Thursday, November 25, 2010

Doctor, Doctor Give Me The News...

When I was a little girl I went into a small panic upon hearing the word "doctor". I could be playing happily with my dolls on the other side of the house far from the sounds of conversation when my ears would catch upon the feared word and my heart would begin to pound. As the daughter of a US Air Force captain, we travelled internationally. A doctor's visit was likely to mean a painful vaccination into an arm or leg muscle. The soreness and resulting fever the next day made the experience even more long lasting and miserable. These vaccinations were meant to save my life and were obviously necessary. Sadly, as a toddler, I could not understand this concept and so my fear was big and hairy with yellow jagged teeth.

Eli in the exam room, calm behavior reinforced with cooked chicken
Imagine, then, what it must be like for our dogs to pay a routine visit to the veterinarian. Dogs have no understanding of what the place is.  Their amazing noses certainly pick up the lingering scent of fear which saturates even the kindest of veterinary practices. But we march them into the waiting room, oblivious in our confidence and awareness of what is to come during the visit-an awareness our dog is not privy to.  Unless...he is one of the lucky ones. More on that, later.

A Typical Routine Visit

"Let's get a weight on him, shall we?" the vet tech says, holding her clipboard and walking us briskly to the floor scale.

Most pet dogs have had little experience standing on wobbly surfaces-instinct triggers the urge to GET AWAY from this unsafe thing. We understand that this is only a harmless scale, and because we know there are potentially more serious things in store, we tend to be a bit impatient with our dog's seemingly dramatic overreaction. We pull and push and tell our dog "sit...sit...sit...stay..sit" as the silent audience filling the plastic chairs of the lobby watches our complete ineptitude.  Pressure, anyone?  Finally the dog sits still long enough (although leaning as far from the scale as he can) for the #$%!* numbers to stop blinking. We have a weight! Perspiring slightly from the exertion, we follow the tech to the exam room.

The exam room

Another strange person enters (a different vet tech) and without so much as a howdy-do proceeds to insert a foreign object into our dog's rectum (can science not come up with a less intrusive way to take a dog's temperature?) She asks a few questions, jots down the answers, then she is gone and we wait... some...more...waiting. Our dog is likely leashed all this time as he vainly tries to get a smell on the room. We hold him back, not knowing when the door will be flung open, as he winds the leash
around the chair legs and our legs. Our dog by now is likely in a state of arousal, probably panting, perhaps pacing, and maybe even drooling.

The vet enters and we sit up, alert.

Our dog notices this change in our behavior-oh, yes, you can be sure of that. The stranger carries the scent of anesthetic, bleach, medicines, and all of the scents of all of the animals (sick ones, scared ones, ones who may be dying) she has come in contact with up to this moment. She not only comes close to our dog (into his personal space) but then she begins to poke strange objects into our dog's ears, hold his mouth open, and place strange metal objects to his chest-none of which our dog understands.

The grand finale

Likely, a vaccination (or two), or perhaps even fluid squirted up his nose (and this is just a routine visit-think of the dog who must have his ears flushed, or a wound stapled!) end the visit.  Then it's back to the waiting room as we wait to pay...and finally, sweet freedom! Our dog may roll in the grass outside given the opportunity, as if he is attempting to wash the experience away.

There is another way

For a service dog (and any dog) making the visit to the vet as pleasant as possible should be taught as commonly as we teach basic "obedience" behaviors like "sit" and "stay".  If your dog is one of the lucky ones I mentioned at the beginning of this article, you have asked your vet for permission to bring your dog and a bag of treats in for a visit (every veterinarian I have ever asked in this non-scientific survey said "Yes! I would love it if you did this!") and have actually practiced good manners while driving to the vet, getting out of the car, entering the lobby, and sitting in the lobby.

Do not be fooled by my forthrightness or confuse it with smugness, by the way. I have been humbled many times by a dog whirling at my feet as I tried to navigate from the car to the clinic doors to the scale to the exam room, then out again. Learn from my mistakes, people! Otherwise I have suffered for naught!

Eli's First Vet Visit

First step-keeping Eli relaxed while waiting. We have been practicing "sit" on so many surfaces in so many locations under so many circumstances that having him sit on the scale was a piece of cake (he was 25 lbs in case you were wondering). He climbed up on the scale and sat quietly as I fed him roasted chicken. Scale + chicken= Sweeeeeeeeet!

Next, the exam room. I allowed Eli to walk the entire room, sniffing. When he came back to me he received a click/treat. He began to relax.

Click/Treat for returning to me
When the vet entered (she, rather than a vet tech takes the rectal temperature of her patients), I grabbed the can of canned cheese she considerately placed within easy reach and began to slowly squirt cheese in Eli's mouth as she inserted the thermometer (which he gave no indication of noticing!) Click/treats were given for standing still as he was examined-all at his pace and with his comfort foremost (thank you, by the way to Dr. Ladyga of Deschutes Veterinary Clinic in Bend for being so considerate and forward-thinking!)

Dr. Lorrie Boldrick (lead veterinarian for Freedom Dogs and author of Essential  First Aid For Dog Owners ) later joked that I probably took Dr. Ladyca's lunch and squirted it in my dog's mouth.  But I knew the cheese was for her patients-I am very, very lucky to have such a good veterinarian (she must own stock in canned cheese - or should!)

Eli sits nicely as his heartbeat is listened to
During the entire visit, Eli was kept well under threshold by giving him things to do while we were waiting. I also took advantage of the opportunity to teach him that 'sit' and other behaviors we are learning is the same behavior, even when we are not at home. Of course, I did not expect perfection and if he was unable to perform a requested behavior, I knew it was because he did not understand or was too distracted.

One of the benefits to training a dog that you know is not really yours is that you become very clear-headed about his behavior. When the dog is our own, it adds a layer of fuzz to our perspective, perhaps because in our mind, our dog's behavior is a reflection of us, so we take it very personally when our dog, say, "misbehaves" at the dog park. I know I am as guilty of this as the next person. But really, if we stop and consider objectively why our dog is so "out of control" at the vet clinic or in other stressful places, we are one step closer to preventing it's recurrence by actually changing our dog's behavior, not merely trying to suppress it or ignore it. Try it sometime- look at your dog's behavior as behavior-nothing more. Hard to do but well worth the try. After all, you cannot change what you do not acknowledge (I think I just channeled Dr. Phil! Wow..)

Happy Training!


  1. Great article Chris! Lucky Eli to have you and a great vet!

  2. Chris - VERY WELL said!!! Thanks to you and to Dr. Ladyga for making Eli's 1st experience such a positive one

  3. What a treat to read your posts. A successful day for you and little Pork-Pie!

  4. Veterinarians could only hope for all their clients to work so well with their puppies!

  5. Thanks, Lorrie!
    That means a lot to me:)

  6. WE are luck at Deschutes Veterinary Clinic to have such a wonderful dog owner/trainer in Chris! Eli is a LOVE
    --Janet Ladyga