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Only aggressive at the vet?  Yes, it may be true.

As I am consulting with veterinary practices about ways to make handling positive and rewarding to the pets, I am realizing how often the  staff is perplexed by an owners comment of "He's only bad here!".  When we see a dog that arrives all worked up growling and hackles raised, it is hard to imagine that same dog relaxed and happy to be petted or handled by others.  If the dog gets out of the car all charged up, how can it be that they travel calmly other places?  The answer to this lies in the experience that pet has had from their perspective.  In other words, what's in it for them to come to the vet? 

So, first think about exactly what the entire experience of coming to the veterinary clinic is like for this pet.  Is this the only time they ride in a car?  What happens when that dog comes through the door and sits in the waiting area - are there loud barking dogs, ringing phones, yowling cats, and unknown staff members dragging this dog by the lead to come to "the back"?  Unfortunately this is the typical experience for many dogs.  Many dogs had all of this happen during the fear stage of puppyhood - 14 weeks to about a year old.   All the things the dog saw or heard or smelled in those scary or painful   veterinary visits is now linked with the entire experience.  The way the car turns to go to the veterinary office, the reception desk, the exam table the scale - all of these things can trigger fear in the dog.

The most useful tool a dog has to keep something fearful away is aggression.  Some dogs learn this really quickly, others luckily for us don't figure that out so readily and stay timid or tense.  Both dogs are in the same state of mind - just using different tactics to try to get the assistant that holds them tight, or the person with the needle to go away.  So unless the staff is now making the veterinary visit likeable by the pet, they do not have a reason to be friendly or calm.  What is in it for them?  At home or at the groomers, there is not likely to be any pain or loud noises that are as upsetting.  This is why they may be fine at the groomers for nails but a terror at your office.  The exam table is the pain table so the dog is already charged up and ready to aggress because the veterinary table means pain but not the groomer's table.  Have you ever tried clipping nails on the floor and seen a completely different response?  Avoiding the trigger of the table is likely the reason for the more co operative behavior.

So, a dog that has had a painful experience at the veterinary clinic, such as a torn nail being clipped off, links that pain with the car ride, waiting room, exam room, handling the feet, etc and now uses aggression to keep us pain administrators away.  This is how you get the dog that is difficult in the clinic but fine at home.

As you become  aware of what may be stressing a pet,  you can begin to understand why changing handling techniques is so important.  Ask the client when the pet starts to get upset.  Try one thing to make the waiting area less chaotic and see what the results are.

Sally J Foote, DVM  CFBC-IAABC
Okaw Veterinary Clinic Tuscola IL

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