How to Make Vet Visits Less Stressful

Jan 10, 2017 / Behavior

dog treats above scale

“Come on, you’re fine. Knock it off. Let’s go! SIT!”

It’s hard to listen to, and even harder to observe: A puppy is dragged by the leash through the veterinary clinic door as his small paws try to put on the brakes. A dog is given a rough correction when she tries to hide behind her owner after another dog walks into the clinic lobby. A puppy is yelled at for sniffing the floor near the receptionist desk. Or, a dog is pushed into a “sit” position as the veterinary professional takes his weight on a scale.

As a professional trainer, I find it very difficult to witness them struggling. And by them, I mean everyone involved. Humans and canines in these scenarios struggle in more ways than one.

If I say nothing, am I inadvertently condoning the situation? Will my inaction escalate the inappropriate action? If I say something, will my feedback be well received?

Our skills as talented teachers come into play during difficult moments. Our education coupled with empathy and understanding should rise to the occasion. It is time to speak up in a well-informed, positive manner. One small achievable tip can make the vet visit more enjoyable for all.

Animals Are Excellent Teachers


Laura teaching a voluntary weight behavior with a bobcat. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Zoological Society.)

My career as a professional trainer began with exotic animals. We taught the tigers and giraffes to move (also called shifting or gating) into other locations of their habitat multiple times per day. I’m grateful for what these animals taught me.

A few lessons learned include:

  • Be patient.
  • Observe the animal.
  • Observe the environment.
  • Be prepared with a pre-session plan.
  • Be generous with food reinforcement.
  • Clearly communicate with the animal.
  • Clearly communicate with the care team.
  • Be flexible and change the plan as needed.
  • Make post-session notes to refer to and review.
  • Expect behavior change based on social dynamics. Meaning: work with the animal you have in front of you at that moment.
  • And so much more (to be shared in future blogs)!

We are shifting our canine companions countless times per day. They walk, run, or leap into various rooms of their home, in and out of crates and kiddie pens, behind gates, into our cars, into group sessions and new locations, into the tub for a bath, and into exam rooms for a grooming or vet visit. That’s a lot of shifting per day!

It doesn’t take much for a human or animal learner to become reluctant to enter a specific location based on one adverse outcome. I am not one to happily sit in the dentist’s chair while hearing the sound of drilling in another exam room. Just the smell of a dental office increases my heart rate. No thank you!

What happens if an owner forgets to pause for paws, and accidentally slams the veterinary clinic door into the dog’s front feet? The dog will be reluctant to approach that door in subsequent visits. The dog is not being dominant or difficult when refusing to walk. His cessation of movement is vital information for the owner to pause and assess what might be the function (purpose) of their dog no longer moving toward the desired location. Shifting them into this location is increasingly difficult.

The veterinary office is brimming with smells. Some might be enjoyable, like urine (what we call “pee mail”) from another dog. Some scents might be aversive, such as cleaning agents and chemicals. Letting the dog’s nose calibrate this olfactory explosion provides a valuable adjustment period. Let your puppy sniff away near the scale, as long there are no spacial concerns with other animals or people. Offer a generous amount of treats while approximating all four paws onto the scale. We like to get paid for work. Use food as your dog’s paycheck! 

Have a Plan for the Vet Visit

treats above scale

Click on the above image to watch Laura demonstrate a voluntary weigh-in.

Advocate for your dog. Do not hesitate to educate.

Call or email the veterinary team before your appointment to:

  • Remind them of your dog or cat’s individual needs.
  • Highlight that your pet is fearful of other animals or people.
  • Ask to be promptly shifted into a quiet room upon arrival.
  • Ask where the scale is located. Bring your own mat to place on the scale during the weigh in, and on the exam room floor.
  • Bring plenty of high value treats and favored toys. Ask if they also offer treats during the general wellness exams.
  • Ask about potential side effects of any medications and vaccinations. Then ask if you can wait in a quiet area (or in your car). If your pet does have an adverse reaction, you are right there for immediate care.
  • Offer to wait in the car with your pet until it is time to move into the clinic for the wellness exam.
  • Ask if they can conduct any of the wellness procedures and vaccinations outside (weather permitting) where the dog is more comfortable. Be sure to have a safe hold (but not corrective) of the leash at all times.
  • Plan a grooming or vet visit that is brief and happy. Include trips with enjoyable walks outside these locations. Offer treats, play, and brief visits inside.
  • Research veterinary, grooming, and training professionals that are Fear Free Certified. Both Tiana Daniels, CVT, KPA CTP, of Veterinary Behavior at Illinois, and I are certified and located at Medical District Veterinary Clinic at Illinois.

Canine Communication Education

dog training

Click on the above image to watch Laura help build a relationship with a rescue dog.

Bringing a puppy, adolescent, or adult dog into the veterinary clinic for wellness exams shouldn’t cause intense feelings of stress for the animal or the caregivers. Understanding how to provide canine care starts with an introduction to their excellent communication strategies.

Owner and veterinary team goal: the next time you observe a dog or cat demonstrating stress signals at home or during a vet visit, help the animal positively, patiently, and proactively.

In the future, I’ll share tips to better prepare for trips to the groomer or veterinary clinic. Meanwhile, check out this video: The WCIU show, You & Me started a series that will follow my collaboration to help a family and their adopted dog, Lola. Karen Pryor Clicker Training shared the first segment, which can be read here. Stay tuned for exciting updates!

Have fun learning about canine communication!

—Laura Monaco Torelli, CDBC, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP/Faculty, Animal Behavior Training Concepts