#8-Fearful Dogs

NMVMA listserve Veterinary Behavior Tip #8

Jeff Nichol, DVM
Behavior resident in private practice training
Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Centers

Albuquerque and Santa Fe Frightened/Aggressive Dogs in the Veterinary Clinic

Dogs who react with aggression require time and energy. Their owners have presented them for an important medical service. It is our job to get it done. Muzzles, firm restraint, struggling, urine, feces, anal glands-it can go downhill quickly. These dogs need safe, individualized management. It’s important to our clients; they really hate it when their pets are returned to them frightened and stressed.

A few seconds of observing posture and body signaling will reveal the dog’s mindset: is she truly dangerous or frightened and potentially defensive aggressive? Out of their element, and confronted by strange and unsettling scents and white coats, most problem dogs are just freaked-out.

I’ve attached the “Ladder of Aggression” to illustrate the escalation from fear to aggression that causes most injuries to veterinary staffs and (OMG!) pet owners during exams and treatments. I encourage you to share it with your group. Watch for the quick half-step retreat, the turned head, yawning, lip licking, and nervous panting. These body signals mean that the fuse is already lit.

Not every adrenalin-driven dog is a ticking bomb. Some Nervous Nellies will actually work with us. But if we remove their choices they’ll feel trapped. Panic may follow quickly. What they really need is the option to interact or not depending on comfort level.

Avoiding overwhelm is critical.

  • Set the dog up for success: Don’t allow anyone to reach for, approach, lean over, or stare at it.
  • Remain quiet; the fewer people in the room the better. Just the dog and its doctor may work best.

Low stress handling:

  • Squat or sit on the floor and wait silently for about 30 seconds. In my experience many dogs will approach and allow an exam, vaccination, and even a tourniquet and blood draw.
  • Muzzles don’t offend most dogs who are handled in a non-threatening manner.
  • Try leading him into a vacant quiet room. Stand next to his chest, facing the same direction as his body, step on the leash, and squat slowly.
  • Pause for several seconds and touch the shoulders and then the neck. With your foot on the leash and both hands free a general exam may be easy. Most small dogs can be gently and slowly lifted onto a table.
  • As the no-longer-threatened dog relaxes she may allow you to slowly pivot so you can slip on a tourniquet and draw blood.
  • Reward good behavior with a tasty treat but don’t be effusive. We want relaxation, not arousal. Repeating this reinforcer as you deliver the finished product is a client pleaser and a practice builder. Everybody loves a gentle doctor.

OK, that’s one subset of dogs with rodeo potential. My next missive will address the impossible-to-handle category, complete with drugs and dosages.

All the best,
Jeff Nichol, DVM