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Veterinarian Technician June 2013 (Vol 34, No 6)

Inside Behavior: Winning the Trust of Fearful Dogs

by Julie K. Shaw, KPA-CTP, RVT, VTS (Behavior)

    It’s a familiar scenario: you enter an examination room, and your canine patient is cowering at his owner’s feet and already growling at you even though you haven’t spoken yet! Don’t take this personally: your patient is terrified and clinging to his most valuable resource—his owner. The following steps will help you win the trust of fearful dogs.

    Step 1—Be in the examination room before the patient enters. The best predictor of behavior is past behavior. If a dog has been fearful during past visits, ask the owner not to feed the dog for 8 to 12 hours before the appointment. When the patient and the owner enter the room, ignore the patient and explain to the owner that you are trying to be nonthreatening to the dog (FIGURE 1).

    Step 2—As you begin to obtain the patient history, ignore the dog, but toss him highly palatable treats (e.g., cooked chicken chunks). Every examination room should have a container of peanut butter or canned cheese, and the hospital’s refrigerator should have hot dogs or cooked chicken chunks. If the client questions the feeding of table food, explain that this training session is part of the reason it is important not to feed table food at home: to allow it to be a powerful training tool at the veterinary hospital.

    Step 3—If the patient shows no interest in the treats you offer, ask the owner to offer the treats. Often, a fearful dog will accept a “safe” treat from the owner before it accepts the same type of treat from a veterinary staff member.

    Step 4—If the dog continues to hide by or behind the owner, ask the owner to walk across the room, away from the dog (FIGURE 2). The dog will decide whether he is safer to hide alone or to follow the owner. By getting the dog to walk across the room, you create an opportunity for him to learn that nothing bad will occur. If the dog does not follow the owner, have the owner kneel down and offer or toss a treat to the dog.

    Step 5—Once the dog and the owner have left the “safe” area, you should sit where the dog had been hiding (FIGURE 3). Turn your side toward the dog, avert your eyes from the dog, and nonchalantly toss treats to him to create a “breadcrumb trail” to you. Do not talk to the dog or look directly at him. Continue talking calmly to the client, regardless of what the dog does. Clients often feel embarrassed by their pets’ behavior at the veterinary clinic. It is important to help the client relax by telling him or her that it is okay—the pet is just afraid, and you are hoping to calm the pet’s fears.

    Step 6—As the dog begins to accept treats closer to you, offer a treat from your upturned hand (FIGURE 4). Make sure not to remove your hand until the dog has turned to walk away. Moving your hand away too soon can cause a fearful dog to become aggressive. If the dog is “stretching” to get the treat or snatching it from your hand, be very still and do not increase any aspect of the interaction until the dog chooses to move away on its own.

    Step 7—Hold the treats increasingly closer to your body when offering them to the dog. Continue this until your hand is next to your body when you offer treats. At this point, the dog may not leave after it eats the treats. This is when you can offer another treat while scratching the dog’s chest. Always allow the dog to retreat when it wants to so that it feels like it is in control of the interaction. Eventually, the dog may not leave you and may even lean against you. Even at this point, do not stand or change your posture until the dog leaves on his own.

    Step 8—When the dog leaves of its own volition, stand and toss treats to it. The dog should now trust you enough to begin seeking your attention. Quietly ask the dog to sit, and offer a treat (FIGURE 5). At this point, you have likely won a permanent friend.

    What should I do if the dog will not accept treats throughout the appointment, even from the owner?

    You must find a less stressful starting point for the dog. If the dog does not accept treats even though it is hungry (because the owner withheld food for the recommended amount of time before the appointment) and the treats are highly palatable, the dog is in extreme distress. On the next veterinary visit, determine when the dog stops taking treats before or during the visit. Will the dog accept treats in the owner’s car in the clinic’s parking lot? If so, begin the training there. The use of anxiolytic medications may be required to create a nonstressful starting point for the dog.

    Doesn’t this process take a lot of time?

    No, it doesn’t, especially if you multitask by obtaining the patient history while you follow the above steps. If you aren’t making progress with a patient, a treatment and behavior modification plan should be considered.

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