Help! My Vet is Scaring My Dog!

4 | Posted:

By Dr. Sophia Yin
R.I.P. 1966-2014

Question: Today I went to get my pup’s last set of shots. This was the third visit to the vets. Axel did some growling and tail between the legs, but, over time, he became a little comfortable with the vet and the vet tech. He was still uneasy though– ears back, tail curled, and doing a little growl. He felt more comfortable with me holding him (when I let the vet tech take over he just wanted to jump off the table). Well anyways, I was a little surprised when the vet put his face up to my 15 week old pup’s face! He was “asking” for a kiss– more like a bite! I know Axel was going to snap at him, but I gave him the “don’t you dare” look. The vet would do this several times, and Axel would assume the position and turn his face towards me as if saying “Help me, Mom– he’s bothering me”. I didn’t know how to tell the vet to stop, so I would just look at Axel and pet his head to calm him down.

Well, I guess my question is: what can I say to my vet next time I go? I’m a little worried about stepping on his toes and also what if next time Axel does bite him?

-Sara Renee Spiel


The good news is that your veterinarian loves animals, which is why he tried to kiss Axel. So it should be easy to get him to modify his interaction next time if you approach the subject in the right way. That means providing information from a credible source to back up your assertions and also to take steps on your side to help alleviate Axel’s fears. Here’s what I would do.

Write a Letter to Your Veterinarian

Write a letter to your veterinarian thanking him for his veterinary care and expressing that you appreciate his love for pets. Then bring up your concerns about your puppy’s fear and describe the signs your puppy was showing. You can even download and print out the Body Language of Fear and Anxiety in Dogs flyer and circle the signs your dog was showing.

You can state that you think the veterinarian may have noticed which is why he tried to comfort Axel by kissing, but that you’ve read that kissing, hugging and approaching scared dogs head on actually causes them to become more fearful to the point where they may bite. At this point, you can download the How to Greet a Dog and What to Avoid poster/flyer for him to see. You can provide links to these articles:

Since you’re planning to stay with this veterinarian, I’d express that you’d love to stay with him but are concerned that he and his staff may get bitten when they unconsciously interact in ways that cause more fear. Also, express that you’re concerned such events can make Axel worse and that you know you have some work to do on your end. You can send them these links to give them an example of what you will be working on.

Ask if you can bring Axel in outside of his regular exam just to receive treats and learn that good things happen in the hospital setting. You might even ask if you can purchase some exam time where the veterinarians or technicians give treats and approach him correctly so that he looks happy and is showing no signs of fear. You might suggest that they brush up on the greeting technique prior to such an examination and even refer to chapters 2 and 14 in Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats, which specifically address approaching and examining difficult pets in a way that keeps the pets happy and the humans safe.

What If Their Other Handling Skills Seem to Need Improvement?

If you feel your hospitals technicians and veterinarians also need improvement on how to handle and restrain your pet beyond just the initial greeting, you may also want to refer them to the textbook Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats. While this textbook has been adopted into some veterinary and technician programs, it’s not used by all of them yet. Veterinarians who see a demand by their clients for more skilled handling that shows they care about your pet will become more and more willing to take the time to learn and have their staff update their skills. They can update their skills by attending behavior lectures at veterinary conferences, attending one of my Low Stress Handling seminars or labs (link to seminar schedule page), participating in our online Low Stress Handling Certification, or purchasing our Low Stress Handling DVDs, especially our Dog and Cat Handling DVDs.

Will My Veterinarian Care?

Most veterinarians, when provided with credible information—such as from a textbook or veterinary source—are willing to improve their skills when clients approach the situation in the right way. By taking that step to express your concerns and provide access to credible and widely accepted information, you, your pet and your veterinarian will benefit!

Dr. Yin passed away in 2014 but her memory and her work lives on.

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4 responses to “Help! My Vet is Scaring My Dog!

  1. I find that clients with misbehaved, fearful or otherwise unruly pets (especially the puppy situation described here) universally don’t identify their component in all this. Sure the veterinarian should hopefully take control of the situation and try to make it better and have a frank talk about behavior and training. But I know that most of the time the client thinks *I* am the problem and won’t hear of it any other way.

    The dog is scared so I must be the cause.

    Frankly I am shocked that this column would add credence to the fact that the vet needs assistance in identifying their shortcomings. One doesn’t get their opinion on what happened in that exam room. The title of this in and of itself is somewhat offensive to me.

    Carl Singer DVM

  2. Carl:

    Unfortunately, I see poor handling and greeting by veterinary technicians and staff every time I hold low stress handling labs, work with veterinary students, veterinarians and vet technicians (including those in the field for 15-30 years). And every time I lecture to veterinary staff at conferences (Western Vet, American Animal Hospital Association, AVMA, Midwest Vet) I show the body language of fear and inappropriate greeting that make the animal worse, the audience members resoundlingly can SEE what was done incorrectly and admit that they see this frequently themselves (and have done these things themselves in the past). Luckily it’s easy for these people to improve once they recognize the situation and know what to do AND it as a result of their improvement they tell me that they can get procedures done more quickly, and the clients (and patients) are happier.

    In this blog article, the owner said specifically what the vet did incorrectly. Kissing and hugging pets is not an appropriate greeting, especially for a fearful pet, regardless of what the owner is doing. I and my assistants have had technicians and veterinarians greet in this inappropriate manner with our own fearful pets or foster pets, but are skilled enough to keep the vet/technician from being bitten.

    it’s true that clients are not necessarily the most adept at handling pets and may contribute to pets being more fearful. But in this case the veterinarian’s hugging/kissing of a pet is clearly inappropriate–As inappropriate as it would be for a human doctor to try to comfort a client by kissing him/her. it’s important for the client to have a way to communicate their concerns to their veterinarian in a constructive manner so that something positive may result. Hopefully their vet won’t be so close-minded that he/she refuse to look at credible sources for improving recognizing body language in dogs and improing skills. Besides the references I included, he/she can also speak to any veterinary behaviorist, behavior specialty technician, or certified applied animal behaviorist to see where improvements can be made or HOW they can control the dog and/or client in a way that makes both feel comfortable with what’s going on during the examination.

    Remember, according to the Bayer Usage study something like 50% of cat owners and 37% of dog owners don’t like (and thus won’t ) bring their pet to the hospital because the pet is too stressed. it can only help veterinarians to learn to make the minor changes in hospital set-up and improve their handling skills. their clients will appreciate their skill and see them as more caring.

  3. Hi Dr. Singer,

    It’s important to distinguish between misbehaved and unruly vs. frightened and anxious.

    Having lived three and a half years now with an anxious reactive dog who is truly frightened, not just “ill-mannered,” I am far better now than I was when we adopted him at recognizing signs of fear in dogs and I would have to say that most of your clients probably don’t realize their dogs are fearful and potentially aggressive as a result. Not just at the vet but in many places… sadly, often at home as so many incidents and videos have shown recently.

    So you can be of the utmost help to your patients by gaining a good understanding of signs that a dog is afraid and how to work with a frightened dog to alleviate their fears as much as possible. And you also help keep yourself and your staff safe.

    An even longer-term benefit to your patients of that skill is the opportunity to educate clients about their dog when you see signs of fearful, potentially aggressive behavior since it probably occurs in other areas of the dog’s life as well.

    I recognize that a lot of clients won’t listen to you or believe you, but nothing ventured is nothing gained.

    Similarly, you have nothing to lose by using low-stress handling techniques that are likely to make the experience better for the dog regardless of what the client takes in.

    And if your patient is fortunate enough to have a person caring for him who is fully aware of the dog’s anxiety issues and is working on them and asks for your help in facilitating that training and behavior modification, that’s reason to break into a warm smile and sincere and compassionate cooperation. That is someone who is incredibly dedicated to their dog’s well-being – and just the kind of client I think you would want.

    The people who are working with their dogs to alleviate sincere anxiety do not blame the vet for the anxiety. They know their dogs well enough to know that the anxiety comes from a combination of the dog’s emotional makeup and the environment he’s in. Our dog, for example, has a number of well-definied “triggers” – types of people, environments, objects, actions – that are especially fear-inducing for him. So in his case, for example, he does best with “less is more.” Restraining him as little as possible is helpful to him and definitely no scruffing around the ears or patting on the head or grabbing at his face. Leaning in to kiss our dog would be an excellent way, especially if by a male vet or tech, to be bitten in the face.

    Which really makes sense… if we did to other humans what we do to dogs on a daily basis – grabbing them, scruffing their heads, kissing a person we’ve never met – all the things we do to dogs all the time, thinking we are being nice to them. Well… I can tell you what I’d do if a total stranger walked up and did that to me!

    The person Sophia responded to is not blaming the vet for her dog’s fear. She is simply looking for a way to address the fear problem to alleviate it for the safety of all concerned.

    Having a dog like that myself, I know how difficult it is to broach it with the vet but I also know that a lot of vets and vet techs do not understand fear issues well at all.

  4. Thanks for the tip that I should address the fear of my dog through a letter to my chosen vet to make them aware of what my dog doesn’t like that what make her nervous. She has been quite protective of herself whenever I touch her belly lately, making me suspect that she somehow got it on with the neighbor’s dog and got pregnant. This gives me a lot more reasons to take her to regular checks ups.

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