When we talk about training and plan the curricula for training classes, we often talk about real-world skills and proper healthcare, but I'm not sure all dog owners put enough thought into preparing their dogs specifically for the vet's office. Dogs who are more prepared for a vet visit are easier to examine, and they end up receiving better healthcare. If your vet is constantly trying to read your dog's body language in order to avoid a bite, or if your dog is constantly struggling against a technician who has to hold him firmly, the vet isn't going to be able to be as thorough or as careful as he can be if your dog is calm.
Imagine trying to look into a dog's ear. If the dog is jerking his head to get away from the doctor's otoscope, and the doctor can only get it in while the tech is firmly holding the dog's head and body, the vet will not want to traumatize the dog by looking in the ear for as long, and that view will be disrupted by the movement of the head, no matter how still the tech tries to hold the dog. And some dogs do more than struggle; they nip or even bite at vets and vet techs because they feel threatened.
If the dog is calm, needs little or no holding, and shows no signs of reacting dangerously to being examined, the vet will be able to take her time and really visualize the whole ear canal. The same goes for your dog's eyes, teeth, joints, lymph nodes, and every other part of the hands-on exam your dog will get at a regular checkup or at an emergency appointment. Dogs can't tell us what hurts, so the physical exam is even more important in a veterinary visit than it is in a human one.
Obviously, vets deal with reluctant patients all day, and they get very good at working with struggling dogs, but no matter how experienced and dedicated your vet is, the easier your dog is to work with, the better care he's going to get.
There are two major tacks we take when thinking about the vet: getting dogs used to the kinds of things that will happen to them, and teaching dogs little commands and skills that will help them get through an appointment smoothly.
Practice the Exam
First, consider all the kinds of things that happen during a vet exam, and then practice them at home with your dog. If you can teach your dog that being handled is a low-key and fun thing, your dog can learn that the vet is just playing the same low-key game. So from the very first day your get your dog, practice the things that vets do: check your dog's ears, pull up his lips and look at his teeth, pick up his paws and look at the pads and nails. Handle him all over. Be liberal with rewards when your dog allows you to handle a sensitive area like his ear or paw. This is a great opportunity to bond with your dog, and you can combine it with your grooming regimen so your dog learns that being handled isn't going to be traumatic and can in fact lead to some yummy treats and lots of mellow petting.
Be sensitive to your dog's reactions. If you have a brand new puppy with a laid-back temperament, he may never particularly care that you're handling his ears, checking his gums, and examining his paws. In these situations, you are trying to simply build and reinforce his trust so he doesn't lose it as he ages. Dogs do frequently lose this trust, especially if the vet is the only one that looks in his ears or handles his paws, so make it part of your home care ritual for your dog, even if he's already easygoing. You want to keep him that way.
If, however, you take on an adult dog that already has major trust issues or a feisty puppy that hates being held still or prodded, you can't just stick your finger in his ear, jam a cookie in his face, and hope for the best. Watch for signs of anxiety, like yawning, drooling, fast panting, tight or hard facial expressions, ears down or to the rear, etc. If your dog is starting to react badly to what you're trying, ease off immediately and try something easier. For example, if your dog jerks his paw away when you try to hold it, just reach your hand toward it without touching it and give him a reward. Work up gradually, over several daily or twice-daily sessions until you can just touch it. Then work up to holding it and examining it. These behaviors are lifelong skills, so you don't need to rush them, especially since rushing can backfire.
Teach Your Dog to Move
Your dog will need to get good at moving around in a vet's office. You may need him to get on one side of you as you stand at the counter to pay, or he may have to move from your side to the front of you so the vet can examine him. Or, you may need to get your large dog to step up on a scale that's several inches off the ground. Practice your sits and stays, but also practice hand targeting or something similar. If your dog can learn to move toward and then touch your open palm, you can have him move himself onto the scale and then sit, and that's a lot less traumatic than being picked up or pushed.
If you have a large dog, your vet may examine him on the floor, but if you have a small dog, you may want to practice picking him up and having him stand quietly on a table. Just as with the rest of these skills, you want to read your dog's reactions and not push him too fast. The table can be a lot more scary for a dog than you'd think, so do very short sessions with lots of rewards, and don't ask your dog for two things at once when you're trying something new and scary. Don't ask him to stand on a table for the first time and ask him to sit-stay there, even if he knows sit-stay. When in doubt, take baby steps.
Practice at the Practice
Don't forget that the vet office itself is a training opportunity for your dog's general skills as well as an important place to practice the vet-specific skills you've been developing. Bring some yummy treats. A beloved toy can work too, but be considerate if you go this route. Super stinky treats, balls, or toys with squeakers can be a bad choice since they can rile up the other dogs in the waiting room. You want things that make your dog feel rewarded but that won't cause other dogs and handlers to have problems.
Remember that practicing at the vet isn't like practicing at home. Your dog won't know his commands as well, and he may be less inclined to play or eat treats. New environments, particularly intimidating ones, lower a dog's ability to remember and perform his trained abilities. So whenever your dog seems to have "forgotten" something, ask him for an easier version of it, and be sure to reward his successes generously. Also remember to catch your dog making good choices, even if you haven't asked for them. If your dog settles down at your feet, remember to pet him, praise him, and give him a treat. If he greets the vet politely and lets the vet pull his lip up and look at his gums, reward that.
Many vets will have their own jar of cookies in the exam room, but they don't tend to have lots of small pieces of soft treats. So it's great if the vet wants to give your dog a cookie at the end of the exam, but you need to make the effort to reward all the little behaviors in between, like when your dog allows himself to be held, doesn't jerk his head while being examined, or gets on the scale when you hand target him there.
Even before the exam begins, take the opportunity to work together. When you're waiting, play a mellow game with your dog. The aforementioned hand targeting can be turned into "treat button" a game that lots of dogs love to play, where you simply move your hand to a new spot and give your dog a treat when he touches it with his nose.
Playing or working with a human can really drain the stress and bad energy out of a situation. If a dog is wound up, it almost always helps to play a game or work on an easy skill together. You can work on targeting, sits, downs, giving paw, eye contact, name recognition, leave it, or any of a dozen other games and skills that a dog can do without moving around much. For nervous dogs, a "no big deal, let's a play a game" attitude is often more comforting than anything else, especially since some of the things that humans do to comfort dogs, like hugging or speaking in a high voice, can actually increase a dog's anxiety.
Lastly, don't punish your dog. When a dog is nervous punishment like a stern voice or a leash pop can't decrease nervousness; it can only add to it. If your dog reacts negatively to the other dogs in the waiting room, a stern voice him isn't going to help; it'll just sound to him like you're nervous and reactive too! If he growls at the vet, poking him or yelling at him is only going to confirm to him that he's in a threatening situation.
It also simply isn't fair to punish a dog who forgets some training while overloaded with all the unfamiliar and potentially scary things at the vet's office. If your dog is misbehaving, you need to set your expectations more reasonably and reward him for the good behavior you can catch while managing the behavior you don't want. The more practice and rewarding you've done at home and other locations, the more likely the dog is to transfer the behavior to the vet's office, but even the best-trained dog will forget some stuff when he's feeling nervous at the vet.
Good Patients Get Better Care
It would be hard to overstate the difference in care you can get for your dog if he's an easy patient. A good vet won't shortchange an unruly patient, but the simple fact is that the vet can get more information in the exam if the dog is quiet and calm. With some practice, you can have a visit that's smoother and less stressful for both you and your dog, and your beloved dog deserves the absolute best care you can get him.