We used to accept it as a given that dogs just didn’t like going to the vet, and that there wasn’t much to be done about it. However, things are really changing in today’s more patient-centric veterinary care models. No longer is it considered acceptable to frighten or traumatize dogs in order to do routine veterinary care. From vaccinations to ear exams, the old way of cornering and manhandling wide-eyed and trembling dogs has been replaced with the idea of co-operative care with dogs who are comfortable enough to participate willingly. Vets and their staff are learning how to approach, move, and treat dogs without causing alarm, and are becoming much more aware of the use of anxiety-reducing medications to help those dogs who are suffering despite a careful approach. The physical and emotional health of animals is at the forefront of modern veterinary care, especially with the growing Fear Free movement and certification.
The Academy for Dog Trainers resoundingly supports this movement in the veterinary community. The Academy’s program and graduates in good standing adhere to a strict code of conduct that clearly outlines our position against the use of techniques and practices that hurt or scare dogs. We are thankful and relieved that veterinarians are leading the charge to make dogs comfortable with vet visits, from the very moment the dog enters through their office door.
However, the Academy acknowledges that for many dogs, and for many veterinary situations, changes within the clinic cannot be the whole answer. To reduce or eliminate fear of veterinary care, many dogs first need carefully-crafted, incremental training outside of the veterinary office, and then within the veterinary office but with no scary procedures happening, before they can be comfortable with real-life vet care. And that’s where the Academy’s ongoing Husbandry Project steps up to the plate.
The Academy has been working with our students and graduates for several years now on the Husbandry Project, which is our own contribution to the modern veterinary approach of pain-free and fear-free veterinary care. The Husbandry Project’s goals are to create, test, refine, and publish training plans to help all dogs feel comfortable and happy at the vet’s office, and with the common veterinary procedures carried out on conscious dogs. These training plans will be accompanied by all the information a dog owner needs to carry out the training: step-by-step instructional videos, troubleshooting information, work plans, and so on.
Why training plans?
Training plans are simply a series of steps needed to get a dog from untrained to trained. The steps need to be something which most dogs can achieve, and the end product of the plan, the so-called “terminal behaviour”, must be clearly laid out. For the Academy’s Husbandry Project, our terminal behaviours include “dog will do a stay in lateral recumbency for a range-of-motion test on the exam table”. Training without a plan (for example, picking up a clicker and just starting to free-shape, or trying to get a dog to do anything without first strategizing how you’ll elicit the behaviour and then fade any prompts) can be fun to do at home when there are no stakes. But it’s inefficient when we need results. And to prevent or treat fearfulness at the veterinary office, we do indeed need results.
What are we going to train?
The Academy chose to tackle a number of specific behaviours and veterinary procedures in consultation with a steering committee of veterinarians. These veterinarians are either in our program currently or are graduates. They identified both common fear-inducing triggers for dogs at the vet’s office, and common procedures needed. With this information in hand, and with decades working with fearful dogs of all shapes and sizes, the Academy’s director Jean Donaldson drafted around 20 separate plans. These plans range from a sit-stay for a jugular blood draw to a plan to get fearful dogs comfortable on the exam table to a plan to have a dog stay standing relatively still for a vaccination or ear exam. These plans include two main types: Pavlovian (or classical) conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable with veterinary implements, staff, and offices, and operant conditioning plans to get dogs comfortable holding the positions they’ll need to hold for various procedures.
Classical conditioning plans
Classical or Pavlovian conditioning changes a dog’s underlying emotional state. A well-drafted plan carried out by a knowledgeable trainer or well-coached dog owner is a powerful tool in the prevention of fears, but also to change an already-fearful dog’s emotional response to an item or situation. The Husbandry Project’s classical conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs enjoy muzzles, tooth-brushing, veterinary implements, and also the vet waiting room and exam room, and veterinary staff.
Operant conditioning plans
Since manhandling dogs and forcing them to endure vaccinations, manipulations, or exams is no longer an acceptable standard of veterinary care, dogs must be taught to assume a variety of positions on cue. The Husbandry Project operant conditioning plans will ensure that participating dogs are trained to assume relevant positions such as standing still or lying on their sides (lateral recumbency) and to remain in these positions for the usual types of veterinary procedures. Since all training will be done using positive reinforcement, the dogs will also learn to enjoy assuming these positions.
Why data collection?
Although Academy staff have created thousands of successful training plans, drafting a training plan and simply offering it up for public use is inappropriate and can sometimes even have dangerous consequences. Untested plans can go wrong in a few different ways. Training plans that are too vague or too hard can cause dog owners to give up and return to old (possibly fear-inducing) habits. And this is to say nothing of the owners who throw their hands up in despair if the plan doesn’t work, and end up going to trainers comfortable with aversives to get things done. Dog owners, and dogs, deserve well-vetted training protocols and plans which allow for the majority of dogs to move through their training with the minimum of fuss. “Every dog is an individual” is a great marketing message but is simply not true when it comes to training. Most dogs will progress through well-vetted training plans in a similar way. In fact, a firm adherence to the ‘every dog is an individual’ credo seems to lead technically unskilled trainers towards aversive stimuli for dogs who would do just fine with a proficient R+ trainer and good plan.
For these reasons, the Academy has committed to not only drafting plans, but to drafting plans and having a good number of dogs and trainers work through them to work out the kinks, before offering them to the public. We’ve gathered a crew of our students and grads who have agreed to help us out, and sent the plans around. They’re all training every plan and taking careful notes: where are the plans inefficient? Where are they too pushy? We’re compiling the data and will use them to create a set of revised plans. These plans will be much closer to print-ready, but the Academy will do one final round of plan testing to be sure (read on below for how you can help us) before releasing them to the public.
We completed Phase One in 2017, which included all the classical conditioning plans and the baseline positions such as stand and lateral recumbency. Phase Two will be finished in the summer of 2018, and includes veterinary procedures such as range-of-motion tests and “vaccinations”.
Although the dogs in training aren’t technically “vet ready” until the end of Phase 2, they’re all living creatures who need regular vet care, so many of our tester dogs have already been to the vet. We have heard reports of many successful veterinary visits (including for dogs who were previously profoundly fearful), which is an indication of more good things to come. Please read on for some examples, below.
Interested in helping out?
If you’re interested in helping out with our next round of testing, we would love to have you. You must commit to train about 15 things with your dog. Depending on your dog, this might mean around 15 minutes at a time, a few times a week, for a few months. You must also be able to do some training at a veterinary office. This will require getting permission, although we will help with that by providing a letter template. Please email email@example.com to be put on the notification list.
Successful veterinary visits
Although we are just partway through our project, many of our participants have had to jump the gun a bit, and take their partly-trained dogs in for veterinary care. We are delighted with the results and would like to share a few of them, to tempt any dog owners into participating in our next round of plan vetting.
Luke and Tovah
Luke is standing on a scale and putting his nose into Tovah’s outstretched hand.
Academy graduate Tovah Riester (Facebook) and her dog Luke have been hard at work training the Academy’s plans, including a stand stay on the scale. Tovah said “My Luke was taught the stationing on the vet’s scale and has used it three times since then! He had dental surgery so lots of visits back to back and they weigh him every time”. Scales can be quite scary for some dogs.
The most important thing we have made use of from our participation in this project is the positive conditioned emotional response Luke has to his vet office. [A recent] tooth extraction was very painful for him. His recovery time took much longer than other surgeries he's had at other vet clinics. However, the next visit to the vet, Luke was clearly very happy to be back there despite the painful visit.
Christian, Bree, and Safi
Caption: Bree and Safi on the exam table, ready for treatment (and treats)
Academy graduate Christian Williams (website) is training her two Border Collies to enjoy vet care.
Bree and Safi live in South East London with older brother Rusty and little big sister Pod. I adopted Rusty, Bree and Safi as a family through Valgrays Border Collie Rescue in 2012.
As a very sociable dog, Bree (Blue Merle) has always enjoyed vet visits. Shy and sound sensitive Safi (Black and White) used to spend most of the time at the surgery trying to get out the door.
Road testing the Academy’s Husbandry Project Training Plans has boosted Safi’s confidence and turned vet visits from “get me outta here” to “let’s have fun –this is where the venison sausage treats flow!”. How did we get from scary place to good place? We practiced at home and built lifting onto a table into the most fabulous thing. We developed olfactory CER’s to the “smell of the Veterinary Surgery” and we visited the surgery for practice visits. Last visit, instead of pulling on her lead to get back to the car, Safi sniffed excitedly all around the waiting room, she had never done this before. Then she whizzed right into the exam room and danced around on her hind legs – peeping at the top of the exam table. “Wow, you’re keen Saf” I thought as I lifted her up. And up she went & those tasty sausage treats appeared as if by magic.
Does this stuff work? It does! Two weeks ago, Safi had a minor eye infection, off to the vets we went. We had some fun in the waiting room doing our stationing game. Then into the exam room and yes, you’ve guessed it – straight up on that exam table.
Eva and Bjorn
Bjorn holds a lateral recumbency position while having hot and cold compresses applied.
Eva Kifri worked through the Husbandry Project plans with her agility champ Malamutes, which came in handy when one of her dogs needed hot and cold compresses after a surgery. "Having just completed recovery from that surgery, Bjorn then lacerated his ear and required further treatment...and one day after returning to regular activity, he broke a toe and spent four weeks in a cast. The flounder position [lateral recumbency] helped him to get through his treatments; giving him a lot of control over the pace."
Having been trained into a useful position is a huge step forward in reduced stress and difficulty with an exam/treatment, even for a dog who is reasonably relaxed/non fearful and good about body handling. It's not just a nice bonus. It’s also not particularly difficult to do in advance—cooperative care really should be part of basic pet training/knowledge… The reduction in stress to the dog –in having the treatments and exam procedures be familiar and active things that they do cannot really be overstated.
Melanie and Wyatt
Wyatt had developed some “hot spots” on his hind quarters near his tail from incessant chewing, possibly due to allergies. I took him to the vet on Friday and the vet and vet tech needed to comb through the hair on his back-end and tail to see the sore spots. I used the muzzle station [the Husbandry Project’s stand-stay] throughout the exam and he did beautifully! He held the station for the entire exam with me reinforcing every five seconds or so since this was the first time we had used the station for a real exam. Both the vet and the tech were impressed and commented on how well he did throughout the exam.
Then, we decided to clip some hair around one of the largest sores where I needed to apply an antibiotic spray daily. Wyatt’s never been clipped and I wasn’t sure what to expect. The vet initially suggested that the tech take Wyatt to another room and have a second tech assist her with the clipping, but then she said that Wyatt did so well during the exam the tech could just shave the spot in the exam room with me there (and no second tech). The tech got the electric clippers and just turned them on while I had Wyatt station. He did not react to the sound of the clippers and stationed beautifully. She then clipped the spot while he continued to station. I have to say I was pretty blown away, and so was the tech.
It was about as stress-free a vet visit as we’ve ever had. The vet and the tech commented repeatedly how grateful they were to have such an “easy” patient.
Megan and Atrus
Megan and Atrus practiced the stationing behaviours in the Husbandry Project plans before they were needed.
Trainer Megan O’Hara (website, Facebook) was part way through the training plans when her dog Atrus needed to visit the vet for full glands. Megan reported that “Atrus was able to hold a chin station the whole time. It was a proud momma moment, for sure.”
Cover photo Credit:vadimguzhva via istock.