Over the years of working with dogs at different veterinary hospitals (four since 2004), I never liked the way handling techniques were taught and used.
It doesn't matter if the dog is big, small, docile, or aggressive. I've always wanted to do something different to try to create a better experience for dogs arriving at a veterinary hospital to receive medical care. From a simple ear cleaning and nail clipping to a more invasive procedure.
For many years, I have seen more dogs loathing than feeling comfortable and playful when they walk into a hospital. Many of them were already anxious just because of the car parked in front of the hospital. They start to shake, salivate, and often don't even want to get out of the car.
Working with behavior, I've always tried to find a way to change that by creating a calmer, more positive and rewarding experience for when the animal arrives in front of the hell gates of the dreaded veterinary hospital.
I have developed techniques for that, and ways for dogs to feel more comfortable. From the moment he enters through the main door, passes through the waiting room, and the first contact with the technician and the veterinarian. The main and most important thing is what I will call handling techniques!
Handling Techniques is the most important thing in veterinary care, absolutely the most important thing! And what happens most part of the time? As soon as the animal enters the exam room, someone hugs him around his neck. Out of nowhere, someone applies what looks like a jiu-jitsu move on the already tense and scared animal in a totally unfamiliar environment. As time passed, I improved my techniques and started teaching hospitals and professionals in the pet area. And you know what? Nothing changed.
I'm going to start talking about a very delicate point that leaves me very frustrated. It has often been the topic of my job that makes me depressed and angry. Most veterinary hospitals don't have time for positive techniques. This is a fact. Accept it or not, it happens all the time. Schedules are crazy busy. Patients are scheduled every fifteen minutes.
Professionals need to do what needs to be done, and quickly. Do you think there is enough time to give the dog treats, bring the dog into the exam room giving him time to adapt, and approach him calmly? Forget about it! It doesn't happen!
The evolution of veterinary medical care today is incredible! Twenty years ago, there was nothing like what we have today. Sophisticated blood tests, advanced machines, ultrasound, MRI, absolutely everything. Our dogs today have medical care like what humans receive in the best hospitals. But there is a price to be paid for this. To offer these services, hospitals need to spend more, and consequently charge more; and as a result, have a higher customer turnover.
Many years ago, I took a family member to a doctor because she wasn't feeling well. We went in, the doctor asked five or six questions, and prescribed medication. I remember I was pissed! I thought, “This guy didn’t even put a hand on the patient!” Did the doctor do everything quickly because he didn’t care, or was it because he had six other people waiting in the lobby with late appointments?
In the veterinary world, there were many times that I observed a technician or even a veterinarian restraining an animal incorrectly, and I approached to help. Some accept it, but many times the answer I get is: “MARCO, I'M LATE! I DON'T HAVE TIME FOR THIS! THE LOBBY IS FULL OF PATIENTS!” See my point?
With the emergence of Fear Free Certification, this situation has improved a lot. Hospitals that want to achieve this certification need to treat patients following guidelines and techniques in a positive way.
When I mentioned above that this is the part of my job that often makes me depressed, it's because in some cases, I had to give up on applying these techniques simply because the work environment didn’t allow me to use them.
HOW DO I CREATE A BETTER EXPERIENCE FOR MY DOG?
I love this question because the answer is completely related to “WHAT CAN I DO?”. If you can't be sure the hospital will apply positive techniques to your dog, or the technician is not well trained, or for any other reasons, then let's house train our dogs with restraining techniques to use them when we go to the hospital.
This was the solution I found. If I train my dog at home by creating a positive responses by simulating situations that happen in a hospital, I can create a dog that can deal with these situations.
SENSITIVE POINTS AND CONDITIONING
First, let's understand what the sensitive points on a dog’s body are. Mouth, eyes, ears, nails, paws, tail, and genital area. Knowing this, we will create exercises to not only desensitize the touch, but also to create positive responses.
The first step is to touch all these areas when you are at home reinforcing them with treats and affection. Touch your dog's nails, hold them, and gently pinch them by applying pressure to the area. Reward.
Touch the ears. Take a piece of gauze and gently explore the inner part of the ears. Reward. Open your dog's mouth and touch the gum. Reward. Raise his tail. Touch his genital areas and massage around the anal area as if simulating pressure to squeeze the anal gland. Reward.
Start gently, for five minutes. Don't progress too quickly. Your dog is with you every day. You have time to repeat this procedure every day for five minutes. In the paw area, after your dog has already understood that every time you touch it, he gets a treat, bring a nail clipper, and just touch the nails. Reward. Repeat! Repeat! Repeat! After a few days, open the nail clipper and apply a little pressure to the nail as if you were going to cut it, but don't cut it. Just let your dog feel the pressure. Reward! Repeat! Reward! Repeat!
The same for the ears. Every day, massage using a piece of gauze going a little deeper. DO NOT USE COTTON SWABS OR ANY OTHER OBJECT. YOUR FINGER IS THE BEST OBJECT TO CLEAN YOUR DOG'S EAR. After repeating it several times for several days, put a drop of ear cleaner inside. Reward! Reward! Reward!
Constantly touching and massaging these areas will bring about two important positive results. First, your dog will be so used to being touched in these areas that he won't care anymore. And second, he will associate treats and affection when he allows someone to touch these areas.
You can even expand this training to desensitization to vaccines and injections. Place your dog in a standing position, facing you. While you fill him with treats and cuddles, a second person approaches touching the areas where vaccines are usually applied. The lower side flank and the upper flank close to the shoulders. Start with that second person touching these areas and massaging them. After a few days of repetition, this person will not only massage the area, but apply small pinches as well. Keep repeating, rewarding, and progressing day by day. Take a small blunt object, like a pen. Press the tip of this object against the area as if you wanted to literally penetrate the skin (of course, without doing it). REWARD! REWARD! There are many examples of patients that I trained with techniques like these and today we can apply vaccines and carry out tests without even having to restrain them.
MY DOG DOES ALL THIS AT HOME, BUT WHEN I ARRIVE AT THE HOSPITAL, HE BEHAVES DIFFERENTLY
This is another very common situation. The dog is perfect at home, and he allows everyone to touch him, but not in the hospital.
Once you've mastered all these body manipulation techniques at home, you'll need to transfer that training elsewhere.
If your vet lets you do this repeatedly in the hospital, perfect! This will be the best of both worlds. At the hospital where I currently work, I perform these body manipulation techniques constantly with patients. Training visits to the hospital are important to establish a positive response and to show your dog that this place is not the horrible place where every time he enters, he is grabbed, held, and prodded.
If your veterinary hospital does not allow you to do this kind of training there, then go to friends' houses, offices, and other places where you can make it as similar as possible to a hospital. Or just look for another hospital. (I am kidding, or maybe not!)
Ask friends to help you by posing as veterinarians, dress up in white lab coats and have something around their neck that might resemble a stethoscope. The more you practice, the better you will get.
MY VETERINARIAN DOES NOT ALLOW ME TO STAY WITH MY DOG DURING THE EXAM OR ANY OTHER PROCEDURES
Separating the owner from the dog is standard in many places. You need to understand that most owners bring more stress than calm into an environment that may already be tense. The owner is often more nervous than the dog. Worried about the health of his furry friend, the tension that the owner emanates is so high that the best thing is to separate them.
It is something taught in veterinary schools. When I attended the University of Veterinary Medicine in São Paulo, all my professors, without exception, told the owners to wait outside. This culture of separating the dog from the owner is old and routine in school curricula. However, sometimes it is not ideal.
If you are an owner who is nervous simply because your dog needs a vaccine, please leave the room because you are not helping at all. You are just making the professional's job more difficult. But if you have trained your dog with all the techniques we discussed above, you have every right to ask to stay in the room with your dog to help with the restraining. No one will be happier than the veterinarian and technician if you can demonstrate that your dog is trained to be touched and handled without the need for restraining.
Marco Magiolo is a bestselling author, trainer, and speaker. Connect with Marco on social media and subscribe to future newsletters and updates.