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Fear Free Veterinary Visits – Myth or Reality?


Many people believe going to the vet means your dog must endure unpleasant and invasive procedures and restrictive handling so the vets can do their job, and in the past that may have been the case. I’ve heard tails of nail trims that involve multiple people literally laying on a large dog to force them to be still while another trims their nails, dogs removed from their owners presence so that they can be muzzled for the procedure and people who know there dog hates the vet but feel helpless to do anything about it, now there may be another option! Many vets are now embracing the concepts of fear free veterinary visits. They realize that if a pet has a negative experience at the vet, it can set them up for a lifetime of fearful behavior during vet visits, which may lead to the pet parent scheduling fewer preventive visits or even putting off necessary medical procedures. No one wants to see their pet unnecessarily stressed!

What is a Fear Free?

It’s an initiative, founded in 2016 by a veterinarian, its mission is, “to prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress in pets by inspiring and educating the people who care for them.” The organization is spreading the word about a better way to administer veterinary care to dogs that takes into consideration how the dog is feeling! They take care to incorporate positive associations with their processes, procedures and protocols, as well as take their time with individual animals to ensure that negative associates are minimized or eliminated!

To learn more about Fear Free check out their web site at https://fearfreepets.com/about/what-is-fear-free/.

Recently I completed my Fear Free Trainer Certification in the hopes that I could reach more pet owners and teach them how they can help prepare their dogs and cats for veterinary visits so that the pets can actually learn how to enjoy visiting the vet. There are several vets in the area that have already adopted some of the basics of Fear Free visits and others that are actively pursuing their Fear Free certifications!

So, what can you do to make your puppy or dog’s vet visits better?

First, regardless of whether your puppy or dog has already developed a negative association with the vet, you can start with some simple behaviors to help them actually be an active participant in their care, rather than just having to tolerate it. We can essentially teach our dogs how to let us know they need a break! It’s like having a conversation with your dog!

Some of these behaviors are taught to a degree in basic obedience classes, they are; watch, touch, sit and go to mat. For some of the more problematic areas of the vet visit, things like, nail trimming, having ears examined, getting weighed, getting shots and waiting in the waiting room, we can teach other behaviors that can help them become more comfortable. Imagine if your veterinarian was working hard to minimize that fearful response in your dog! Imagine if you taught your dog to enjoy getting up on the scale, or to enjoy having their feet or ears handled, or even to be able to lie on their mat and RELAX in the waiting area! It can be done! Yes, it does take some time and effort, but when you consider the lifelong ramifications, like a dog that LOVES to go to the vet rather than shakes and quakes all the way there, it can be totally worth it!

Here are some basic things that YOU can do to make your dog’s vet visits more enjoyable.

  1. Make sure your pet is hungry, if it’s a morning visit consider withholding part or all of your pets breakfast until after the visit. Figure out ahead of time, what your dog’s best 5 treats are, then load up on the top 2 or 3 before you go.

  2. Use those treats throughout the visit for any and all calm behavior. You can even give them treats as they are getting their shot, to help minimize the negative association!

  3. If your dog has a favorite trick or behavior (or 2 or 3) ask them to do those tricks periodically during the visit to give them a break and help them feel more confident.

  4. If your dog knows a ‘go to mat skill’, bring their mat so they have a comfortable and familiar place to rest in the waiting room as well as in the exam room, and don’t forget to reward them for being on the mat! It’s helpful if the mat has a non-skid backing (like a bath mat or yoga mat) to prevent it from slipping on those slick floors.

  5. You can spray Adaptil (for dogs) on that mat 30 minutes prior to leaving for the vet which will help relax your dog and calm them.

  6. If your pet is going to be in a carrier, be sure to acclimate your pet to the carrier well in advance of your visit (15 days or more). Practice having your vet go in and out of the carrier, stay in the carrier for longer and longer periods of time. Again, don’t go cheap on the rewards when you are doing this! You can even feed your pet in their carrier to help them get acclimated to it. Spray Adaptil for dogs or Feliway for cats in the carrier 30 minutes prior to leaving for the vet.

  7. New puppies can visit the vet every week or even multiple times a week just to get weighed, visit with the front desk staff and get a treat! This helps them associate fun things with the vet rather than going there only to get shots!

  8. Acclimate your dog/puppy to having their body parts handled, again associating this with lots of yummy treats builds a positive association rather than only doing it when they have an ear infection or when the vet has to put an otoscope in their ear.

What if your pet is already really fearful of vet visits, what then?

  1. First, be sure that the vet you are using is aware of your dog’s discomfort and willing to work with you to ensure future vet visits are less stressful.

  2. Consider working with a qualified trainer in tandem with your vet to address specific procedures your pet has difficulty with. For instance, if you dog is fearful of having their ears handled your vet may recommend something to relax your dog prior to coming in for an ear check as well as seeking behavior modification training from a trainer to make them more comfortable with the procedure.

I am excited to be armed with a better understanding of the veterinary process and how I can help make veterinary visits easier for your pets. I also look forward to working with the vets in the area to help those dogs that may already be fearful.

Interested in learning more? Check out my new class on Fear Free Veterinary Visits (FFVV)! This class will teach behaviors that are useful to helping dogs with their veterinary visits, including hand targeting, go to mat, ear, mouth and foot handling, platform (think scales) comfort, head collar conditioning, muzzle conditioning (a good idea even if you dog doesn't need one), cone conditioning (you know the things all puppies have to wear after they've been spayed/neutered) and more! We may even teach your dogs to file their own nails!


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