I heard a behaviorist talk over the weekend, and she said something that make me smile, even laugh out loud a little. She asked, “What if every patient you laid your hands on relaxed as soon as you touched them?” I laughed not because it is an impossibility, but because that would be amazing.
And its not that hard either. Now, it may sound like I’m posting this to try to get everyone to make my life easier, but really I want to post this to make the vet visit more valuable and pleasant for you and your dog. Visits where a dog is scared or aggressive decrease the diagnostic value of the examination – it is hard to feel for abdominal masses with a super-tense abdomen, and it is hard to look in the ears when a dog is thrashing around at the very sight of an ear cone. And they make it less pleasant – if it takes two people to restrain and one to administer a vaccine then that is no fun for anyone, especially your scared-to-death-dog.
This “calm” command can have other uses, like when you need to apply medication alone at home or if you need your dog to settle down when you have company. I’m sure you could think of a few uses of a “calm” command.
Training for calmness is just like any other skill. Once your dog gets what you want them to do and enough positive reinforcement, then they will want to be calm. Start in a quiet envirnment at your house with no distractions and no stressful stimuli. When your dog is calm – four feet on the floor and no sounds out of his mouth – then give him a treat and say “calm” just like you would tell him to sit (some trainers like a clicker too). If he is panting, then you can even give a treat when the panting stops, even briefly. He will get the idea that you are rewarding calm behavior pretty quickly.
As you get this training down, begin adding more stressful, exciting, or distracting stimuli and continue reinforcing the “calm”command. You can decide what behavior gets rewarded. Some dogs need to be reinforced to be calm when their ears are examined. Some dogs can be trained to relax when a person places their hands on them. Whatever level you can train to, that will help their ability to stay calm and relaxed in the exam room.
As an aside, if your dog is REALLY bad (as in: no muzzle no way and can’t get a needle near the dog even to sedate it), then it may be worth trying a different approach. Train your dog to allow you to put a muzzle on – again with increasing levels of anxiety. If it is really bad, start with treats when the muzzle is out, then treats if he puts his nose in the muzle, then treats after he lets you snap the muzzle on. Then train your dog to lay down with the muzzle on. If you can work your way to your dog 1. laying down 2. with the muzzle on and 3. a towel over his head in a stressful situation, then you can get that setup at the vet clinic and the vet can easily walk in and sedate. This will also allow the vet to use less and less sedation as they behave better and better (since the stress windup isn’t there and there is lots of positive reinforcement).
Simple stuff, but it does take a little effort and it takes making sure that you are reinforcing the correct behavior. Again, any increase in calmness will likely make you and your pet more comfortable and confident about coming to the vet. As a side-effect, it may also strengthen your bond, if you are providing positive reinforcement and you are no longer getting frustrated when your dogs are in a frenzy. Good luck!