Puppies often happily march into the vet’s office and meet everyone with wiggling bodies and wagging tails. It’s not long after where puppies grow into dogs who are fearful of going to the vet. Dog guardians are left wondering what happened. After all, their puppy loved going to the vet and didn’t seem to show any signs of being concerned. Here’s how to prevent your puppy from becoming afraid of vet visits.
Puppies learn by association and consequence. Don’t forget, during a puppy’s critical socialization period they are also learning what is safe/good and scary/bad. This is a perfect storm.
Why do puppies become afraid of Veterinary Visits?
Let’s break down what this looks like from a puppy’s point of view.
The first vet visit with your new puppy
First, your puppy goes to the vet and sees new people. She is excited to see everyone. It’s just another group of exciting people that she is meeting. She happily jumps up to say hello to everyone she meets. It’s your puppy’s turn to go into the exam room and all the new people she met are now holding her in place on top of a scary table. In comes a new person in a white lab coat who starts looking in her ears, mouth, feels her abdomen, listens to hear heart with a weird stethoscope, and maybe gets her temperature taken. All of these new people are leaning over her, holding her in place, and doing “lots of things” to her. Now, the person in the white lab coat jabs her a few times with sharp objects.
Consequently, your puppy realizes these people and this place aren’t like any other places or people she has encountered so far. The experience your puppy had is much different than any of the others. This visit has made an impression on your puppy. Perhaps your puppy didn’t seem phased by it at all. Maybe your puppy showed signs of stress during the visit but tolerated it ok. The vet visit might have been overwhelming and scary for your puppy.
Your puppy’s next vet visit
A couple weeks later you go back for your puppy’s next set of shots. She has the same experience with her new friends. Another impression is being made by your puppy. With each visit your puppy is making an association with the vet staff and vet clinic. She is looking at each experience as safe/good or scary/bad. Depending on your puppy’s age and what vaccines you are giving, you might be going back to the vet two or three more times.
Each visit is making an impression on your puppy. When she meets people out on walks, at the park, or in the home improvement store, she has a different experience. The people at these other places play with her, give her ear rubs, it seems like a party, and she has more fun. Contrast that to the interactions with people at the vet clinic where they are happy to see her, but the interactions are completely different. Because of this, puppies start to learn going to the vet’s office is scary. As far as she is concerned, the people there treat her completely different.
It’s no wonder our puppies grow into dogs who start trembling when you pull into the parking lot of the vet clinic or who put the brakes on and don’t want to go into the exam room. If our dogs could talk, I imagine this is what they would say, “oh, it’s that place where the scary stuff happens. I don’t want to go in there”.
How to Prevent Your Puppy from Becoming Afraid of Vet Visits
8 Steps to happy vet visits
There are simple things you can do to have your puppy associate good things with going to her veterinary visits.
- Take your puppy on Happy Vet Visits BEFORE she needs to go to her actual vet appointment
- Take your puppy on Happy Vet Visits in between her actual vet appointments
- Arrive to your puppy’s vet appointment early and let her explore all around outside
- Arrive early enough to your appointment so your puppy can explore the waiting room and acclimate to her new surroundings
- Bring high value treats (small bits of cheese, hot dogs, meatballs, etc.)
- Feed high value treats while she explores the outside of the building and the waiting room
- Give the vet staff high value treats to feed to your puppy
- Feed your puppy high value treats while in the exam room
What is a Happy Vet Visit?
A Happy Visit is where you bring your puppy to the vet outside of her scheduled appointment. She gets to go and explore, meet the staff, has good interactions with the staff, receives high value treats, and gets to have fun. Nothing bad or scary happens during this visit. There are no shots and no vet exam. Your puppy starts making good associations with the vet clinic and the staff.
The more Happy Visits you do, the better.
It’s inevitable, your puppy will get poked, prodded, and need to receive her shots, BUT the objective is to have all the good associations outweigh the one potentially scary experience. Doing more Happy Visits after their scheduled visit will help solidify even more positive associations because she will go back and only good things will happen.
Making time to take your puppy for Happy Visits is well worth it. A puppy who learns to love going to the veterinarian’s office means less stress for your dog (and you) in the years to come.
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