Touching, Handling, and 'Vet Phobias'

Some dogs need a lot of work to get them to feel comfortable about being touched, handled or restrained. This applies especially to some breeds, and to dogs taken on as adults which have had little experience of being handled. Dogs can also become anxious about being handled if they've had some rough handling, which includes surprising them by picking by suddenly them up and cuddling them. Small dogs may send messages of 'cuteness overload', but need respect and self-control from their owners! The best time to get dogs used to having their paws, ears and other sensitive parts examined is when they are puppies. Pups like contact with humans, so it's easy to have a quick pretend vet exam while the pup is relaxed, looking at ears, eyes, teeth, paws (including nails) and other sensitive areas. You can play 'trust games', which include very short periods of restraint, while pups are in a playful mood and showing 'happy' body language. Professional help can be especially useful if you're unsure of the messages your pup is sending you. or the effect of your body language on a pup. If your pup starts to get anxious about handling, it is time to see an experienced professional. 

It takes longer to accustom an adult dog to being handled. If you take on a dog that's wary of being touched due to lack of close human contact, it's worth working with a professional, and developing a plan to relax the dog. A fearful dog may see  an approaching hand as a threat if it comes out of the blue, yet ask to be petted at other times. Generally, dogs like being scratched behind the ears, and long, slow strokes from the neck down the back. They tend not to like unpredictability, especially if woken from sleep by being petted. You can get dogs used to being kissed or patted on the head, restraining bear hugs, being petted by someone towering over them, and being grabbed by the collar, but many dogs find this unnerving. If they're spooked enough, they may snap defensively. Children do need to be supervised with dogs, and small children are not a good mix with dogs that are edgy about being touched. 


 A good vet is worth his or her weight in gold. If you are lucky, you may find a practice with several good vets, where you know who the dog will see, and that they get on with your dog. You can find out from training classes and dog walking circles which vets are best at developing rapport with dogs. A good vet takes the time to say hello to your dog, carries out procedures calmly and efficiently, and understands that it's important for your dog to enjoy being at the vet's as far as possible. Good vets aim to make procedures as quick and painless as possible, and see nothing extraordinary in giving your dog a titbit afterwards (providing your dog can be trusted not to bite him!). Most vets are good with dogs, but there are some who aren't. Some practices have locums, which means you can't tell who will see your dog. These practices are best avoided. Try changing your vet if you are unsure about the practice, and your dog becomes reluctant to go into the examination room there.

Most procedures at vets are intrusive, and may be uncomfortable, but are not actually painful. Get your dog used to being handled from puppyhood, and he'll be more relaxed about vet visits. If anything painful has to be done, anaesthetics are obviously preferable, though the effects of brief discomfort can be offset with some of the dog's favourite treats given during treatment or immediately afterwards.

Dogs can develop strong anxiety about going to a vet, especially if they aren't used to intrusive handling, or have an unpleasant experience. You can deal with 'vet phobias' as with any other exaggerated fear, helping the dog to associate the vet's with pleasant experiences. This may mean changing vets, and initially just going into the waiting room and being offered titbits by a vet nurse. 

 Be kind to your vet, and muzzle your dog if he has ever bitten a human, unless the vet is aware of the risk and is dog-savvy enough to size up your dog and treat him without a muzzle. Vets often become dog-phobic because owners are less than honest about whether their dogs might bite. You can put titbits in the muzzle, and get your dog to put his nose in it voluntarily, and then put it on without doing it up, followed by a reward. Then do it up, leave it on for a short while, and take it off again, followed by a reward. Muzzles are less confrontational if put on from behind, with your head and the dog's aligned, but if your dog trusts you and associates muzzles with treats, this is not necessary. Don't let your vet or anyone else muzzle your dog unless they have excellent dog handling skills, because if the dog gets away with threatening them and they don't manage to muzzle him, he is likely to use threats again, which will make vet treatment more difficult. It's safer to learn how to do put the muzzle on yourself, with the help of a very experienced trainer, who can also help you to get your dog more relaxed about being handled.