True to their name, “fun visits” establish a joyful expectancy at the veterinarian for some dogs who step through office doors licking their chops in happy expectation of a tasty morsel. And every positive experience helps tip the scales in favor of the canine learning to like—or at least be more relaxed at—the veterinary hospital.
But fun visits don’t work for all dogs. Take Bunny, for example. Fun visits did little to settle her anxious anticipation at the vet. Even though she practiced several fun visits where she experienced fun activities in the lobby, she continued to quake in fear, shivering and panting heavily during every trip to the veterinary practice.
As she stepped into the practice, she would try to flee and hide or cower in a nervous ball. There were few, if any, positive aspects of the fun visits, and she remained terrified from associations she’d made on previous visits, despite her owners’ efforts to create new, positive associations.
Another common flaw with fun visits: While some pooches may show less hesitation or even develop positive associations with the practice waiting area, where they expect a treat, play or other positive experiences, they’re less prepared for the actual examination and care and may become anxious beyond the reception desk.
The solution: more targeted preparation for dogs. The goal is to get the pup more accustomed to the environments and types of handling and care they’re going to experience. Many dogs are much better prepared for the hands-on care they’ll receive at your veterinary practice if you take the time to associate these situations with pleasurable sensations.
What about the pooches who are too stressed to relax with associated rewards and training? This is where I recommend using a different approach to slowly build up the canine’s confidence at a relaxing pace.
Here are the specific components of a Victory Visit
Victory Visits are done at a pace that’s comfortable for the dog. Some dogs are relaxed enough to move into the exam room or to begin initial handling work of a mock exam. Other pooches require a slower approach: starting initial handling in the comfort of their own home and conditioning to initial anxiety triggers, like the car ride or parking lot. In some cases, special intervention is necessary and preparation alone is limited. In these cases the veterinarian may use medications or refer the pet to a veterinary behaviorist.
2. Location, time and resources
So now you may be thinking, sure, that sounds great in theory. But how would any practice actually have the time and resources to pull it off? Every hospital is different, and you can tailor Victory Visits to fit your space, schedule, team and demand.
Scheduling open times or days for clients to come in is one way to get such visits done when there’s low traffic or an open room is available. Or training may be catered to preparing owners and their dogs in either private or group sessions with a technician, certified trainer working with the hospital or other knowledgeable staff member.
We’ve found many clients are more than willing to invest in visits and training to keep stress levels low for their canine during care. But, in some cases when compliance is low or cost is a concern, consider incentivizing such classes, such as offering credit from the class to go to part of future veterinary care. Or, build up regular Victory Visit compliance with incentives that might matter to the owner, such as a specific number of visits or a goal met resulting in a reward, whether it’s special recognition, a small gift or a coupon. Ultimately positive experiences with the clinic to ease difficulty of later care and build client loyalty.
Where “fun visits” fail
I switched to the terminology of Victory Visits after helping numerous veterinary hospitals prep their pets for the veterinarian. Many say they’re doing prep work for dogs with “fun visits.” But, as I’ve delved into the practice I’ve found a fun visit in general is a loose term with little structure to prepare dogs for what they’ll actually experience.
Such visits lacked guidance to create a more specific trip that was targeted to alleviating some of the trepidation many dogs feel with aspects of veterinary care.
Victory Visits work to create a Fear Free experience for the dog during care by familiarizing the canine through repeated visits and training to remain relaxed with future care. These visits employ the positive activities the dog enjoys doing, such as receiving extra special treats and playing favorite games. They’re designed to condition, train and prepare dogs for care they’re likely to have during their lifetime in the environments where the care is going to happen.
Work(shop) it out
You can incorporate elements of handling and care into regular classes or devote a specific class toward helping dogs remain relaxed with different aspects of veterinary care. Classes may vary from a structured multi-week class to workshops. Also consider collaborating with a reward-based trainer for field trips for classes or individual clients to increase their comfort in the veterinary setting. (Of course,
you’ll want to limit this to pets with prior veterinary records to ensure they’re up-to-date on vaccinations.) Training in the hospital accustoms the dog to different parts of the facility to better prep for future care. These could include training in the exam room or practicing a stay on the scale or an anti-slip-bottomed mat on the exam table.
1. Issue-based care
If a dog has a particular aspect of care she’s especially hesitant around, such as handling of the ears or paws, assign targeted training to the owner to help the dog relax. If for instance a dog’s fearful of having her teeth examined, offer clients a way to work with the dog at home, such as specific prep work at home or referral to someone to help directly condition the dog to this aspect of care. Depending on the issue, a veterinary behaviorist, behavior technician, technician or certified trainer who uses reward-based methods are potential resources.
For example, I partner with two other local trainers to offer Victory Visit workshops to prep puppies and adult dogs for future veterinary care. The workshops are on a rolling monthly schedule, with open hours of 15-minute time slots people can sign up for. The training is free and allows for one-on-one training for the owners and their dogs to work with a trainer. The workshops help pets practice calm behaviors and keeping focus while waiting in the lobby or exam room, loading the scale willingly, and learning to relax with elements of the exam, including handling, restraint and preparation for procedures. If a dog has a specific need, such as being nervous with getting their temperature taken, we can offer care to desensitize and countercondition the pet, as directed by the veterinarian.
3. Puppy and adult dog classes
Consider pairing with a reward-based trainer, or multiple trainers, to incorporate aspects of handling into their classes. Teaching puppies early on to be accepting of different handling, like nail trims, can significantly improve the ease of future care. Field trips may be a potential way to accustom dogs to the hospital in a way that’s paired with an experience outside of regular veterinary care. I’ve both taken individual clients and group classes into the veterinary environment for such preparation as w
4. Fear Free classes or individual training:
Specific classes or private lessons allow clients to focus on areas they need more work with to preventively prepare a dog to remain relaxed or cooperative with care. Or, in other cases, to decrease anxiety a dog already has with a certain aspect of care. The veterinarian may recommend classes or individual training.
Want more? Consider these 16 strategies to go from fearful to Fear Free veterinary visits.