Skip NavigationSkip to Primary Content
Emma M. Parsons Copyright 2004
The following exercises can be begun immediately with today’s veterinary visit. You will see the most improvement in your dog’s behavior if you continue to do a little work on these exercises in a variety of settings to help your dog be more relaxed and confident for all of his future visits. Have fun!
BE PREPARED: Be sure to bring soft, HIGHLY reinforcing treats that you reserve for training and visiting the veterinarian. If your dog will not eat treats at your veterinarian’s office, reinforce the click with praise, petting, or both. Remember, it is believed that the sound of the click alone is calming to the amygdala of the brain.
“CALM GETS YOU EVERYTHING…”: Reinforcing (strengthening) your dog’s calm attention to you before you go into the exam room can dramatically and positively influence the visit to follow. Starting as soon as you arrive at the waiting room, be sure to click and treat your dog for all calm behavior offered (standing still, sitting, lying down, remaining quiet).Teach your dog to pay attention to you by clicking and feeding your dog for increased attention to you (ear flicks your way, head turning towards you) building to eye contact.
“CRAZY GETS YOU NOTHING…”: Be careful NOT to reinforce agitated behavior like whining, barking, or scrabbling and pulling on the lead. Instead of trying to soothe your dog, click and feed for small decreases in those aroused behaviors, working towards their absence altogether. Know that you can mark the pieces of behavior that are lower in intensity to help teach your dog what really ‘pays’.
RELAXED RESTRAINT: Teach your dog to accept restraint by clicking and feeding as he is being held for a procedure. Let the veterinary technician know ahead of time that this is what you would like to do. At home, have people the dog likes gently restrain him while you click and treat for your dog remaining still. Gradually build the length of time your dog can be held in this manner.
HAPPY HANDLING: Teach your dog to accept (and even enjoy) all over handling by clicking and feeding your dog as he allows you to touch his legs, his feet, his tail, and his muzzle. Pretend to clean his ears, separate his toes, and massage his skin. Click and feed for each successful movement that is tolerated. Through clicker training, your dog will come to enjoy this interaction.
HAND TARGET TRAINING: Teach your dog to touch his nose to your hand and build up to him being able to follow the target of your hand so that you can lead your dog through the various activities with ease and without the need to push/pull your dog into place.You can begin this exercise by simply extending your hand to within 1-2″ of your dog’s nose. As the dog turns to sniff your hand, click and feed your dog. If you need to entice your dog to sniff your hand, hold a treat in between two of your fingers. Click and allow the dog to eat the treat between your fingers. As your dog becomes more familiar with this exercise, move your hand to each side of the dog’s face. Hold your hand above the dog’s head and below. When he is targeting your hand reliably in all of these positions, hold your hand slightly beyond the front of his nose so that he will have to take a step to touch your hand. Click and feed your dog as he moves forward to touch your hand. Try one step, two steps, three steps, and so forth. Continue building the behavior so that you can stick out your hand and your dog will follow it for several steps, including having to get his body onto something (bench, rock wall, low table) or even under something (bench, chair, etc.).
SAFE AND SECURE: If you suspect your dog might be inclined to nip or bite when frightened or stressed, be sure to have the ability to muzzle him, if needed. Click and feed him as he touches the muzzle. Click and feed him as you hold it up close to his face. Click anf feed him as the muzzle gets closer. Continue to shape the behavior until you are able to put the muzzle on his nose. Click and take it right off. Lengthen the time that the muzzle is on the dog’s nose.Muzzles can help make everybody feel more relaxed which will help lower the stress of the visit.
COMPLIANCE IN CLOSE CONFINES: Teach the dog to stand/stay or sit/stay in a confined area. For example, teach the dog to go into a crate voluntarily or teach the dog to sit with his back or the side of his body next to a wall with people standing very close/ gently touching him.Just as people have ‘personal space’ they like to maintain, so does your dog. Help him become more comfortable performing known behaviors even with people or equipment crowding him.
MAKING STRANGE SURFACES LESS SCARY: Teach your dog to stand and walk on many different slippery surfaces like plastic, metal, and rubber. (Make sure that there are no sharp edges that your dog could injure himself on.) Simply click and feed your dog for putting one paw on, followed by another, and so on, until the dog is standing squarely on the surface. Now that the dog is comfortable, ask your dog to sit. Click and feed. Ask your dog to walk back and forth over the surface. Click and feed. Ask your dog to lie down. Click and feed.This exercise will help your dog feel comfortable whether he is being weighed on the rubbery mat, being examined on the cold, stainless steel exam table, walking across the slippery linoleum floor, or lying prostrate on an X-ray table.
CLICKING = COMMON LANGUAGE: Clicker trained dogs quickly learn that all people that click (veterinarians, veterinary technicians, groomers, etc.) are predictable, effective communicators. As the click means the same thing, all the time, regardless of who is actually doing the clicking, your dog immediately has a familiar and positive frame of reference with the new person.Clicker training creates a ‘common language’ that your dog understands and can help put him at ease in strange or stressful situations.
You will be pleasantly surprised at the improvements in your dog’s behavior by spending just a few minutes several times a week on these behaviors!
Copyright, 2005, Terry Long, CPDT, and The APDT Chronicle of the Dog. This article may be copied and distributed with this copyright notice.
One of the saddest things to see is a dog that is absolutely terrified of something as simple as a nail trim. Some dogs lose control of bodily functions, scream in terror, struggle violently, and bite and scratch in their frantic attempts to avoid having their nails trimmed. Some dogs have to be sedated or even anesthetized for this simple procedure. Others go without nail trims, which often results in dangerously long nails that can get caught in carpeting and can also cause the dog to adopt an unnatural gait, which can cause joint discomfort. It doesn’t have to be this way. All dogs will eventually have to be groomed, vaccinated, examined, restrained, etc., so it’s best to teach your dog, early in life to, if not enjoy these procedures, to tolerate them.
Tools you will need…. * Cotton balls or plain cleansing pads. * Nail trimmers and short wooden matchsticks. * Yummy treats.
The following procedures apply equally to puppies as well as older dogs. In no case should these procedures turn into a wrestling match or a test of who is “dominant.” It is a natural reaction for animals to resist being restrained. It is not a show of dominance! It’s scary to be restrained, and fight they will. They are hard-wired to do so. Please note: owners of dogs and puppies that have a severe reaction to having their nail trimmed should ask their veterinarian about sedating the dog for nail trims until the desensitization process is completed. They can also consider the old tactic of walking their dogs on sidewalks in an attempt to wear the nails down naturally.
1) Restraint: Start by gettiing some yummy treats handy. Hold your dog comfortably in your lap. Gently place your hands over the dog’s shoulders with the heels of your hands on the top and your fingers wrapping around toward the chest. Briefly (no more than a second or two) apply a small amount of pressure, say “Yes!” for the dog not reacting (if the dog reacts, you are using too much pressure or doing it for too long – back up), and give the dog a treat and pet and praise him. Gradually build up until you can exert a little more pressure and/or for longer periods of time without your dog resisting. Reward profusely each time. When your dog is accustomed to having his shoulders held, use the same gradual process to accustom him to: * Having his foot held. * Having his leg held (each one, one at a time). * Having his shoulders held. * Having his hips held between your hands. * Having his head held between your hands. * Having his head held in the crook of your arm (do this only if you have successfully performed all of the above, and be sure to keep your face away from the dog’s mouth). If your dog fights, struggles, growls, or bites during the beginning stages of these exercises, obtain the services of a positive reinforcement trainer to help you.
2) Physical Exams: Accustom your dog to a variety of “mock examinations.” * Mouth: Gently open your dog’s mouth an inch or so. Say “Yes!” for the dog not reacting (if he reacts, you need to back up and just briefly touch the dog’s lips or open the mouth less), and give the dog a treat and pet and praise him. Gradually build up until you can open the mouth wider, move your fingers around the lips, and gently press down on the tongue. Reward profusely each time. One trick that works well after the dog is accustomed to having you handle his lips and mouth is to open your dog’s mouth and press a treat down on his tongue for him to eat. Surprise! * Ears: Lift or touch the flap of one of the dog’s ears and gently and briefly touch the skin around the ear. Say “Yes!” for the dog not reacting, and give the dog a treat and pet and praise him. Gradually build up until you can touch all areas on the outside of the ear and eventually press a finger-tip into the inside of the ear (don’t poke down into the ear canal; just the surface outside it). Reward profusely each time. Next, take a cotton ball or plain cotton pad (sold in stores as face cleansers), and gently wipe the ear flap and the area just outside the ear canal. Reward profusely each time! * Feet and Toes: Gently hold your dog’s paw in your hand and reward him for letting you hold it for longer and longer periods of time. Gradually apply a little bit of pressure to the paw. Gradually build up to the point where you are touching each toe and exerting mild pressure on each toe to the point where the nail is lifted. Go slowly; this is the foundation of a nail trim and for checking between toes for those nasty foxtails (plant seeds that cause pain and abcesses). * Nail Trims: Here is a great exercise from British trainer John Rogerson. In seperate handling exercises, accustom your dog to the sight and sound of nail clippers by placing them on the floor for the dog to sniff. Reward for any curiosity or interaction with the clippers. Next, pick up the clippers and flex them in your hands so the dog gets used to them in your hands, both the sight and the sounds. Take a wooden matchstick, and clip the matchstick into several pieces, tossing the dog a treat each time you clip. Clipping the matchstick sounds very similar to the sound made by trimming a dog’s nails! Only when your dog thoroughly enjoys having his feet and toes handled and is accustomed to the sound of the clippers clipping the matchstick do you go to the next stage: fake clipping of the nails. Pick up the dog’s foot and place a matchstick under the foot and clip the matchstick while it is in the same hand as the dog’s foot. Reward, repeat, reward. When your dog is used to this, trim the very tip only of one of the dog’s nails. Reward profusely. Stop. Do additional nails in several other seperate sessions and only gradually build up until you can trim several nails in one session. The gradual process of desensitization described above will help your dog lifelong.
By Lore I. Haug, DVM (Reprinted with permission)
Many dogs experience considerable anxiety and fear while at the veterinary clinic. These dogs may show aggression, escape attempts, or severe fear reactions. Dogs with these reactions are more difficult to handle and, subsequently, are often subjected to heavy restraint techniques to allow the staff to accomplish the required procedures. Over time, these behaviors typically worsen as the dog has repeatedly more unpleasant experiences.
This situation places the animal, the owner, and the staff at risk for harm, particularly if the dog is showing aggression. In addition, the dog often receives suboptimal medical care due to his or her inability to be examined and handled safely. Most of these behaviors can be modified with a well-planned desensitization program. Depending on the level of the dog’s anxiety, the program can be started at various points. Most dogs begin showing anxiety before actually entering the clinic. This may occur in the parking lot or as early as when the dog is put in the car at home, expecially if his or her only car rides culminate in veterinary visits. For such dogs, the desensitization process should begin with the car, not the vet clinic. Once the dog is comfortable riding in the car, the following program can be implemented. During the program, your behavior toward the dog will be important to aiding the dog’s success. At no time should you try to punish or comfort the dog if he or she shows anxiety, fear, or aggression. If the dog reacts in any of these ways, calmly abort that trial. Resume the program at a previously successful level and remain there until the dog is completely comfortable. Progress to the next phase only when the dog is comfortable (not showing any anxiety or stress) at the current step. During the modification program, the dog ideally should not undergo any routine veterinary attention. Vaccination schedules may need to be altered to allow the dog to complete the entire program before being subjected to “the real thing.”
Step 1 – Take the dog to the parking lot of the veterinary clinic. During the first several trials, and depending on the dog’s anxiety level, you may only be able to drive through the lot without stopping. Alternatively, you can park the car but remain inside. Play with or food-reward the dog in the car for a period of time and then drive home.
Step 2 – Drive to the parking lot and take the dog out of the car. Walk the dog around the lot and play with or food-reward the dog during this time. When the dog seems relaxed (and not concerned about entering the clinic), take the dog home.
Step 3 – Repeat Step 2, but play with or food-reward the dog on the front porch of the clinic near the entrance. Remember to not progress to subsequent steps until the dog is very comfortable with the step at which you are currently working.
Step 4 – Take the dog into the waiting room and repeat the reward steps described above. Over consecutive trials, have the veterinary staff also play with or food-reward the dog while in the waiting room. During each session, these periods of play and/or food-reward should be alternated with short periods where the dog is asked to sit or lie quietly. This helps teach the dog to be calm and more closely mimics some of the usual waiting process.
Step 5 – Repeat Step 4 in the examination room. Do not progress to Step 6 until the dog is comfortable waiting in the exam room and having both the technical staff and the professional staff (i.e., veterinarian) repeatedly enter and interact with the dog (playing, petting, etc.). The staff should periodically assume postures and positions near the dog that are routinely observed during physical examination and restraint, although no such procedures should actually be done to the dog at this stage. Small dogs who are normally handled on the table should undergo an additional step where the counterconditioning process occurs on the table.
During the above steps, you should begin handling exercises at home. This involves conditioning the dog to being handled and manipulated. Handle and gently restrain the dog’s body, head, legs, and feet. In addition, you should begin gently rolling the skin on the dog’s neck, back, and sides between your fingers. Progressively apply slightly more pressure (e.g., mild pinching) as you do this. Always reward the dog during these sessions if he or she remains cooperative. Remain calm, and do not lose patience with the dog. This should become a game associated with fun things (e.g., food, play, and attention from you).
Step 6 – Have the veterinarian begin a partial physical exam. This should not start with the dog’s head, as many dogs find this phase intimidating. It is typically easiest to begin with chest auscultation. Distract and reward the dog with food or a toy during this process, even if the dog does not stand completely still. The goal at this point is not to actually do the exam, but to accustom the dog to the procedure in small increments to aid the dog in overcoming anxiety. Over subsequent sessions, progress through the process in a more thorough manner. The staff should repeat the same handling exercises that you have been doing at home. Make this fun!
When your dog’s vaccinations are due, have only one injection given the first time. If the dog requires more than one vaccine, schedule another appointment one to two weeks later for the remainder. You may have to schedule a separate appointment for each injection. During the dog’s first few “real” veterinary visits, it is imporant to maintain a fun, relaxed atmosphere and avoid overtaxing the dog’s tolerance level. Over time, practice doing slightly more aversive procedures with the dog, using food rewards or toys to distract the dog during the procedure.
Step 7 – Once your dog has become comfortable with the above steps, it will be neccessary to take the dog to the clinic for fun visits periodically throughout the year. Many dogs will revert to their fearful behavior if they resume going to the vet only once or twice a year for procedures. The more frequently you and your dog are able to visit the clinic and staff, the more comfortable your dog will remain when being handled there.