I had the opportunity to compare our husbandry behavior training with two species, as I both took my dogs to the vet for their annuals and I went to the ophthalmologist for my semi-annual.
I’ve written about managing my own behavior at the eye doctor before, and it’s gotten a lot easier, actually. I know how to avoid the disturbing images, I know how to manage myself for the routine examinations, and for the most part the staff is not aware that I even have an issue.
Until something new happens, like taking an image of my tear ducts for the first time, and once I was comfortably settled in the frame and awaiting a photograph a tech picked up a large plastic hook and pushed it toward my eye.
Peace out, see ya! I was out of that frame and away from that new gadget fast enough to startle her.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she told me.
“I believe you, and that’s not what I’m concerned about. I just want to know what you’re going to do with it.” I explained that I was doing a lot of self-management to make this examination smooth and easy for both of us.
So she explained what she was going to do (place the curved surface against my eyelid to manipulate it open for a clear photo), and I said okay, and I prepped myself, and we did the imaging without further disruption.
Communication is key. It’s not just about tolerating restraint or expecting treats (nobody gives me chocolate during the eye exam, though maybe that’s a good idea), it’s about predictability and control.
It’s also about ending a good note. This is why it was good to test afterward for macular degeneration, which was reinforcing to me on several levels. I got to concentrate on an active task, instead of passively holding still while stuff was done to me, and I got to practice a skill at which I feel competent and with a solid history of reinforcement (clicking for observed changes!).
I got some great reinforcement (success at clicking makes me feel clever! and I’m still clear for macular degeneration, of which I have a family history), which ended the visit on a good note.
The dogs? The dogs started on a good note and carried it all the way through. “The vet clinic? Ohmygoshdoyouknowhowmanytreatsareavailablehere?! LOOK AT ALL THE BEHAVIORS WE KNOW.” I actually had to pay them to wait their turns, as they started shoving each other off the exam table.
This is not the quietest and most dignified visit imaginable, but at least it’s erring in the right direction. “Please do my exam next!” is a much better problem to have than, “Touch me and I will end you.”
From puppyhood, both of them have understood that if they don’t want to participate in a procedure such as a nail trim, they can simply decline. This freedom means they actually rarely want to decline, because they don’t feel restrained or constrained to start and it’s just a big cookie machine. Take my paw, give me a treat when my nails are shorter. Sweet.
In an emergency we can still restrain, because we’ve practiced being held, so it’s neither new nor scary (and it still pays well). But we shouldn’t need much restraint except in an emergency.
Take-home message? Husbandry training works, and I need more chocolate at the ophthalmologist!