behaviour and then it's best to find a Fear Free Veterinarian and/or Clinic to handle your dog safely during routine care.
Now for some hacks:
- When booking the appointment, ask for the first or last appointment of the day so that you can reduce the number of people/pets in the waiting room that your dog has to come in contact with.
- Some clinics will even allow you to call first, come in when the "coast is clear" and go directly to an exam room to wait. This depends on their flow and setup; not all clinics have this luxury!
- Other clinics have a back door through which you can enter and this prevents your dog from ever interacting with people/pets in the waiting room.
- You might even consider asking them to put your credit card on file so that you can skip the 60 seconds of distraction during payment and simply process payment automatically during your appointment or once you've left the clinic. Most clinics now have the ability to bring the payment processor into the exam room to limit how much moving around you have to do.
- Ask your clinic if they utilise Fear Free strategies to make these appointments easier on the pets. This might be be simple things like minimal physical restraint, food for distraction, delayed non-emergent procedures when faced with signs of fear, anxiety, and stress, and early sedation for urgent or emergent procedures.
- Consider a mobile Veterinary service that might be able to do a home-visit.
When working with dogs who experience fear, anxiety, and stress during Veterinary appointments, it is MUCH better to "pad their brain" against the trauma of these experiences and also keep the team safe. Speak with your clinic well in advance and arranging to pick up what we call a "pre-visit pharmaceutical" which is a fancy way of saying "anti-anxiety medication" that you can trial prior to the visit.
I like to test these out at home first, on a day where I can monitor my dog and gauge if the medication is making them relaxed or if it's having a paradoxical effect. If it's the latter, we need to trial something else (don't worry - there are almost 70 options out there!) prior to the appointment to make sure we find one or a combination that works.
Note: "Ace" or Acepromazine is a medication that used to be frequently used for this type of thing, but it is no longer recommended for the treatment of fear, anxiety, or stress. Here's why.
If your clinic or Veterinarian provides dangerous or outdated advice, cancel your appointment and find a Fear Free clinic instead. Notify the clinic that your reason for cancellation is the outdated and dangerous behavioural advice and let them know that they can find more current and safe information at the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB). Oftentimes, speaking with the Clinic Owner and Practice Manager is the best route for these conversations as it may fall on unintentionally deaf ears if provided to front-line staff or busy Veterinarians.
Your dog does not need to be the guinea pig for a clinic that is learning.
These same principles can apply to Grooming appointments.
Vet visits can be challenging on a good day, but add in a reactive dog and a worldwide pandemic with curbside service and you've got a faeces-storm! Well, hopefully not literally...
You can only do the best you can with what you have, so prepare well in advance, talk to your team, and know that there just may be some patchwork to do afterwards.