Dogs can be scared of the vet because it involves strangers poking and prodding, and giving them shots
Over time, your dog can begin to associate the vet with negative experiences- anxiety, fear, and pain.
As the owner, you may also become anxious, which your dog will begin to pick up on, only building on their anxiety
Happy visits allow for your dog to interact with the vet slowly, on their terms, and begin to associate the place and the people with positive interactions (who sometimes do negative things, like give shots, or feel their gums).
We all know it, and we all (love?) it, but know that it’s a reality- you have to take your pet to the vet. In theory, this is all good and well, right? You book the visit, you take your dog. Well, for many people, that may be true. But my journey (and I suspect many others), it was a little more complicated than that. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about my pup, Niska’s, journey with vet visits, how her anxiety got in the way, and how “happy visits” have helped.
I, like many other Americans, got a dog during the pandemic. In July of 2020, I became the very happy owner of a little 7-month old Patterdale Terrier who stole my heart immediately. No seriously- when I went to adopt her, she ran up to me as if she already knew who I was. The person I adopted from gave me her records, and told me I’d need to schedule a vet appointment to get her next round of vaccines. First, to find a vet- well I had passed by a vet most days down the road from where I lived, so that one seemed obvious. I scheduled the appointment, and had to wait about a month before she could be seen. No worries- it gave me plenty of time to love up on her in the meantime.
Then, the day came for her first vet appointment! We had already taken some car rides, which she was starting to get used to. Since most car rides led to a new adventure, she thought nothing of it as I strapped her into her seat. We got to the vet- and what I didn’t expect was that due to COVID protocols, I wasn’t allowed to go in with her. In my mind, as a new pet mom of dog who didn’t seem to have an issue with most things, I didn’t love it, but didn’t worry too much. We got to the vet, I called to let them know we were there, told them what spot we were in, and the vet tech came to my car to get Niska out.
Well, as you can imagine, a strange person who my little fur baby had never met before, coming to take her out of her mom’s car- TERRIFYING, right? It was stressful for me, because I could tell it was stressful for her. But hey- it’s a part of it, right? Well, I waited in the car until the visit was done, and they brought her out to my car, and called me to walk me through what they did, the cost, and steps for the future.
This is actually how I found out that my very picky dog liked spray cheese (Kong)- that’s a story for another day, but it was good to know! I asked the vet for details on what they gave her, and immediately went to the pet store to buy some. I paid my bill, and left. Our vet visits continued in this manner, and the vet started to tell me about how anxious she was getting, so prescribed Niska some anti-anxiety pills that I was instructed to give her 1-2 hours before the vet visit each time. I didn’t love the idea of medicating my dog in this manner, but if it helps, then it helps!
Fast forward to the first time I could actually go in with her- YAY! The only issue is that the reason for this particular visit was because she had thrown up a couple times and wasn’t drinking water. Let me just tell you that my eyes were opened in this visit- and it broke my heart. My poor girl was so nervous during the visit, she was breathing super hard (I could feel her whole body move up and down with each breath), was squirmy, and panting. The vet needed to examine her, so I was instructed to put her on the table, wrap her in a blanket- and the vet attempted to just feel her gums. My girl was having none of it!! She snapped at the vet, and became even more visibly distressed. Because I was still very worried about her, they had to examine her, and so they wound up needing to SEDATE my girl, just to take an x-ray, and get to the bottom of the issue (I told them that she often chewed her toys and could have possibly swallowed some- which maybe was causing her upset stomach?).
They told me I could either stay in the room or leave and come back while they took her back. Since I was quite stressed at that point myself, I opted to get some fresh air, and waited until they called me to come back. In case you’re curious- she was totally fine, they couldn’t quite tell if she had swallowed something or not, but they put in some intravenous fluids to hydrate her, I paid the bill, and we left.
I asked the vet, before we left- I know she’s already prescribed these meds, but is there anything else I could possibly do to make these visits less stressful for her?
The vet said, sure- you can schedule a “Happy Visit,” just call ahead and bring her by. We’ll let her see the exam rooms, give her treats, scratches, etc. She said it helped with some dogs.
I felt as if the clouds had parted and sun was shining through- maybe this was the solution to the whole thing! I do, after all, really gravitate towards positive psychology, happiness, and ways to better frame our lives. Anything that offers positive reinforcement sounded like a great idea to me.
We are still early in our happy visit days, but I actually decided at that point that it was time to start over with a new vet (we had also somewhat recently moved to a new address anyway and the old place was a little inconvenient). We have gone on 2 happy visits so far, and it has really helped with her trusting the new vet.
Why happy visits work
First, let’s talk about why happy visits are necessary- although I assume if you are already reading this far down, I am preaching to the choir at this point. But I’ll point out the pink elephant in the room- going to the vet can be an anxiety-ridden event for your pet. Why? Well if you think about it from their point of view, they are suddenly around these strangers who are poking and prodding them, and sometimes causing pain (giving shots), but generally doing things that a stranger normally wouldn’t. So, your pet acts in a way that would evolutionarily be good- they give a warning to the stranger to stay back. Your pet may even act strangely towards you if you are helping at the vet, as they are in their “fight” stage of fight and flight in this strange environment. Then, let’s add to this that going to the vet is not just a one and down type of thing- unfortunately you have to go every 6 months (for puppies) and then annually- not counting if they get sick. So, each time they go to the vet, without an intervention, these experiences and behaviors are reinforced. And most likely, you as the owner begin to have a little anxiety, which then creates a feedback loop to make your dog anxious about going to the vet. After all, studies have shown that because dogs are social creatures, they are able to read our emotions, like stress and anxiety, and they begin to take on these emotions on as well.
As I discussed through my own journey, there are many things that can be done- and if you have an anxious animal, your vet may have also prescribed anti-anxiety medication for your fur baby. I will be the first to say that I am in favor of any medication that can help make normal functions a little more bearable- whether it be for humans or animals. However, having a background in psychology, I also recognize that you often need to work to treat the underlying issue and that there are often behavioral approaches that can be explored. Depending on the issue, medication can help with management until you are able to adequately address the underlying cause.
I had also started noticing that my dog would become a little aggressive when she was drowsy- to me and my partner. And, knowing that the anti-anxiety meds worked by making her a little drowsy, I began to notice another unhelpful pattern. So, I was determined that we needed to find some additional options for addressing this issue. As we all know, dogs respond well to reinforcement- and training your dog to associate the vet with good things and get used to it can actually help mitigate the negative experiences they have, and tamp down their anxiety.
Happy visits also allow for your vet and vet tech to develop a relationship with your dog that is free from negative activities. In fact, the staff at the vet will likely appreciate the opportunity to interact with your pet in this way as well- after all, most of them got into the profession because they love animals!
How to set up a Happy Visit
Once you are ready to set up the visit, you should first call your vet to ask about setting it up. Most vets will probably be familiar with the concept, but if they are not, you can explain what you are trying to accomplish, and ask if you can just bring your pet by to help them with future visits. More than likely, the vet will schedule a time for you to come by when there are not as many other animals there, and to make sure they have a free exam room. After all- you want this visit to be as similar as possible to a normal visit.
When you go to the Happy Visit, make sure you have plenty of treats! You will provide treats to the pup as often as possible during the time. The vet will probably encourage you to have your dog step onto the scale, and allow the dog to sniff around the exam room, and various places where they might be during the visit. Something I really loved about our current vet is that the vet and vet tech actually sat down on the floor with my pup and held out their hand for her to sniff, and gave lots of treats themselves.
All in all, it is a short visit, but totally worth it! I have heard from some that you can schedule them as often as you want- but you’ll have to figure out for yourself what is most realistic for your own schedule and how often will be needed.
Have you tried happy visits? Did you know about them before? Tell us in the comments below, or tag us on Instagram with your happy visit experiences!