Reduce the Triggers, Reinforce Calm Behavior, & Medication

Question:
We rescued a beautiful female 18 month old shepherd/whippet from the Taos shelter. She had been left in the backyard by herself. She is terrified when she goes to the veterinary clinic. She hides behind me and even tries to climb up my back to get away! Her main problem is submissive/excitement urination. She just sees us and lets go.

Dr. Nichol:
That is one wigged out whippet. Imagine how terrified a human would be to lose that much control. Your dog’s frantic attempts to escape the good intentions of scary monsters in white coats and scrub tops are emotionally painful. Those high-drama reunions with her leaders, completely overwhelming her bladder sphincter, can’t be much fun either. Your girl really needs help.

Some dogs come pre-programmed for intense fear. Genetic factors that allow the limbic system (the brain’s fear center) to run the show can be tough to manage. Environmental influences will add insult to injury. Having missed out on healthy social contact as a youngster your dog is short on coping skills. Without effective management her awkward and embarrassing faux pas will worsen with repetition.

You are the leader. Completely ignore this nervous wreck at the first hint that she may go off the rails. When her hyperarousal is moderately improved you can avert your eyes and make yourself less imposing by squatting. Then give her a simple command, like sit. Reward with quiet petting and maybe a treat. Repeat hundreds of times.  Dogs learn best by earning enforcement; attempts to calm a scared dog with soothing tones are pointless.

The veterinary clinic staff can help by sitting quietly on the floor and avoiding direct eye contact, allowing your girl to muster the courage to approach for a treat. Minimal handling can avoid her intense arousal so she can learn that good things will happen. A Gentle Leader head halter would be the perfect management tool, making it easy to steer your dog’s attention toward your face and away from fear triggers like syringes and latex gloves.

Finally, an antianxiety medication such as imipramine or paroxetine, along with an Adaptil pheromone collar, would lower the hurdle for Nervous Nellie to learn a healthier response.