I recently had a dental issue crop up on a Friday evening. What’s up with these issues occurring past business hours and on the cusp of a weekend?! I immediately got online to find a dentist with Saturday hours, left an after-hours message, emailed the office for good measure, and then set my alarm early so I could call the instant the office opened. In the meantime, I had an anxiety-laden night, imagining the possibility of an extraction, a crown, a dental implant, a root canal, or death. (Okay, the death part is a slight exaggeration.)
This article is not really about me or my dental woes. But it’s directly related to the topic of cooperative care, an important and very hot topic in the dog-training world. So please bear with me as I walk you through my experience.
I have an out-sized fear of dental procedures, and a low tolerance for pain, though I do my best to be a cooperative, non-hysterical patient. If a caregiver is brusque, dismissive, or insensitive to my anxiety, I get angry. In this recent situation, I didn’t have the luxury of pre-screening for the perfect dentist. I had to take whatever appointment I could get.
So here’s what happened during the visit. I expressed my anxiousness. Both the assistant and the dentist were immediately very compassionate about that. They were warm and understanding and chatty and funny, all of which helped me immensely. For one thing, I was being heard. For another, their communication style helped to distract and relax me. In addition, everything was thoroughly explained in advance. All my questions were answered patiently. I wasn’t rushed.
Imagine if we offered the same courtesy to our dog when they're at the vet's office. Being gentle, showing kindness, and allowing time for the dog to adapt would go a long way to making the visit less stressful.
Next comes the procedure. They deployed a variety of pain-mitigating strategies. During the seemingly endless drilling, I was instructed to raise my hand if I felt uncomfortable or needed a break. I did this three times and it was instantly honored. Throughout it all, the dentist and assistant kept up a relaxed and friendly banter, with plenty of humor woven in. For a dreaded dental experience, this is about as good as it could get, and I was very grateful.
Imagine paying attention to the dog's signals and giving them a break when they need one, and using some positive distraction techniques to help them through the process.
With our dogs, we can’t explain to them in advance why and when they’re going to the vet and what they’ll experience during that visit. They have no say in the matter. Many of our dogs, though frightened, will submit to restrictive handling and uncomfortable procedures without biting anyone’s face off. Truly, that’s amazing. If I was a frightened dog being manhandled and hurt, I might be a biter. (It literally makes me shudder to think of being pinned down forcefully for a dental or medical procedure, made to submit against my will and with no say in the matter. If the thought of this is highly aversive to you and me, why would we allow the same to be done to our dogs?)
So what can we do to help our dogs feel better about vet visits? How can we help them relax enough so they can cooperate more calmly with the vet, and thus allow the vet to administer the important medical care that's needed?
There’s actually A LOT we can do, but it takes time and patience to teach cooperative handling. We can't expect our vets to perform miracles with a combative dog when we've done nothing to help desensitize the dog to necessary handling. It can be challenging to convince pet parents about the extreme importance of this work, especially when the dog may only see the vet once or twice a year (though there's no guarantee about this). Heck, I have a hard time motivating myself to do handling work consistently enough with Bond so that he no longer behaves like a slithery weasel when the vet needs to handle him in somewhat uncomfortable ways. (Bond is my 20th dog, and the first to be a bit challenging at the vet’s office. I’ve been slow to apply myself to the task, but am working on it now.)
Cooperative care is not just about desensitizing dogs to the inevitable handling they'll experience over the course of their lives, though this is indeed very important. It's also about giving dogs a say in the handling, teaching them how they can indicate when they're ready and when they need a break. The ability to CHOOSE to participate in the handling is very empowering. It helps to build trust and confidence, and thus yields a more cooperative dog.
In an upcoming article, I’ll dive a bit deeper into low-stress and cooperative care training, whether it's for grooming tasks or for vet care. But in this first installment, I want to give you some quick tips related to vet visits that don’t require much time and that you can implement right away.
Research to find a compassionate vet who is particularly gentle and patient with dogs, and who is willing to give you extra time during an appointment to help the dog relax. (I've moved a lot in my adult life, so I've met many different veterinarians. While they are all competent vets, a few in particular have stood out as being exceptionally calm, gentle, and effective with frightened dogs. It's a real gift, and one I've valued so much.)
Choose an office that welcomes “happy visits” (at appropriate times), where you just come into the building, give your dog some cookies, have the staff deliver cookies, and then leave.
Look for a fear-free certified veterinary practice.
Do a bit of research, well in advance of a necessary visit, on things that may help calm the dog, like a compression wrap, pheromone spray, or essential oils.
Ask about getting prescription pills in advance to help reduce the dog’s anxiety. (You’ll need to test-run the medication before a real visit to be sure the dog doesn’t have a paradoxical reaction, and to determine if the dosage is right.)
When actually needing an appointment, book the first one of the day in order to avoid delays that inevitably build up over the course of a busy day at the vet’s office.
If your dog is worried about strangers or other dogs, wait in your car until they have an exam room ready, and go directly there. No waiting in the lobby.
Remember to bring the most spectacular treats along (if it’s okay for your dog to eat, and he has an appetite for food). Usually that means bits of fresh proteins like chicken, steak, hotdog, cheddar, etc.
Until the next installment on this topic, here are some additional resources for you overachievers:
If your dog is quite anxious or combative about grooming and/or vet care, and you want to delve deeper right away into the subject, there’s a very good book about cooperative care by Dr. Deb Jones. Here’s a link.
If your dog is inclined to bite when handled in uncomfortable ways, it's never too soon to desensitize him to wearing a basket muzzle. A dog like this will most certainly benefit from a handling desensitization program, but having a positive response to muzzle-wearing will keep everyone safer. An excellent and free online resource is the Muzzle Up Project.
More next week...
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppies.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120