Thursday, September 18, 2014

Going to the Vet with your Fearful Dog!

I have the most perfect "fearful" dog. She is an absolutely wonderful companion to me and my husband. She is funny, silly and loves to play. She snuggles with me when I don't feel well. She makes me laugh and takes away my pain. She is absolutely perfect in every way, except for two things. She is afraid of strangers reaching for her, to the point she will flail at the end of her leash to try and get away. (She has never growled or snapped at any human. All she wants to do is get away from them.) She trusts the people she knows to a point but is mostly uncomfortable being handled by anyone other than myself and my husband. Her other problem is that she is afraid of large dogs and she can be a little or a lot reactive with them depending on the situation.

Phoenix, cuddling with me.

Phoenix when I first got her. The most worried dog on the planet.

When I brought Phoenix home from the shelter, I groomed dogs at a vet clinic. I had a very generous boss who allowed me to bring my dogs to work with me every day. I knew I had a problem when, for a routine exam, my new dog scrambled up my body and jumped off my shoulder to get away from the approaching doctor and proceeded to flee the room. Three to four days a week, I loaded the girls up and they went with me to work. I had every opportunity to train my dogs there. I had access to tables, equipment and veterinary technicians, who are still to this day my friends. We worked, too.. We worked really hard.

I began by counter conditioning and desensitizing Phoenix to me handling her at home. She got very good at allowing this and even liked it. We played lots of games and had fun. Then I started working with her at work. At work they were crated in their own crates upstairs while I did my job. They just hung out for half the day, resting. I did not work full time but some days were longer than others. If we were having a longer day, they'd get a break about half way through.

 Phoenix and Zoe in one of the runs at work.

I started by just treating her for being near the treatment area, feed her treats and then go home. Then I'd put her up on the table, feed her and take her down, go home. When she was okay with that I'd have a tech walk up and I'd feed and then they'd walk away and we'd go home. We worked on this for about 5 months, 3-4 days a week. I would love to tell you that it worked beautifully and that Phoenix is okay now and everything is totally fine. It's not. She did not make much progress at all. She was always nervous any time she was in a room or the treatment area but able to cope with it. She was okay on the table as long as no one approached her and she was getting continuous feedings. She was even okay with techs approaching if they had food or being able to go up and sniff them. The problem was the reaching towards, any sudden movements and actual treatment.

Now, maybe it was my training. Maybe I didn't split it down enough for her or maybe I did too much, but I honestly don't think so. We'd train for maybe 5 minutes and then do her favorite thing, leave the vet clinic. At one point I decided that it wasn't worth it to continue. She still went to work with me and when the techs had time, I'd have them give her treats. She still got treats for being there but I stopped actively trying to fix her when it comes to vet stuff at the vet clinic.

I do think that sometimes you just can't fix everything with every dog. Dog Training is not black and white. There are a lot of grey areas and you have to decide how far you are willing to go. With Phoenix's past trauma and history it just wasn't worth it to me to continue traumatizing the crap out of my dog on daily basis for treatment she would only need maybe once or twice a year. I think it's important to know when to stop. Look yourself in the mirror and ask is this training really worth it? Is the dog benefiting from this? Can I just manage it instead? Is it really that important? How is this effecting our daily life together? Is this benefiting our relationship? Or is it hurting our relationship? Does this dog need a smaller world? What can I do to make this dog feel better?

So I started educating myself. I learned how to do a lot of vet tech stuff by myself. My tech friends taught me how to vaccinate, how to hold off veins for blood draws and how to handle a dog that doesn't want to be handled. I watched them work whenever I had a free moment and also asked them tons of questions. I also started watching some videos on vet handling that Sophia Yin has and found some even better ones by Chirag Patel where dogs learn to offer vet behaviors like you would teach a zoo animal.

I did more training at home. I taught her how to be still for fake vaccines, how to let me do a bordetella up the nose, to allow me to place her on her side and to be comfortable with me holding her there. To offer these behaviors on her own, without me touching her. We still work on handling every day but in an environment she was comfortable in. That's the most important part. Little to no progress can be made if the dog isn't comfortable in the environment. I can vaccinate her myself and do all the normal husbandry things a dog would need.

 Zoe & Phoenix both doing the "calm chin rest" which is very useful for giving a Bordetella Vaccine.

So what do I do for those pesky vet visits that I can't avoid? I hold her for the vet. It's as simple as that. She does not like strangers holding her and why should I put her through that if I can hold her myself and know how? It can be a bit challenging explaining this to a new vet but most of the time they are understanding and let me do what I need to do. Phoenix still does not enjoy the vet visits but we get through it. If she needed something more invasive done where I couldn't help I'd choose to have her sedated.

Recently I was talking to one of my vet tech friends, kind of agonizing over a future vet visit. Phoenix would need a blood draw and I wasn't sure how she would do. I was worried she'd struggle and end up hurting herself. My vet tech friend recommended that I ask for them to draw the blood in a back leg. It made perfect sense! I could hold her and cover her eyes and they could still access her back legs to get the blood. That vet visit has come and gone. Unfortunately, due to an illness, my husband had to take the dogs. This has never happened and he's not as well trained as I am. I explained to him and then showed him what I wanted him to do. The next morning, he loaded them up and off they went. He reported that he held her, covered her eyes and that they were able to get the blood no problem. She did great. He said she was still nervous the whole time but it was over with very quickly and she got her treats and it was okay. Not great, not perfect but okay and sometimes okay is all you need.

If you do have a fearful dog and you need blood drawn, I highly recommend you ask that they do it from a back leg and I am very thankful that my friend told me to do it that way. It is less invasive and easier on the dogs!

Sometimes with fearful dogs, you just have to get through stuff. The world is not full of rainbows and butterflies and sometimes things happen to them that suck. Even with all the training in the world, sometimes you just have to get through it. You can't always make everything better. I think it's important to try, though and to teach them how to deal with stress. Both of my dogs have learned that sometimes things happen that suck but Mom (and sometimes Dad!) is always there to make it better and you get cookies! We have not stopped any of their training and I still work very hard to counter condition them to the stuff that bothers them but I've come to realize that I cannot prevent every scary thing 100% of the time.

Phoenix says, "I like COOKIES!!"

***Just as a side note. We are still working on Phoenix's "stranger danger" fear and handling. She is doing pretty good with it. She is never going to be one of those happy-go-lucky "I want to meet everyone" kind of dogs, but she is still the perfect dog for us and we love her so much.

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I'm sorry about not having the code for this blog hop. I am posting from my phone. We are still having Internet problems. Please check out: to join the blog hop. 

Forest Fire Update: 28,000 acres have burned and it's still completely out of control. We still do not know of they will be evacuating us, although they've lifted some of the other ones.  

Thank you all for your kind words, thoughts and prayers.


  1. I'm really glad she handled the blood draw so well!!

    It's important to keep in mind many veterinarians may resist having owners hold due to liability. AVMA wrote an article listing several instances where owners insisted on holding aggressive animals, got bit, and sued the vet!!!

    I don't care if a client holds their pet if the bring them in muzzled/ask for a muzzle, or I know them and know they won't let their pet flail when they hold. I'm glad they let your husband do it. With your background in grooming I think most clinics would trust that you do know how to restrain an animal if necessary.

    1. I'm glad you saw this. :-D

      Yeah, for sure about the liability. Thanks for bringing that up. I have heard of that, too and I completely forgot about it. Most groomers don't allow owners to hold for that reason, too and Petsmart even has policies against it. Which is why it's so important to do as much training as you (generalization) can and find a professional who's willing to cooperate with you.

      Luckily, with Phoenix she's never gotten aggressive. Even when you ladies took x-rays and she was terrified. I'm not saying I trust that she'd never get aggressive, which is why I spent a lot of time ccing her to wearing a muzzle. Which I probably should of talked about as well. Lol!

    2. I just wanted to mention it incase one of your readers thinks their vet is just being a jerk and not letting them hold. I couldn't believe reading these stories - these owners KNEW their dogs were bad, said no big deal, got munched and then go after the vet. And in many cases won their lawsuits! It blows my mind. Phoenix has come a long way, she may never enjoy the vet but she's far from the dog you picked up at the shelter.

    3. I'm totally glad you did since I forgot about it. People suck. It completely shocks me how much they do. I actually (before Phoenix) used to be firmly in the camp that owners should not hold and go away. The few times I've relented on it I was actually pleasantly surprised. Their dogs actually did great with them there. It's those frantic people who are also panicking that I never let stay. I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about. Lol :-) Thank you for your kind words about Phoenix and for being so helpful when I have questions! It kind of amazes me how different she really is from two years ago! :-D

    4. Oh I totally hear you about the frantic owners! Their bad energy sets their dog off even more and usually instead of helping their dogs deal they are trying to coddle them and then the vet staff can't get in close enough to do their job. It's the easy going owners that dogs do alright with when they are there. So I totally hear ya on that one!!!

    5. I also hope that anyone who does read this realizes how much time I put into her and educating myself on what to do and how to hold. Learning what works with her and what doesn't. It's so weird now because when I do retrain her she's becoming more relaxed about it. Like she knows the thing that is happening sucks but when it's over we have a cookie party and it's becoming less of a big deal. It's kind of awesome. She recovers extremely quickly these days. No lingering, "I was just traumatized and I'm not talking to you until next week. I'll be hiding in here" stuff. :-)

  2. I meant to add good post! But blogger doesn't like my phone.

    1. Haha! Yeah I know your pain! Blogger can be a total pita.

  3. Our Maggie is fearful too, but her fears are different - she mostly fears being cornered or encountered in an enclosed space. She's great outside, actually likes to greet people and is okay at the vets. But in the house...she's always looking over her shoulder. Her reaction is usually just freezing, or if she's close enough she runs to her bed...otherwise it's statue time. I agree - you have to know when to stop and just learn to work around things.

    1. Awe! Poor Maggie! Working with fearful dogs can be so challenging. It kind of becomes a lifestyle.

  4. I'm so glad you found something that works for Phoenix and I commend you for know when it was time to stop and try something else. So many people don't understand that not all things can be fixed.

    Thank you for joining the blog hop, this is a great contribution.

  5. So sorry to hear about the forest fires! Keeping you in my thoughts :)
    Also, it sounds like you're a wonderful dog mom! Phoenix is lucky to have you :)

    1. Thanks! It is so sad. Up to 70,000 acres now.

  6. Have you considered have the vet come to your home? I know that more and more vets are doing house calls. I hear it reduces anxiety in pets and it's easier for multiple pet/species households. Vets can do routine exams and vaccinations in your living rooms.

    We have a vet here that has a tricked out RV so she comes to you! she can even do surgeries in your driveway. Her prices aren't any higher than traditional brick & mortar clinics.

  7. Thanks so much for joining the hop. :) I was out of town and my post posted without the linky code for some reason, so I was late to get the code posted. I was pretty proud that I figured out how to add it from my phone with really bad

    I think it is great that you found a way to manage Phoenix's stress. I think sometimes it is the smell of the vet that stresses them, or sometimes other stressed dogs. Freighter gets the blood draw in his back leg. Works better for him. He is old time Chessie and does not like to be fussed with.


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