My youngest dog, Falcon, is 10 months old and has been seen by six veterinarians at five different practices.
He is not a huge fan of going to the veterinarian. There are many reasons he could be so stressed including an emergency vet visit at 13 weeks of age, my allowing him to be scared during a puppy shot visit and his breed. He is a German shepherd and they are by nature not always inclined to make friends instantly with strangers.
This blog post chronicles Falcon’s vet visits so far including what I did right as well as areas where I did not take appropriate action. It is a companion piece to a blog post on Low Stress and Fear Free handling.
The week after I brought Falcon home, I woke up one morning and discovered his jaw was swollen. I rushed him to the emergency vet. The vet tried to examine him, but he was extremely painful and thrashed and screamed when she tried to open his mouth. He was then sedated for x-rays. Luckily, nothing was broken. He had some abrasions on his upper and lower gums. The vet thought he may have chewed through an electrical cord, but once I got home and examined each cord in my home, it turned out that wasn’t it. He was given pain meds and an antibacterial mouth rinse for the gum irritation.
While I don’t know what happened to him, I do know that it happened at 13 weeks, which is in a critical socialization period in which puppies make important life-long connections about what is safe and what is scary.
At 4 months old he was getting one of his puppy shot boosters and the vet who saw him did not want me to use treats. He told me since I had a German shepherd I had to “show him who was boss and not coddle him.” I made a huge mistake by allowing the vet to continue with the shots rather than just walking out the door with Falcon.
I did not see that vet again, but I did go back to that practice for the last set of shots and Falcon struggled and even growled at the vet. The vet tech tried dragging Falcon back toward her with his leash and this time I was prepared and stopped what was going on. However, I realized I had a problem.
At this point I should have been MUCH more proactive about taking him to different vet offices and making sure he had great experiences. I didn’t. I am the first to admit my dogs often suffer from lack of training because I am tired once I get home from training other peoples’ dogs. Luckily, when I took Skywalker in for shots at a different veterinarian, I was able to bring Falcon into the room with me and that vet and the vet tech tossed treats everywhere while Sky got his shots.
Around 7 months of age, I noticed that Falcon had an odd way of drinking water. He would fill his mouth with water and then extend his neck up before swallowing. He did not eat food this way. It was only when he drank water. Nothing seemed wrong with him, but it concerned me enough to take video and send it to some veterinarian friends who all agreed it didn’t look right.
I decided to make a vet appointment.
This time I choose to visit a vet who offered stress free handling. The clinic was 70 minutes from my house, but I knew the better experience would be worth it in the long run.
This practice books appointments so there are not multiple animals in the waiting room. There are separate exam rooms for dogs and cats. The dog room has an ADAPTIL infuser going and the cat room has a Feliway infuser going. Both of these products have been found to have a calming effect on each species.
The dog room has shelves FILLED with everything from dog biscuits to baby food. If a dog might find it appealing, it was stocked on those shelves. There isn’t an exam table in the dog room. Just a bench against the wall for the owner and a rolling chair for the veterinarian.
As I walked in the door, the receptionist immediately noticed how anxious Falcon looked and she handed me a bandana which had already been sprayed with ADAPTIL. In the exam room Falcon stayed plastered to the door with his head facing the corner. If there was an aversion behavior to be offered, he was offering it. His entire body said “Please stay away, you scare me.”
The technician walked in, avoided looking at Falcon, took down all the pertinent information and walked out. We gave Falcon half an hour to see if he would calm down and acclimate more to the room before the veterinarian entered.
I had a treat bag filled with hot dogs, which Falcon was eating if they came near him, but he would not go search for them or come to me for more. When the vet came in, he was still plastered by the door. We tried every treat on the shelf, even disgusting smelling chicken baby food. Falcon was not interested. He just wanted to leave. Luckily during the offerings of food and because he was panting so much, the vet was able to look into his mouth from a few feet away and didn’t see anything that would make him drink in his weird fashion.
However, we needed to do a blood draw just to make sure nothing unusual showed up. We had collected a urine sample before Falcon came into the exam room.
After realizing no amount of avoiding direct confrontation on the vet’s part or tasty food from the treat shelf was going to work; we went for Plan B. The veterinarian had a Calming Cap. It goes over the dogs’ eyes and while he can see light through it, he can’t really see what is happening. We also put him up on an exam table so the blood draw would be faster to get once he was calm. The Calming Cap was amazing. Once it was on Falcon stood still. I don’t think he was less stressed, but the Calming Cap prevented him from struggling and making everything much worse.
Luckily, all of Falcon’s blood work came back normal. Since the strange drinking behavior did not seem to be causing an issue; the veterinarian did not think it was something to immediately worry about. She did recommend I make an appointment with a dental specialist to see what he thought.
A month later, Falcon became ill. I drove back to the vet 70 minutes away.
On the way I stopped and bought some ADAPTIL. I sprayed the bandana I had gotten on my previous visit. Once I arrived at the office, I sprayed myself with ADAPTIL. I had a treat pouch full of cooked chicken. I walked toward the door to the clinic and Falcon stopped walking. If I tried to move forward he started struggling against the leash. I began walking up and down the sidewalk and he got lots of chicken. I would stop at the door and if he struggled, I walked on. If he was calmer chicken rained from the sky. I also switched him to a harness so there wasn’t pressure against his neck. In 10 minutes I was able to get him through the door.
I knew the vet would want a urine sample, so I asked if I could collect it myself rather than have a stranger follow my dog with a bowl.
Once in the waiting room, Falcon didn’t want to move any closer to the exam room doors. I started running up and down the lobby with him (moving parallel to the exam doors, not toward them). I got silly, talked funny, asked him to jump on chairs. Every once in awhile we would walk toward the doors and he got lots of chicken. I began to turn around and run again before he got the chance to stop and be worried. Fifteen minutes later he was able to walk into the restroom (which I was using as my pretend exam room). By the time the exam room opened up, he walked right in.
The vet tech came in and said since he was so worried, she would not exam him herself or try and take his temperature. “Why stress him with two people looking at him?” she asked. While waiting for the vet I threw chicken all over the room and had Falcon hunt for it. He was so much more relaxed this time around and he moved all around the room looking for chicken.
There was a matt in the room and I began to ask Falcon to go to the matt and get rewarded. By the time the vet walked in Falcon was quietly laying on the matt. He remained relaxed as the vet and I talked and I tossed him lots of chicken.
Before the vet examined him, I put the Calming Cap on him. The vet was easily able to do a complete exam. It was determined he had a bad tummy ache. While there we talked again about a visit to the dentist to figure out the drinking issue. The veterinarian said she would let the dentist know how stressed Falcon was so he could take that into account when he met us.
On the day of the dental appointment, I once more sprayed the bandana with ADAPTIL. I had a treat bag full of chicken and my clicker. Falcon had no issues walking into this clinic. I loved the clinic because the waiting room uses dividers between seating areas so dogs and cats can’t see who or what is on the other side. Breaking this line of sight goes a long way toward keeping the waiting patients and their owners less stressed.
While we waited to be called back to an exam room I spent the time training with Falcon. Keeping him occupied would mean he would have less time to worry about what was happening. We didn’t do anything difficult. If he appeared anxious, I just stopped asking for anything and waited for him to look around and then decide if he wanted to come back for more training. Soon the gaps between when he was looking around and when he was working for me were very short.
By the time we were ready for the walk to the exam room, he was relaxed. Once in the room we had more time waiting for the veterinarian. I did more training. I let him hunt for chicken on the floor. We played a game in which he got a click and treat for nose targeting various things in the room. The furniture was set up so he could easily go from a bench to the top of the exam table. I had him get off and on the table a lot as Falcon loves to climb. Then we played a game where he got a click and treat for laying on the table, then laying on his side on the table. I was teaching him to nose target my cheek when the vet walked in.
Falcon remained on the exam table and while he was a bit worried about the vet, he didn’t try to get off the table. The vet stayed across the room as we talked. Falcon got lots of treats for remaining calm. The vet was able to examine him without the calming cap this time. He could not fully examine Falcon’s mouth, but he could see into his mouth and feel around his throat and abdomen without issue.
At the end of the exam the vet said Falcon was one of the nicest German shepherds he had examined.
The vet decided he would need to sedate Falcon and do x-rays and a complete exam of his mouth. Falcon was not able to eat food after 10 p.m. the day before his procedure. This meant chicken could not rain from the sky as we walked into the vet’s office. Instead I took his tug toy and as we waited to be taken to an exam room, I played tug with him and we continued playing tug down the hallway to the exam room. He was once more wearing his ADAPTIL infused bandana and I had his calming cap if the vet techs wanted to use it when they sedated him.
As the vet tech and I talked about the upcoming procedure Falcon explored the room, went up to the tech, sniffed her several times and remained fairly calm. The vet tech said they had decided to put Falcon first on the schedule since he was nervous. That way he wouldn’t have to stay in the hospital kennels any longer than necessary.
Of course, now was the moment I had to leave him. I didn’t want the tech to try and lead him away from me as I knew he would struggle. Instead I asked her to turn Falcon’s leash into a harness so he wouldn’t struggle so much and I left the room first rather than have her try and lead him away from me. As I walked out the door I looked at him and said “I’ll be back,” which is what I say every time I leave the house and the dogs can’t come with me. I then walked out the door and left Falcon in the room with the tech.
Four hours later I got the call he was done and awake. Luckily no issues were discovered. We don’t know why he drinks this way, but there doesn’t seem to be an underlying medical reason. It may be a learned behavior due to the injury at 13 weeks, although the vet thought Falcon would eat differently if that was the case.
I asked how Falcon had done. This was the first time I had left him with someone else. The vet tech said a few minutes after I left Falcon put his paw on her leg and sought attention from her. They used the calming cap and had no issues shaving his leg and inserting the catheter. Once he woke up in the kennel area, she said he just sat calmly at the kennel front and watched people and dogs walk by. He did not react to anything he saw. While she said he was obviously anxious, he never once growled or offered to bite.
Thanks to the work of these two veterinarians who talked to each other and understood how to work with my stressed out dog, Falcon is vastly improved on his going to the vet skills.
If you have tricks or tips for keeping your dog from stressing at the vet, share them here in the comments section.