Media – Fear-Free Medical Care

Cooperation Earns Food

My wonderful, elderly Ellie (13 years) is difficult to work with when she has an ear infection, eye infection or other medical problem. She wiggles and I cannot properly medicate her. She’s not above taking a nip at me. There are no muzzles for Shih Tzu’s because they have no snout. When I take her to the veterinarian, it takes me holding her front legs, an assistant holding her snout and body down (making it difficult for her to breathe). It’s most disturbing to me and Ellie.

Dr. Nichol:
You and Ellie are not alone. A recent study showed that 78% of dogs suffer from anxiety and fear in the veterinary clinic. Never mind that no one intends to harm them. When restrained, many of them are overwhelmed with a desperate need to escape. Some are so panicked that they become defensive aggressive. And they don’t forget, reacting worse each time they encounter a scary monster wearing a white coat.

Pets are our best friends but the bond can be damaged. There are fear-free methods for conducting an exam, treating a wound, and administering home treatment. A muzzle would prevent a bite but a trapped dog’s despair would worsen. What you and good Ellie really need is a structure that rewards her cooperation so you can both abandon the struggle.

Your girl can work for a food reward by first allowing the medication to be nearby, then a little closer, and then a little bit closer. Take it slow until Ellie is completely relaxed, then raise the bar a tad, by gently touching her face with the dropper near her eyes or ears. You can add a “marker” – a word she will associate with finishing her job, entitling her to a treat. With patience and repetition Ellie will choose to be medicated because of your kindness and the food she earns.

Curing physical ailments is important but let’s do no harm. Coercion can lead to stress-related illness, an especially risky outcome for a canine senior like Ellie. Go to to find a veterinarian who is trained in gentle care. It feels better for everybody.

Dr. Jeff Nichol is a residency-trained veterinary behaviorist. He provides consultations in-person and in groups by Zoom (505-792-5131). Each week he shares a blog and a Facebook Live video to help bring out the best in pets and their people. Sign up at no charge at Post pet behavioral or physical questions on or by US Post to 4000 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuq, NM 87109.