Caring for a dog involves routine health care and vet visits. Preparing a dog to cope with visiting the vet clinic and be able to participate calmly with handling procedures is an area of training that often gets overlooked. Yet how beneficial and practical is this training for everyday life?
Chirag Patel, a UK animal behaviour consultant with a special interest in helping animals fit into our world as stress free as possible, defines this husbandry training as:
“Giving animals skills by reinforcing behaviours that will enable the animal to participate in its’ own daily activities and vet care.”
He summarizes many reasons for vets to encourage husbandry training:
* Increases patient compliance
* Better animal care
* Saves time
* Saves money
* Positive association with vets
* Less aggressive behaviour
* Accurate results e.g. blood tests
* Efficacy of medication improved e.g. lover pre-med required with calmer animals
He also highlights reasons we should consider husbandry training:
We have deliberately bred dogs with certain health consequences which require more handling and intervention such as coat types which require grooming and congenital diseases which require handling. It is therefore our responsibility to ensure that we prepare the animals in our care to endure the handling and intervention with minimal stress.
One of my special interests is training dogs to cope with everyday care such as nail trims, ear checks, eye cleans and drops, taking oral medication, accepting topical medication, checking teeth, allowing brushing and grooming, accepting handling and coping with vet visits, waiting rooms and consult rooms in general.
Some dogs begin on the back foot and are already scared of vet visits and handling. Getting these fearful individuals to cope sometimes starts with simply getting them into the room without force, making it a reinforcing place to be and giving them the ability to exit when they need. Once the room has lost its fear, it’s time to work on accepting handling without panicking. This can be done by teaching behaviours that are fun for the dog and reinforced, such as lying down and looking at their owner or an object. Once the dog finds this easy, it’s time to add a second person to start the touching and handling. It’s important to do this in really small steps. It can be tempting to go straight in and touch a dog, but this can be too much for many fearful animals.
Break it down into smaller tasks such as:
1) standing looking away from the dog,
2) standing looking at the dog,
3) taking one step towards the dog,
4) taking two steps towards the dog,
5) crouching down near the dog,
6) moving your hand but not touching,
7) touching an area the dog can handle for a fraction of a second.
In that example there are 6 steps before even touching the dog. This may seem laborious but I want to stress here one of my favourite catch cries: “Going slowly is quicker in the end.” Taking small steps means you take less time on each step and get to the end goal quicker. If you keep touching a fearful dog and getting a fearful response and escape behaviours, you are going to be there for quite a while. If a dog is forced to endure handling whilst terrified, the risk of intensifying the fear is highly likely. This will make subsequent vet visits even more difficult because dogs have strong memories of things they do not enjoy.
Here’s an example of helping Bella cope with vet visits. She was scared of entering the consult room and had to be dragged in. Once inside, she panicked when the doors were closed and was very difficult to assess and handle because of her fear. The first step was to change the consult room from a scary place to an enjoyable, stress free zone. At her second vet visit she ran straight into the consult room! Her caregivers took the time to train her foundation behaviours such as a target behaviour (nose to hand) and to lie down and look at them. These were practised in the waiting room and then used in the consult room while helping her get used to the doors being closed and being handled by a second person. Further vet visits to practice these tasks without the pressure of an actual examination will help her continue to improve and accept handling.
I hope this has stirred some thought into the overlooked worth of vet visit and husbandry training.
A special thank you to Bella’s care-givers for their commitment and video footage and to Rockingham Vet for allowing us access to the clinic rooms for training.