I learned a few days ago that Spica, my lovable-but-not-too-bright younger Doberman, has damaged her ACL. This isn’t really a surprise; Spica is a career runner who chases squirrels up and down the fenceline and spins in circles barking at them for about six hours each day, so her legs are under constant strain. In addition to the dog’s confinement and treatment (and her owner’s possible loss of sanity, living with a dog who isn’t allowed to run for six weeks!), this injury means that we’re likely to be seeing more of our veterinarian than usual.
I’m a training opportunist; I train whenever and wherever I can. Naturally, we do quite a bit of training in the vet’s office. It’s necessary in such a high-distraction environment, and it helps my dogs cope with the stress of hurting and being poked and prodded. During our most recent appointment, when our doctor left the exam room for a moment, I let Spica have a few reps of stepping on and off the low metal table for treats. It gave her something fun to focus on, despite the stressful environment and her own discomfort, and an on/off cue is always useful.
In this routine practice, though, I think we’re the exception. Many dogs have a hard time at the veterinarian’s office, and many owners don’t know how to help their pets cope. The dogs’ reaction is completely understandable; many people dislike going to doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and we humans have the advantage of knowing why it’s necessary! For most dogs, the vet is that mean person who sticks them with needles once a year and pokes them when they’re in pain. On top of that, the office is full of loud noises, slippery metal surfaces and strange odors. It’s no wonder our dogs whine, bark, tremble, jump or otherwise “misbehave” when we take them to the vet’s office!
Fortunately, there are ways we can make the vet experience less stressful for our dogs. If you adopt a puppy, you can take advantage of early socialization: Visit the office frequently with your puppy, even when they don’t need treatment, and just spend a few minutes playing or working for treats in the waiting room. When your puppy does need vaccinations or an exam, go a few minutes early and have the office employees greet your dog and give treats before your exam time. These fun experiences can create a positive association between the office environment and enjoyable things, so your dog won’t have an immediate fear reaction when presented with the odd smells and sounds of the clinic.
For adult dogs who have already learned to fear the vet, there are several training games you can play at home to make the clinic less scary. You can teach position behaviors, such as standing still or lying flat on one side, that make physical examination easier. You can train your dog to press its chin into your hand during eye and ear exams, or lift each paw for easy handling. You can also teach a few simple behaviors (Sit, Down, Stand, Touch) that your dog can perform quickly while waiting for your appointment. Even a few minutes of sitting in the waiting area surrounded by strange dogs and cats can be very stressful for your dog. It’s helpful to have an activity the dog can focus on, and each quick repetition gives you an opportunity to reward the dog.
You can also make tasks like being weighed or standing on a table less scary. Below is a method you can use to teach your dog to step comfortably up onto a scale or an examination table. Each step is demonstrated in the following video by Valenzia.
- To begin, review hand targeting so that your dog is enthusiastically following your hand in any direction. In addition to being a great focus behavior on its own, you can also use a hand target to build other behaviors, such as the one we’re working on.
- Next, we want to get the dog used to stepping on an unusual surface. Most exam tables are metal, which is slippery, cold and makes loud sounds when the dog tries to walk on it. In the video, I’m using an enameled metal tray (if you don’t have something metal to use for training, visit a garage sale or Goodwill store and pick up an old serving tray). At first I’m clicking the dog simply for stepping on the metal. Later, I begin clicking when she steps on it hard enough to make the metal buckle, producing a loud noise (it’s hard to hear this on the video, but imagine pushing the top of a jar lid — “button pops up when seal is broken” — only much larger). Watch the dog’s body language here: At first, Valenzia is not sure she likes the metal noise, but by the end of the segment she is spiking the tray with both paws to make it pop!
- Next, we’ll use the hand target to teach the dog to get up/on and down/off of an object. You can train this with a sturdy cardboard box, a couch cushion, a wooden platform, or any piece of furniture the dog is allowed to jump on. Choose verbal cues that are unique to this behavior. (My verbal cues in the video are “Up” and “Off,” since “Down” means to lie flat on the floor.) By the way, this is also a useful cue for getting the dog off the couch or bed in a safe, non-confrontational manner!
- Finally, we’ll add the tray so the dog is jumping up onto a metal surface (as they would onto an exam table). I begin by clicking the dog for stepping up onto the surface, and then I click for touching the tray and lying down on it. By the end of the session, the dog is happily jumping onto the raised mat and lying on the metal tray.
If I’ve trained this behavior at home, my dog knows that jumping up onto a metal surface isn’t such a scary experience after all; it’s just another way to earn a reward. Next time I go to the vet’s office and ask the dog to hop up onto the metal table, I can treat it like a training exercise — “Up,” click, treat; “Off,” click, treat. If you tell your vet what you’re doing ahead of time, he or she may let you do a few practice reps in the exam room. The more clicks and treats your dog earns in the clinic, the less scary a place it is!
My apologies for the poor quality and unintentional Dutch angles in the video; my DV camera died, so the video was recorded using my phone, which proved a poor substitute. The skips and glitches are dropped frames, and the sound is slightly out of sync (which is why all my clicks seem to be a half-second late). Still, I think you can see enough to get the idea of what we’re doing.