Fear of the Vet or Groomer

If your dog considers the vet's office a dungeon of doom, learn how to dissipate her dread.

By Rolan Tripp, D.V.M.

The behavior: Crouching, tucking tail, flattening ears, ducking head, trembling, and displaying other signs of fear and resistance when entering the vet's office, a grooming establishment, or another location with unpleasant associations.

Why dogs do it: This is almost always the result of a bad past experience. For some dogs, all it takes is one painful visit to make going to the vet their worst nightmare.

Training Tips

Figure out the anxiety zone. The point where your dog first shows fear is the edge of her anxiety zone. Once you know where this is, you can begin a program to help her relax. To suss it out, head toward the destination that most scares her while watching for signs of stress: Does she get antsy in the waiting room, the parking lot, as you get to the street where the scary place is, or as you reach the freeway ramp? This brink of fear is where you want to start creating positive associations.

Explore the zone. With your dog in tow, frequent her anxiety zone, using the mode of transportation you normally use to get to the place she fears. Every time you do errands, pass through the dreaded area. Show her that it's not just the road to the vet but also the road to the dry cleaner, the coffeehouse, or, better yet, the dog park. With a bag of her most irresistible treats handy, follow these steps:

  1. At the edge of the zone, and ask her to sit, and when she does, give her a treat and praise. (She can also sit in the car just keep your focus on driving!)
  2. Slowly make your way toward the center of her zone, having her sit often and enjoy a reward. Monitor her state, and continue so long as she stays relaxed.
  3. If she loses interest in treats and shows signs of fear, retreat to a point she tolerates. Then repeat steps one and two.

Have patience! If you praise and treat her for each baby step she takes, she'll feel encouraged to take another.

Enlist the help of the pros. Most pet service professionals feel great compassion for a pet who's scared and will be happy to help you work on creating a positive experience for your dog. Ask the veterinary or grooming staff if they will give her treats (you should supply them) at the door. Ask the groomers to scratch your dog in her favorite spots, too. Remind everyone to speak to her in cheerful, friendly tones. If the vet or groomer offers doggy daycare, send her there for a day of fun. As a last resort, request tranquilizers from the vet for routine visits.

Change providers. If your vet or groomer won't take the time to help, find another practitioner. Your dog may still be afraid, but you can set up a positive first experience in a new environment. Over time, a staff that tries to set her at ease may erase some of the trauma of the past.

Never use punishment or force. Scolding your dog for being scared will only make her more so. You may think her fear is irrational, but it is real to her. Dragging her into the groomer's or vet's office may cement her fear and will undo all the positive work you're doing.

Training Tools

Gentle Leader. This head halter gives you more control than a standard collar. What may be even more helpful for dealing with a frightened dog, the Gentle Leader can trigger a passive response because of the way it rests on certain pressure points on the neck and muzzle.

Dog seat belts. If your dog gets upset in the car, it may be necessary for her safety to restrain her. Make sure you carefully get her accustomed to wearing the harness before taking drives, so the restraint doesn't simply make her more afraid.

Doggy treats. Try a few different ones to find a type that your dog loves. Save them for situations when you really need them as a tool, such as when you want to desensitize her to a scary place.

Clicker training. Behavioral biologist Karen Pryor has a kit for teaching your dog to respond to clicks a training method that you can use to help your dog loosen up. With the clicking sound, you reward relaxed postures, rather than fearful ones you click for heads up, tail up, eye contact, offering a paw. Teach your dog a few simple tricks, such as to bump your hand with her nose for a click and a treat, and then she'll have something positive to do in situations that make her uneasy. As she succeeds in a scary place, her fear will dwindle and she'll gain confidence.