Fear in dogs is not unusual in a veterinary office setting, just as we may have some fear or trepidation surrounding doctor or dentist visits for ourselves. Labels for these dogs have sometimes been applied in years gone by, such as “bad” or “vicious,” but we now know much more about fear responses in dogs,and fear-based aggression can be excruciatingly real for these canine patients.
Fear can show itself in various ways. One dog may allow a complete examination, vaccinations and other procedures, yet be trembling uncontrollably throughout it all. They may even urinate a bit in submission. Although these dogs are often easy to work with, that level of fear does not have to occur.
One way we work to improve their experience is by offering a variety of new and different food rewards as a distraction. We can also provide a synthetic pheromone to help calm them before visiting, or even mild doses of anti-anxiety medications an hour or two before an appointment. Frequent brief, happy, non-invasive clinic visits are also likely to help these dogs immensely; they can learn that not every trip into us involves something “scary” in their eyes.
The other side of fear in dogs is much more distressing to the patient and owner, as well as dangerous for those involved. Unlike the dog just mentioned, who freezes in the clinic, these dogs have very high fight or flight levels of fear and anxiety, most often seen in aggression and/or avoidance behaviours. These dogs are not being “bad”; they literally believe they need to fight for their life. Some become this way over many years after various stressful or painful issues while in hospital, but some, like humans, have a much higher anxiety level and lower tolerance for strange new things in their own genetic makeup or from lack of exposure.
These fear aggressive dogs often require a variety of steps to ease their anxiety in the clinic. Ideally, very frequent, low-stress clinic visits become a vital part of slowly easing their minds; come for a treat, or to get weighed, or, for some, get through the door, sit briefly, then be rewarded with leaving the area again. This is time-consuming but worth every step in the building for the progress in the patient. Also, of huge value is muzzle training. Explained very well through The Muzzle-Up Project, owners work slowly over time to reward the dog for accepting a muzzle at home, so it is less threatening with us.
Most of these aggressive or frantic-escape dogs also require medications in the days/hours before appointments, to help decrease the anxiety and fear level. Oral medications given at home are sometimes sufficient, but some also need further sedation once they are in the clinic. It is not just recommended for the safety of those around the dog but is also paramount in giving the dog as low stress a visit as possible. Every chance the dog has to feel more relaxed and not threatened allows progress toward a less scary future at the veterinary hospital.
Owners can often see the value in taking these measures to improve the quality of their pets’ visits to the vet, especially when subsequent visits become calmer and less stressful for all.
If you have questions regarding reducing fear in your dog, please give us a call at 902.443.9385.
Written by Dr. Harris-Dain