Making Vet Visits Fear-Free

I knew of the Fear Free initiative developed by Dr. Marty Becker to take the stress and fear out of veterinary visits but until we got Tegan my interest was academic. Everything Becker said made sense, but not in a personal way. While the veterinary practice we use is not certified Fear Free, they are gentle and caring and, while my dogs have never enjoyed a visit, I thought that was normal.

The arrival of Tegan changed my thinking. He was shy of people and besides needing to work on that, I was very worried about our first veterinary visit. My first step was to decide on a high value reward for when Tegan did something of which I approved. After looking at many dog treats, I settled on deli turkey, cut into teeny, tiny cubes. The turkey is about the same price per pound as dry commercial treats. It’s a bit messy, but I wanted a wholesome treat that Tegan would really like.

When our neighbor came to visit, I scattered turkey bits closer and closer to her until Tegan was licking her sandaled feet. Out in public, I picked locations where people were at a distance and rewarded Tegan if he showed interest or moved closer.

Meanwhile, it was time to take Tegan to the veterinarian. I had watched the Fear Free videos on YouTube that show a dog eagerly licking peanut butter from a cup and ignoring the vet’s attentions. I broke up tiny dog treats and put them in a rubber toy, sealing the top with lots of peanut butter, and then I froze it. I chose the last appointment of the day at the vet’s and left Tegan in the car until they called for him, then I took him in a side door. As suggested by Becker, I put a non-skid mat on the slippery metal examining table and offered Tegan the toy. I asked the veterinarian not to examine his head. She agreed, but checked him out otherwise and gave him his vaccination. Tegan never even flinched when he got his shot and ignored the veterinarian, the vet technician, and even a cat who wandered through the room.

Two weeks later, we returned for a rabies shot. I repeated the procedure with the meat and this time, I gave turkey bits to the tech, as well as offering the toy to Tegan. He calmly let the veterinarian stroke him, and he happily took turkey treats from the tech. Again, he received his shot with no complaints.

During this visit, the veterinarian discovered a yeast infection in one of Tegan’s ears. Using rewards for holding still, by the end of a week’s treatment, Tegan was holding still as I swabbed his ear with medicine. Periodically, I put him on my grooming table for light grooming and he looks forward to it, as he knows there will be rewards.

I continued to work with Tegan, training “come,” “sit,” “down,” and “touch.” The last command rewards him for touching my hand with his nose. I used that to introduce him to strange objects, like our laundry basket. Always having tasty treats in my pocket helps distract him if it looks like he’s undecided about something, like a loud noise. Soon, a loud noise will mean a treat, and not something to be afraid of.

The final veterinary visit was Tegan’s most relaxed. Again, I left him in the car until the doctor was ready to see him. I put his mat on the table and once Tegan was settled, I offered the peanut butter filled toy. Tegan was totally calm and let the tech pet him. He also let the veterinarian pet him and, while he struggled a bit when she examined his ears and mouth, there was no growling or nipping. He had eaten all his peanut butter before he had gotten his vaccination, so the tech refilled the toy with spray cheese and that is, apparently, Tegan’s new favorite food. He totally ignored the shot. Afterward, the vet and I chatted, with Tegan still on the table. He was comfortable there and accepted pets from the vet happily. None of my other dogs has ever been at ease on the examining table, but then they never had a non-skid mat, or non-stop tasty treats.

I’m continuing to take Tegan new places as well as gradually adding more people to the mix, and, thanks to Becker, Tegan views veterinary visits as good things, full of friendly people, and peanut butter and cheese.