Pet parents are what psychologists and animal behaviorists call a stable attachment base for their pets. Our presence reassures our animals and helps them handle scary situations with less stress and fewer negative psychological outcomes [1,2,3].
When I adopted Astrid after a 10 year break from dogs, I was surprised by a veterinary practice trend that I hadn’t encountered before. The technician wanted to take Astrid to the back for her blood draw and vaccinations. With my previous pets I had always been present for these routine procedures. Since then I have found “taking animals to the back” for routine procedures to be standard practice at 3 out of 4 clinics I have visited. This may seem like an insignificant change to make the technicians job easier but it can actually have far reaching consequences.
The “stability effect” has been studied in children and in dogs. Studies have shown that dogs are anticipating negative experiences in veterinary clinics and are coming in stressed, leading to increased heart rate, breathing, cortisol levels, hiding of pain, and increased risk of the dog being less cooperative and more likely to bite [3,4, 5].
Unfortunately, one of the reasons clinics take dogs to the back is that some dogs seem to behave “better” when away from their owners. But in many cases, this “good behavior” is because the dog does not feel secure enough to express fear and anxiety when away from their owner and shuts down.
Why do I care so much about being with my pet for these procedures?
I want the least stressful and most positive visit for my pet as possible. Being present and supportive is part of how I can achieve this.
I want to know how well my dog is cooperating with veterinary staff and what specific components are stressing her out. I can use training to improve any sticking points, which will make the veterinary staff’s job easier. I find when veterinary staff take dogs to the back they feel compelled to comfort the owner by saying “She did great” instead of giving me an accurate assessment.
My dog is dog reactive and the fewer chances for her to cross paths with other dogs in the clinic the lower her stress level will be. Many veterinary staff members may not have the skills to manage her in the clinic without a reactive episode, which would set back our training.
Veterinary staff often feel compelled to “Get the job done” because some pet parents may expect that. However, if my dog is giving veterinary staff trouble and is so stressed that she needs more than moderate restraint, I want to be present to offer to bring her back another day. Bringing her back after some training and perhaps with drugs on board could make the veterinary staff’s job easier.
I know my dog’s history and some of her triggers and I am trying to make the veterinary staff’s job with my pet as easy and safe as possible. I even proactively muzzle her for some procedures even though she has never bitten anyone, just to help everyone feel more relaxed.
My previous human reactive dogs would have bitten a technician if staff tried to remove a dog from me in the manner they have removed Astrid from me. Until these dogs were further along in their training, they were very dependent on the secure attachment base to me when with strangers.
Reasons veterinary staff give for taking dogs to the back and things I would like them to consider.
“Pet parents may be upset by the restraint needed with some pets.”
If a dog needs more than gentle restraint for routine blood draws and vaccinations, the dog is stressed and intervention alternatives should be chosen as the standard of care. Each time a dog is restrained for something the dog views as scary is done, it only scares the dog more and will escalate the level of restraint needed for this dog over its lifetime.
The “get it done” attitude is useful for emergencies but is harmful for routine procedures. Please look into the Fear Free or Low Stress Handling programs for more information on how to successfully use gentle restraint and involve pet parents in a safe manner.
“The dog will look stressed and cause the pet parent worry.”
If the dog is stressed, this is a teachable moment, an opportunity to discuss with the pet parent what they can do to reduce the dog’s stress in the future and make life easier. Have a pamphlet ready that teaches the owner how to Desensitize and Counter Condition. Many pet parents do not recognize basic stress signs in dogs and this leads to dog bites, especially to children, and they end up asking veterinary staff to euthanize their pets. These routine veterinary procedures give staff an opportunity to show the pet parent subtle stress signs and what they mean, potentially saving the dogs life.
Find a force free/ positive reinforcement trainer in your local area that would be willing to work with your clients to improve their dog’s comfort and cooperation with veterinary procedures. This can result in happier clients, fewer injuries to your staff, and pet parents who are more willing to bring their dog to the vet at the first signs of problems because they no longer feel guilty for stressing out their dog.
“The pet parent doesn’t know how to restrain the dog properly and will put veterinary staff and themselves at risk.”
Pet parents can be present without restraining their own dog. If you aren’t comfortable with the pet parent restraining their pet, then have the staff do the restraining. In some cases, it may be helpful to have the pet parent restrain their own dog but this should be a case-by-case decision after a relationship of trust is built up one visit at a time with the pet parent and dog. You can have the pet parent sit in a chair out of the way, or better yet ask the dog to do specific behaviors at your request to aid your work, feeding the dog treats and help to distract the dog. Make the experience more positive so the dog will become more cooperative over time. Give the pet parent clear instructions on what you want them to do. If they can’t follow simple instructions, then it would be appropriate to either communicate things differently or take their dog to the back.
“The dog might bite someone and then the pet parent might sue or insurance will ask why they were present.”
Learn to read stress signs in dogs to reduce the risk of dogs biting. Use basket muzzles on any questionable cases or when dogs are in pain. Use anti anxiolytics and sedatives on dogs that have a history of being highly stressed at the vet’s office. Consider how your handling and restraint techniques and pet parent communication might be improved. Talk to livestock and horse vets on how they handle the added risk of having the owner present as they rarely separate the owner from the animals and often have the owner helping with restraint!
“The pet parent will be anxious and make the dog behave worse.”
For owners that are visibly anxious give them the option of not being present and network with some pediatricians to learn how they calm down anxious parents.
Please know that sometimes dogs are better in the back, not because they were feeding off owner anxiety, but because they are actually more stressed and have shut down which can look very similar to a calm dog. These dogs do not feel confident enough to express their fear and anxiety without their pet parent there to back them up. They may eventually reach the point where they can’t contain their fear anymore and suddenly lash out and bite one of your staff while in the back.
“The pet parent and dog are untrained and we only have so much time to get the job done.”
Preemptively set aside time with new client appointments to help train the pet parent and suggest ongoing training for their dog. Recommend a positive reinforcement trainer or better yet collaborate with a positive reinforcement trainer to have canine cooperation classes at your clinic. Provide clients a discount on services for a period of time or other incentive to participate.
To me, veterinary clinics that taking dogs to the back without their pet parents for routine blood draws and vaccinations is a sign that we need to make improvements in the veterinary clinic and in the education of dog parents. We need more collaboration between veterinary staff, force free trainers and owners.
It is my responsibility as a dog parent to be my dog’s advocate, to support and comfort her, to help her learn how to cooperate effectively with veterinary staff. When veterinary staff separate a dog from their pet parent for these routine procedures, our power to do these things is stripped away. Often, there is a communication breakdown as clinic staff feel obligated to reassure owners that their dog “Did just fine” or “Did great” when separated, even if their dog was freaking out and making the clinic staff’s job difficult.
Horn L, Huber L, Range F. The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task. Dornhaus A, ed. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(5):e65296. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065296.
Gácsi M, Maros K, Sernkvist S, Faragó T, Miklósi Á. Human Analogue Safe Haven Effect of the Owner: Behavioural and Heart Rate Response to Stressful Social Stimuli in Dogs. Kalueff AV, ed. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(3):e58475. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058475.
Erika Csoltova, Michaël Martineau, Alain Boissy, Caroline Gilbert, Behavioral and physiological reactions in dogs to a veterinary examination: Owner-dog interactions improve canine well-being. Physiology & Behavior, Volume 177,2017, Pages 270-281, ISSN 0031-9384, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.05.013.
Bragg RF, Bennett JS, Cummings A, Quimby JM. Evaluation of the effects of hospital visit stress on physiologic variables in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2015;246:212–215. doi: 10.2460/javma.246.2.212.
Dorothea Döring, Anita Roscher, Fabian Scheipl, Helmut Küchenhoff, Michael H. Erhard. Fear-related behaviour of dogs in veterinary practice. The Veterinary Journal, Volume 182, Issue 1, 2009, Pages 38-43, ISSN 1090-0233, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tvjl.2008.05.006.
I am Rebekah Hudson. I am a Fear Free CVT, a founding member of Force Free Oregon, Admin of Canine Research Studies Facebook group, and moderator of Do No Harm Dog Training Facebook group. I have a B.Sc. in Biology and am currently working on a masters in Biostatistics (basically doing math for scientists). I love training animals, but training people not so much, so I adopt reactive dogs and help them transform into good canine citizens. My work experience has lead to skills in finding, reading, and understanding scientific papers.
I never thought of myself as a writer, but a few authors and several friends gave me a push to start this blog including Linda Michaels who asked me to write about the practice of taking dogs to the back of veterinary hospitals. Before publishing an post I typically seek a respected trainer to edit and provide feedback. My goal with this blog is to help address important topics related to dogs and include any supporting scientific evidence when possible.
Does your dog embarrass you on walks? Is your dog struggling to be calm when they see humans, dogs, bikes, joggers, etc? I’ve been there. My first dog, Pepper, was so afraid of strangers that one day while running alongside my bike, she veered into the road because the upcoming car was less scary to her than the stranger 50 plus feet down the hill. The second dog I adopted, BJ, was terrified of new places, people, and dogs. Astrid was so frustrated by the leash preventing her from running up to other dogs and chase other critters, that she used to throw temper tantrums that would make a 2-year-old child seem mild-mannered and sometimes she would growl at dogs.
Did you know that one of the pioneers in canine behavior modification, Karen Overall, learned much of what she shares with us today from a dog named Flash that put 3 people in the hospital before she adopted him? He lived with Karen for over 10 years and became a great canine ambassador, guiding Karen in her work and directly helping in the rehabilitation of other dogs! Read more about Flash here.
The good news is we can change your dog’s behavior and the emotions motivating the behavior using kind humane methods. Pepper and BJ overcame their fears and became very well behaved dogs. Astrid no longer throws temper tantrums and can now pass other dogs on trails calmly, we still do some management because her rehabilitation isn’t done yet. My goal with this blog is to help connect you to many of the resources available that can help guide you on your journey. I provide some links in the main body of this blog, a more comprehensive list of resources can be found in the resources section.
The first priority is to understand thresholds and trigger stacking because understanding these concepts is crucial to addressing reactivity regardless of what method you decide to use for treatment. Which of the two people in the drawing below do you want to be? The difference between the two is that person A’s threshold and autonomy is respected while person B’s threshold and autonomy is not. The importance of helping your dog stay under threshold cannot be understated. A 1999 review paper on animal stress coping styles said “Successful coping depends highly on the controllability and predictability of the stressor [5,6]. A consistent finding across species is that whenever environmental stressors are too demanding and the individual cannot cope, its health is in danger.”
A trigger is something that causes stress. Nearly all aggression is caused by some sort of stress (Mills et al, 2014;Veenema et al, 2007;Carmen Sandi et al 2015 ; Reisner et al, 2007 ). Have you ever had a stressful day and near the end of the day you snapped at someone over small infraction? You were trigger stacked. You experienced too many stressors in a short window of time and went over threshold. If you experienced fewer stressors you may have stayed under threshold. Going over threshold hinders our thinking, learning, and our ability to keep our composure and remain calm. The same can happen to our dogs. Here is a great article on thresholds and trigger stacking. Here is another article on trigger stacking.
Does Pavlov ring a bell? The first option is directly related to his experiment with dogs drooling when he rang a bell because it predicted food. Counter Conditioning (CC) is giving your dog a high-value treat after your dog notices a trigger regardless of what behavior your dog does. Your dog’s behavior is information on whether you are too close to the trigger but does not change whether you provide the treat or not. The goal is for your dog to begin associating the trigger with “chicken falling from the sky” while your dog is at a distance they can calmly notice the trigger (Haug, 2008) Over time the distance necessary to stay under threshold will decrease. CARE for reactive dogs website is a useful resource for understanding Counter Conditioning. Midnight Dog Walkers book is also helpful and the author has a wonderful group on Facebook. Here is a video on Counter Conditioning.
Have you tried Counter Conditioning and it didn’t work? It could be that your dog associated the arrival of treats with something other than the trigger (maybe you reach your hand in the treat bag or tense up before your dog sees the trigger so now your behavior predicts triggers and treats) or maybe your dog was too close and didn’t feel safe. Was your dog refusing treats like Astrid is in this picture? Here is a video on the importance of dogs being underthreshold for Counter Conditioning to work.
This treatment option has a long history of use with multiple species, including humans, and to my knowledge has the most supporting scientific evidence for canine behavior modification. Several studies have found counter conditioning as equivalent or superior treatment option as just exposing an animal to a trigger. Here is a recent human study that cites some of the other studies on counter conditioning. Here is a paper summarizing Pavlov’s contribution to behavior modification. The next two treatment options for dogs were developed more recently.
The second option is using operant conditioning through the Look at That game (LAT) where you click (or verbally mark) and treat when your dog looks at the trigger. Control Unleashed is a good book for understanding this method. Another method is called Engage-Disengage which builds off of the Look at That game. Here is a video by Donna Hill on the LAT game. Here is an article that describes the Look At That game. Seeing the trigger becomes the situational cue to the dog for doing these behaviors. Most counter-conditioning training protocols use operant conditioning as a second step after the dog shows they have a positive conditioned emotional response (sees a trigger and looks back at you expectantly for food).
Trainers that use operant conditioning as a first step say that counter-conditioning will also happen through their method because the dog will usually get treats shortly after seeing the trigger. Think of the body language your dog has after you train your dog to do a trick when you used treats for rewards, long after you have stopped giving treats for every repetition, your dog probably is showing very happy body language because they now have positive associations with the trick. How about the body language when they see their leash, training props, or when you approach places you have trained at? Naysayers of starting with operant conditioning say that your dog may become happy about the task you ask them to perform but may not build the positive association with the trigger and thus you might find yourself having to micromanage your dog for the rest of their life.
The third option is BAT 2.0 which was crafted by Grisha Stewart. Grisha has a website, some videos on youtube and a book called BAT 2.0. In this method, you set your dog up from a trigger far enough away that they can relax and sniff and explore the environment. You follow your dog around on a 15-foot lead as long as they do not seem to become stressed or head straight toward the trigger. This method is about helping teach your dog they can relax in the presence of a trigger and learn social skills and teaching your dog that they can choose to move away from the trigger whenever they want. Because we can’t always successfully set up the environment so your dog is below threshold enough to relax in the presence of the trigger to sniff and explore the environment Grisha provides some other options including Mark and Move which is similar to Engage-Disengage to use in less than ideal situations.
BAT relies heavily on setting up the dogs environment in such a way that the dog does not practice the behaviors we do not want and instead does other preferable natural behaviors, ideally good social behaviors including polite cut off signals and pro-social behaviors that are naturally reinforcing. I do not know of any research that has been done directly on this method being used in dogs. But it is a form of low-intensity exposure therapy which has been studied in humans.
One aspect of BAT is we help the dog feel free to reduce their exposure to the trigger if they wish by moving away from the trigger or showing cut off signals that tell the trigger they don’t wish to interact. This aspect shares some similarities to a method being researched in humans and rodents called active coping which has been shown to reduce fear for extended periods of time and appears to not have the risk of spontaneous return of fear that happens with extinction training (Hartley et al, 2009). The brain structures related to fear are high conserved across species so it is reasonable to extrapolate research from one species to another, which is why we do many studies in rodents to learn more about human behavior and ways to change behavior (Quirk et al, 2006;Hartley et al, 2009).
Finding a Trainer
It is best to find a force-free trainer that can help guide your behavior modification plan and help you problem solve your situation. Bringing in an experienced trainer is well worth the time and money and may help you speed up progress with your dog and end the embarrassing over threshold incidents. Here is a directory of force-free trainers.
Why Force Free? Surely I should punish bad behavior!
If your child panicked at the sight of a spider, would you punish him for panicking? If you screamed in terror whenever a snake slithered by you, would applying “stim” via an e-collar or a pop on a collar around your neck help you become less terrified of the snake? You might learn to not scream or show obvious outward signs of panic, but you would probably become more scared. Aggression is often caused by fear and/or frustration. A 2008 paper by Huang et al said this “Fear-motivated aggression is the most common diagnosis in dogs aggressive toward unfamiliar stimuli, even when elements of territoriality are present. Offensive posturing by the dog does not rule out anxiety or fear as an underlying cause . The distance to the stimulus and previous learning affect the dog’s behavioral presentation. Many dogs show highly offensive posturing when behind a barrier or when the trigger stimulus is far away. As the stimulus approaches or the barrier is removed, the dog’s behavior may become more
ambiguous and finally reflect outright fear. ” Aggression is one of the Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fidget responses.
Using punishment is correlated with increased aggression which is the opposite of your training goal. A 2018 paper by Dodman et al said “As in a number of previous studies [22–27], the present findings confirmed a positive association between owners’ reported use of aversive or coercive training methods (ATT scores) and the prevalence and severity of their dogs’ behavior problems as measured by the mini C-BARQ (Table 1). Based on the results of the regression models, the main associations were with owner-directed aggression, stranger-directed aggression, separation problems, chasing (among dogs belonging to owners who score low on the TIPI conscientiousness scale), persistent barking, urination when left alone, and defecation when left alone (in dogs belonging to men with self-reported moderate depression).” A 2008 paper by Dr Luescher and Dr Reisner said “Because conflict behaviors are an indication of underlying stress, punishment (which increases stress) is contraindicated. Even though punishment could be effective in suppressing particular conflict behaviors at the moment, it does not address the cause of the problem and in many cases increases the stress and conflict that lie at the root of the problem. Thus, because punishment does not address the underlying emotional state of the animal, it is likely to increase the conflict behaviors or may eliminate one behavior but induce another conflict behavior.”
Karen Overall, a veterinary behaviorist who adopted and treated Flash, a dog that had put 3 people in the hospital before coming to her home, said this in a 2019 paper ” Contrary to popular belief, efficacy data for aversive, punishment-based interventions are lacking. However, studies have demonstrated that adverse behavioral outcomes are associated with punitive training methods among dogs in the general population and dogs seen at specialty behavioral medicine practices.”
Here is a blog about some of the science on punishment. Here is a great resource for examining the science behind dog training options.
More on Thresholds
Keeping dogs under threshold is very important for helping reactive dogs, but it can be difficult. Learning more about your dog’s body language will help you pick up on the earlier signs of stress. Did you see any signs of stress or arousal in the picture at the top of this blog? We cut that walk short because Astrid was showing so many signs of stress and arousal in a short period of time. Here is an article on body language. The Dog Decoder is a fun phone app for learning dog body language that is great for adults and kids. Here is a video on the interaction of trigger stacking, thresholds, and body language.
One of the biggest challenges to helping reactive dogs is other people.
We can’t expect everyone to cooperate with giving our dogs the space we need even when we request it, we need to go out of our way to maintain our dogs’ threshold distance ourselves when possible. Training a u-turn behavior on cue facilitates turning around (and running if needed) in order to gain distance from a trigger (Haung, 2008). Training this cue is recommended by every trainer I know. Here is a video on teaching u-turn and other ways to move your dog away from a trigger and helping your dog cope while the trigger goes by.
Be ready to advocate for your dog. Have short statements ready to tell people that they should provide you and your dog the space you need. I tend to say something along the lines of “Don’t let your dog approach, it won’t go well” when I encounter leashed dogs on the trail. Suggesting some sort of danger seems to be the most effective means of convincing others to respond as requested.
Some warning signage may increase the number of people that cooperate with giving you space but it may also land you in legal trouble if your dog injures a person or dog because they may say the signage proves that you knew your dog was dangerous and failed to prevent the injury. Some say that the signage just draws people in closer to try to read what the gear says. I don’t expect my gear to work by itself, rather I expect it to help reinforce my verbal message.
I choose to muzzle Astrid on most walks and I use an “ASK BEFORE APPROACHING” bandana and a “NO DOGS” leash sleeve when in on-leash parks. On Saturdays, I wear a shirt I designed that says “Leash Your Dog, My Owner Bites” on the front and “Leash Your Dog, it’s the law” on the back. This shirt and several other designs are available at my storefront on Teespring. I find these help reinforce my verbal request for people to not let their dogs greet and to improve compliance with my verbal request for pet parents to fetch their illegally off-leash dog that is running toward my dog. There are multiple educational campaigns attempting to make yellow colored gear signal a need for space. Here is the Yellow Dog Projects gear.
Location, Location, Location
Observe people in your area. Select quiet times of the day to walk your dog in quiet locations with good visibility (Horwitz, 2008). Open grassy areas with paths are a great option as most people stay on the path and you can work your dog in the grass keeping at least your dogs’ threshold distance from the trail. If other dogs are a trigger for your dog, you will need to move farther into the grass when you see flexi leads or off-leash dogs. Cemeteries and large parking lots are also good options. If you walk on trails, they should be wider than your dog’s threshold distance or have areas on at least one side where you can get off the trail to let triggers pass while keeping your dog under threshold. If walking in a suburbs, be ready to cross the street or take a side street or walk into someone’s driveway as needed to keep your dog’s threshold intact.
If your dog is not staying under threshold on most walks, you need to change when or where or how you walk or temporary stop walking while going through behavior modification. You may need to seek a veterinary behaviorist for guidance and possibly medication. Stress slows learning but does not fully stop learning. Unfortunately, when our dogs go over threshold in an offensive display the scary thing tends to move away which reinforces that lunging, barking, and growling makes the scary thing go away ( Horwitz, 2008) and makes those behaviors more likely to happen in the future. We need to set our dogs up for success so they do not feel compelled to do these behaviors.
Dealing With Off-Leash Dogs.
Find areas where people have the best control over their dogs.
When you see an off-leash dog, try to keep as far away as possible. If you are far enough away they may not run up to your dog.
Walk with another person when possible so they can move between you and the off-leash dog and address its pet parent. This is extremely handy for when you get the argumentative pet parents because you can gain some distance with your dog while they are busy arguing with your walking partner.
If the dog approaches, motivate their pet parent to recall or fetch their dog by implying their dog is in some sort of danger (“My dog has -insert disease here-“, “If your dog approaches it won’t go well”, “I will spray ___ if your dog approaches”, “Call your dog, my dog is muzzled for a reason”).
Ask your dog to go behind you and sit while you throw treats at the other dog and then move away while the off-leash dog is distracted. This may not be a good option if your dog will get upset when observing another dog eating treats.
Carrying an umbrella is another option that can provide a visual barrier and physical block of the other dog, make sure to get your dog used to it opening and closing in the manner you will use it.
Note that these methods are not aimed at changing the off-leash dog’s future behavior, rather they are intended to protect your dog at that moment.
If your dog has difficulty staying underthreshold especially in their own home, then it may be time to consider medication.
SSRI’s are used to help many dogs that have anxiety. But responsible use of SSRI’s includes a behavioral modification program. They are not meant to address hyperactivity unless the hyperactivity is rooted in anxiety. SSRIs are particularly useful when one can not change the dog’s environment enough to keep a dog under threshold most of the time because the SSRIs can help the dog cope with the environment better and help the dog stay under threshold more often during the training process.
Ideally, a Veterinary Behaviorist should be involved because just like any drug SSRIs are not without some risks. Veterinary Behaviorists will have the most experience with these drugs and how to combine them with behavioral modification. It is very important that if one takes a human or animal off of SSRIs they should be weaned off slowly, not cold turkey unless they are being taken off due to a severe side effect.
Prozac, one of the most common SSRIs, is one of the best studies SSRIs which nearly every new SSRI is compared to in research studies to gauge efficacy. I will provide a few studies in the resources section, but this list is by no means exhaustive.
What coping strategies an animal tends to use is associated with different effects on physiological and neuroendocrine characteristics (Koolhaas et al, 1999). These differences, as well as genetic differences between different animals, might be why these medications do not affect everyone in exactly the same way. Your dog may have to try a couple of medications before finding the best one for your dog.
Any dog can bite if they become too stressed. The best option for keeping everyone safe is to manage your dog’s environment to minimize their stress and keep them under threshold while helping change your dog’s emotions regarding triggers slowly and carefully. Consider what stressors can be completely removed from your dog’s life. Does your dog really need to go visit Uncle Larry who has 12 kids? Maybe the farmers market is just too crowded for your dog and he would be better off staying home with a stuffed kong.
Please basket muzzle train your dog so that you can utilize this precaution as needed. Even your most friendly golden retriever can benefit from muzzle training because if he is injured he may react to someone manipulating the painful area. Astrid has never injured a person or dog, yet I find muzzling her on walks helps me quickly convince other pet parents to take my request for space seriously and thus helps me keep my dog under threshold more often which speeds up her training. Muzzle training is especially important for dogs who have injured a person or animal before.
Chirag Patel has a great video on how to condition a dog to love their muzzle. The Muzzle Up Project is another great resource for information on muzzling. This article describes the different muzzle options that are available.
Please do not put a muzzle on your dog without first training your dog to love it unless you are in a situation where a procedure needs to be done that day and your dog might bite someone if not muzzled. Remember aggression is caused by dogs feeling more stress than they can cope with. Until you have taught your dog to love the muzzle, it will be another stressor and will make your dog more prone to either an aggressive display or shutting down. A 2009 study found that 36% of dogs responded to their owners attempts to muzzle them with aggression. I wish this study had asked how the muzzle was introduced because I would be willing to bet money on the muzzle being forced on the dogs in the 36% rather than the dog being trained to put it on voluntarily. Putting a muzzle on a dog without classically conditioning the dog to love the muzzle is likely to lead the dog to have a negative association (dislike or be afraid of it) with the muzzle and will make future muzzle training require more effort or a different looking muzzle.
Behavior modification can transform our dogs into much more confident dogs. Often pet parents find that complete strangers will compliment us on our dogs’ behavior after behavior modification because the work results in well behaved and responsive dogs. But we can not completely change who our dog is or what they have experienced. The behavior modification we do creates new memories but does not erase the old memories. Our goal is to make the new memories more potent so they are what comes to the forefront of our dogs’ mind when they see triggers, but there probably will always be a little stress caused by their triggers and we should be mindful of this to prevent us from trigger stacking our dogs to their breaking point.
While both BJ and Pepper learned people could be kind and had treats, it would have been unfair to them to turn them into therapy dogs or take them into really crowded environments. It would be unreasonable for me to expect these dogs to enjoy strangers like the Labrador down the street that begs everyone for a pet. Before taking your dog places they don’t have to go, please ask yourself if they will enjoy it or if it will cause them stress.
Christos I Karagiannis, Oliver HP Burman, Daniel S Mills, Dogs with separation-related problems show a “less pessimistic” cognitive bias during treatment with fluoxetine (Reconcile™) and a behaviour modification plan, BMC Veterinary Research, 2015 11:80
J.M Koolhaas, S.M Korte, S.F De Boer, B.J Van Der Vegt, C.G Van Reenen, H Hopster, I.C De Jong, M.A.W Ruis, H.J Blokhuis, Coping styles in animals: current status in behavior and stress-physiology, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Volume 23, Issue 7, 1999,
Pages 925-935, ISSN 0149-7634, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0149-7634(99)00026-3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763499000263?via%3Dihub
A local dog went missing. The dog was hiking at a park with its pet parents. The dog’s pet parents invested in one of Washington’s top dog trainers and felt secure letting their dog be off-leash wearing its “e-collar” in a large on-leash nature park. The dog ran up to an on-leash dog, was attacked, became scared, and ran off. The dog was found 4 days later, the pet parents spent those 4 days worried about their dog and didn’t know whether their dog was suffering from injuries or had been hit by a car. I wish missing dogs were a rare occurrence, but a 2012 study found that about 14 percent of dogs go missing in a 5-year timeframe and 7 percent of those dogs are not found.
This blog is not about bashing pet parents who just want to give their dog freedom and a good time. It’s about helping others learn from this misfortune while discussing several factors that hinder our ability to persuade others to change behaviors and beliefs. However, I’m afraid these skeptics will find this writing upsetting and I don’t know that I can convince them of anything.
Discussions about off-leash dogs in on-leash parks always garner two main camps of opinion, unless the discussion is among a self-selected group of individuals within one camp (confirmation bias AKA preaching to the choir). In this missing dog scenario, one camp blames the on-leash dog because, in their opinion, aggressive dogs have no right to be out in public endangering others. This camp says that leash rule is just a suggestion, meant for people who don’t bother to train their dog.
The other camp blames the pet parents of the missing dog for not leashing their dog or preventing their dog from approaching the on-leash dog. The law is on their side. Even dogs that have been deemed dangerous by the county are allowed to be walked on-leash in on-leash parks, though they may be required to wear a muzzle. The law also usually sides with the on-leash dog when there is a fight between an on-leash dog and an illegally off-leash dog.
Where do I sit? I don’t think this was an appropriate park for a fear-reactive dog. This park has some narrow trails with steep sides that can make it difficult to get off the trail and there are numerous off-leash dogs. One of the park websites has an article on how to cope with off-leash dogs. So, the park is aware of the problem but can’t police it. You have to decide if it’s safe for your dog.
I do not have scientific evidence on the risk of dogs going missing when on-leash verses off. We do have research on dog attacks and reactivity. In the Blame Game, I discussed many factors that contribute to reactivity. In Reactivity is Contagious I discussed a study that found on-leash dogs are twice as likely to threaten another dog. Do you still want to let your off-leash dog go running full tilt at an on-leash dog? A 2010 study found “If the subject dog was on-leash an interaction was half as likely compared to if the subject was off-leash. If the other dog was on-leash an interaction was again less likely; an interaction was almost four times more likely to happen with an off-leash dog than one on-leash.”
This horrible incident might have been prevented if both dogs were on-leash.
The reactive dog’s pet parent might have been able to get off the trail and let the other dog pass or distract their dog as it passed.
A leash prevents the dog from running off into the woods when they are too panicked to respond to cues.
The fight may have even been stopped sooner because both handlers were close by and able to intervene quickly. It’s really difficult for one person alone to break up some fights especially in a kind manner.
Maybe one of the dogs would have still slipped from their handlers grasp and gone missing.
Many well-intentioned people responded to the missing dog post, mentioning how leashes may have prevented this tragedy. But consider this: How helpful was that really to comment this on a post of a pet parent whose dog is currently missing? Just like the dog being too panicked to follow its training, these pet parents were not in a good emotional state to take constructive criticism, the wound was too raw. In addition, if their dog being attacked and going missing didn’t convince them to leash their dog, do you really think the comment of a complete stranger will? This is why I don’t think I could possibly persuade them myself.
So how could someone possibly keep letting their dog off-leash in on-leash parks after such an experience? In a nutshell, Cognitive Dissonance, Fundamental Attribution Error, Self-Serving Bias, and Confirmation Bias. Let’s start with Cognitive Dissonance.
When two incompatible thoughts or beliefs are held at the same time, it causes emotional stress so people try to alleviate that stress by either:
Altering a belief
Justifying a belief
Gathering more evidence that supports their belief.
They believe they are great pet parents: they feed the dog the best diet they can afford, they took the dog to a “top trainer”, they take their dog on hikes and let their dog run and play and have a good time. This study found that pet parents were less likely to leash their dog if they thought the off-leash outdoor play was important. The belief that a leash could have prevented this ordeal does not align with their other beliefs, it’s easier to believe the other pet parent is at fault for their dog’s disappearance because that aligns better with their positive view of themselves!
Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias
Fundamental Attribution Error is where people are more apt to attribute a behavior of a person in a specific situation to their character and personality than to notice how the circumstances influenced their behavior. This bias is debated within the science community, some reviews suggest other causes for the behavior observed in the original studies of FAE. In this particular situation, I think FAE related behaviors go hand in hand with Self-Serving Bias which is our tendency to take credit for our successes but blame others or the situation for negative events.
So, for instance, when I see an illegally off-leash dog, I yell to their owner to call their dog and imply that things won’t go well if their dog approaches. This usually prompts the illegally off-leash dog parent to get their dog, though not always before their dog is in my dog’s face, harassing her. Many of them proceed to blame me for the fact that my dog isn’t friendly, completely ignoring the fact that she behaved perfectly the whole time. They tell me that I am the problem. They make excuses for why it’s OK for them to break the law in this park, and blame me for ruining their day. Many of them make it clear that they think I am an aggressive individual with poor social skills. They would be surprised to find out that my friends would probably say that in general, I am a meek individual, except when something angers me. People who refuse to obey the law and therefore risk the safety of their dog AND my dog is something that angers me.
What the off-leash pet parents don’t know is that I have tried being polite to illegally off-leash dog parents such as themselves many times before. I found that being polite is a very unreliable way to keep both of our dogs safe as being polite fails to motivate the pet parents to get their dog out of my dog’s face and will still result in them scoffing at how I am interrupting their wonderful outing and how my dog doesn’t belong in the park if she can’t handle loose dogs running up to her. As a result, I have had to buck up the courage to behave in a way out of my normal character to get them to restrain their dog.
Notice how their statements deflect their responsibility in the situation and put all the blame on me personally even though they are breaking the law, not me? I am also demonstrating Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias in order to buck up the courage to be firm and as rude as I need to be, because in my head I attribute their lawbreaking to their personality and blame them for an interaction that wouldn’t have happened if they had followed the law.
If an illegally off-leash pet parent and I were to tell a story of our encounter to our Facebook friends, we would likely get very different responses because our friends usually share our own views. So, the illegally off-leash pet parents’ friends would be supporting their actions and thinking I am an evil person that should have never brought my dog to the park.
My friends would be supporting my groaning at yet another illegally off-leash dog, asking when are these pet parents going to learn that they are recklessly endangering their dog by letting it run up to strange dogs that could harm them out of fear, not to mention the safety aspects of off-leash dogs going missing and being hit by cars or attacked by wild animals depending on the location or dog size. Our friends are made up of people that share many of our beliefs so their responses to us are likely to result in confirmation bias.
There are many other Biases that affect our view of aggressive encounters and our decisions to follow particular laws and rules. Some of these are described in this article.
So then why do I write?
If people are hard to convince, why do I waste my time writing about this? Because studies show that we can change a few minds; the ones who do not staunchly hold those beliefs but might be considering the validity of their belief and actions. The original study that led to the idea of cognitive dissonance was of a cult who believed doomsday was a specific day. When the world didn’t end on that day, part of the group left the cult, but the other part stayed and their belief got stronger. They rationalized that they had misinterpreted when doomsday would happen.
So, when we write articles or respond to people with opposing views on social media, we should gear our time towards those we actually have the possibility of influencing. The staunchest believers of having their dogs off-leash regardless of the law are not going to take our responses seriously and may well decide to troll us. Our chances of convincing people are higher with people who haven’t made a firm stance completely opposite of our own.
Some studies on how to persuade people who have been influenced by anti-vaccine activists to suggest that storytelling along with statistics may be the most effective method of persuasion at least in that particular scenario (Okuhara et al, Shelby et al). I would suspect that this may be able to be extrapolated outside of the human health field, but at this time have no evidence to provide to support this extrapolation.
One assessment of addressing non-compliant behavior in parks concluded: “The use of multiple strategies to reduce non-compliant behaviors is often warranted, largely because different people may be performing the same behavior for different reasons”. A 2009 study found “Dog owners were more likely to feel obliged to leash their dog when they believed other people expected dogs to be leashed”. Some of the suggested interventions from these studies include ensuring there are legal off-leash areas that are attractive to owners, educational campaigns, establishing leashing dogs in on-leash areas as a social norm, and better enforcement of rules. My local area has established a multitude of off-leash dog areas but has failed to effectively implement the latter 3 suggestions.
As I write this, yet another local dog that has gone missing after an off-leash hike, yet I will not be wasting my time saying anything about a leash on that person’s post.
Webley, P. and Siviter, C. (2000), Why Do Some Owners Allow Their Dogs to Foul the Pavement? The Social Psychology of a Minor Rule Infraction1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30: 1371-1380. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2000.tb02525.x
Okuhara T, Ishikawa H, Okada M, Kato M, Kiuchi T. Persuasiveness of Statistics and Patients’ and Mothers’ Narratives in Human Papillomavirus Vaccine Recommendation Messages: A Randomized Controlled Study in Japan. Front Public Health. 2018;6:105. Published 2018 Apr 12. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2018.00105 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5906532/
Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research. Psychological Inquiry,12(1), 1-15. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1449294
Imagine your worst nightmare. Now imagine that you have to experience your worst nightmare about a two dozen times a year including about 9 days in a row every summer. Your loved ones do everything they can to help you through the horrible experience, but there is only so much they can do. They can’t stop the nightmare itself and most of those nightmares happen on days that no one can predict. Those unpredictable days are the worst because the most effective way your family can help you takes two hours to start helping you feel less scared and works best if given well before your nightmare starts occurring. Your fear doesn’t even have to be rational to be terrifying, some people would be peeing their pants if they were dropped into a room full of garter snakes.
This is what some dogs that are terrified by fireworks experience every year. I have one of those dogs. When I can predict fireworks it’s not so bad, I give her medicine 2 hours before I anticipate fireworks, have high-value food ready for counter conditioning and distraction, turn up music, apply lavender essential oil to a favorite resting place and take time off work so I can stay up with her. During predictable stretches of fireworks like near 4th of July, she actually improves over the week.
The bigger problem is the fireworks on random nights throughout the year, like when my neighbors set off over a dozen fireworks on December 2nd. Her medicine takes 2 hours to reach full effect, so when I give the medicine as soon after the first bang as I can, the fireworks might be over by the time her meds kick in. In the meantime, no matter what I do to help her, she is terrified and trembling. During these times she is over threshold and is being sensitized to fireworks despite the fact that I am doing everything else I can to help her.
I’ve counter conditioned her to the legal fireworks. Many dogs can be counter conditioned using an electronic recording to the other fireworks. Unfortunately, Astrid is able to detect the difference between electronic recordings and the real fireworks and is already ease enough with electronic recordings to relax and nap through electronic recordings of fireworks even when played at loud volumes. I’ve tried pheromones. I make sure I have some Trazodone in the house at all times. I’ve installed some soundproofing in the home, covered the windows, created a safe retreat area and done as many of the expert recommendations as I can. But all of this cannot fully combat the window shaking booms on random nights from my neighbors’ illegal fireworks, especially when they occur on a walk where we do not have the benefit of any of the sound dampening measures. She will still be shaking and terrified at our feet, despite our best efforts whenever people choose to set off fireworks on random days.
How bad could a little firework show really be?
Storengen et al. found 39% of dogs were fearful of loud noises such as fireworks, gunshots, and thunderstorms. Others studies have estimated the fear of fireworks to be as low as 20% to as high as 50 %. A study done in New Zealand found that 6 percent of the dogs and cats in the study had received a firework related injury (Walker et al.). Fear of these three sources of noise was highly correlated, dogs that were afraid of one where likely to be afraid of the other two. Fortunately, gunshots can often be avoided by not going near areas people are hunting or near shooting ranges and thunderstorms tend to be predicted by meteorologists. No such luck with fireworks shot off in non-professional displays on days not typically associated with fireworks. The days surrounding 4th of July are typically the busiest time for lost pets for many shelters every year with many of these cases being suspected of spooking at fireworks. How many more cases happened during the rest of the year after random fireworks on a night the pet parents thought it was safe to let their dog enjoy their backyard?
Many people also suffer during fireworks. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of veterans are diagnosed with PTSD and many are triggered by fireworks. Shawn Gourley, the co-founder of Military with PTSD, provides signs for veterans that asks neighbors to be courteous with their fireworks. Gourley says “It isn’t to stop fireworks. What it is, is any day leading up to July 4 and the days following July 4. If you’re going to be setting off fireworks if you could just give the veterans a heads up. It’s the unexpected fireworks that is what bothers them, what can trigger (PTSD).” Some veterans describe their experience during unexpected fireworks as causing overwhelming feelings of terror. Many can cope with the fireworks done on specific holidays, but when some neighbor decides to shoot them off at an irregular time of day or some random day during the year, they cause some of their neighbors and many pets to live their worst nightmare and become sensitized so that their fear will be worse the next time a neighbor sets off fireworks. Here is an article about veterans’ experiences with fireworks.
Fireworks also cause harm in other ways. According to the National Fire Protection Association, every year fireworks in the United States cause about 18,500 fires causing 43 million dollars in property damage and 12,900 injuries. Only 2 out of 5 fires caused by fireworks are reported on July 4th.
On September 2, 2017, a Washington teenager went hiking with some friends in the scenic Columbia River Gorge and brought along some fireworks which he lit and threw into a canyon while he and his friends laughed. This started the Eagle Creek Fire which burned over 48,000 acres and cost 18 million dollars to fight. Hundreds of people had to evacuate and their homes were in danger. The area that burned was a hot tourist attraction and the fire has cost local businesses millions. The nearest metro area with roughly 2.4 million people suffered from poor air quality while the fire was being fought and many had to cancel outdoor plans. The boy is now on 5 years probation with 1,920 hours of community service and was ordered to pay 36 million in restitution.
What can be done?
If your dog is afraid of fireworks, consider trying some of these tips. Not every single tip will help every dog, so try them and evaluate if they helped your dog.
Some dogs can be effectively counter conditioned using electronic recordings of fireworks. In this study, 66 % of owners who followed the counter conditioning and DAP use as instructed noticed improvements in how their dog handled fireworks. Click here for a YouTube video by Trailblazing Tails provides a quick explanation on how to do counter conditioning for fireworks.
Ask your veterinarian for medication, but do not accept Acepromazine. Check this link to understand why Acepromazine is not an appropriate drug for fear-related problems. See the references section for studies on treating firework fears with medication.
Play music or a movie to mask the sound of fireworks.
Cover windows so the flashes are not visible.
Provide something tasty to chew on or throw a treat party after every bang.
Some dogs may be helped by pheromone products such as DAP or Adaptil (Levine et al.)
Some people go on vacation somewhere that firework bans are enforced during predictable firework timeframes.
This blog by ILLIS Animal Behavior Consulting provides many more suggests and cites a very comprehensive list of scientific studies.
How can I set off fireworks and negatively impact my neighbors less?
Please set off fireworks only the normal firework related holidays in your country so that those negatively impacted by the booms can make plans to help them cope with the noise. If your fireworks are illegal, these are the best days to set them off for your own sake because there is protection in numbers. On these normal firework related holidays, the law enforcement is not able to enforce the law as effectively as they can on other days because of the sheer numbers of people shooting illegal fireworks.
Please set them off in a responsible manner that takes potential fire danger into account. Do not let teenagers or younger children play with fireworks unsupervised. Please do not let your children wander over in front of other houses to set them off without first asking your neighbors permission. Please clean up the firework debris which is toxic to animals and may contain heavy metals and carcinogens which can contaminate our water supply and soil (Licudine et al.). Consider finding quiet fireworks. Consider going to a scheduled professional firework show instead.
What can you do to help your community?
Help us get a more effective ban on loud fireworks and improve enforcement. Help us show our neighbors that illegal fireworks are not welcome in our community, especially loud illegal fireworks on random days. Many of us who have a loved one that is fearful of fireworks need to stay inside with our loved one to help comfort them and keep them safe. This means we identify which houses are setting off the illegal fireworks. If you are lucky enough to not be personally impacted by illegal fireworks, please consider helping out your neighbors by identifying the homes setting off illegal fireworks, record video evidence if possible and report the information to the police.
Let’s work together for a solution. I would love for fireworks to be sold in an amusement park/festival-like setting were the fireworks must be detonated at the festival. By setting it up in a controlled environment we could address many of the issues and allow for less restrictive bans on fireworks in this setting. I get the thrill of setting off these fireworks, but we need to be responsible in how and when we set these off so that we do the least harm to others and the environment.
If you or a loved one have been negatively impacted by illegal fireworks, please share your story. Please share a video of your terrified animal on social media so that those who are setting these fireworks off might see the horrible cost of their fun. Let’s make these stories go viral so that lawmakers, law enforcement, firework sellers, and buyers cannot ignore the damage of fireworks.
Linn Mari Storengen, Frode Lingaas, Noise sensitivity in 17 dog breeds: Prevalence, breed risk and correlation with fear in other situations, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 171, 2015, Pages 152-160, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2015.08.020. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159115002233
Treatment Related Studies for relieving noise-associated fears
Amy L. Pike, Debra F. Horwitz, Heidi Lobprise, An open-label prospective study of the use of l-theanine (Anxitane) in storm-sensitive client-owned dogs, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 10, Issue 4, 2015, Pages 324-331, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.04.001. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787815000568
Crowell-Davis et al. (2003). Use of clomipramine, alprazolam, and behavior modification for treatment of storm phobia in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2003 Mar 15;222(6):744-8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12675296
Gary Michael Landsberg, Isabelle Mougeot, Stephanie Kelly, Norton W. Milgram,
Assessment of noise-induced fear and anxiety in dogs: Modification by a novel fish hydrolysate supplemented diet, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 10, Issue 5,
2015, Pages 391-398, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2015.05.007. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787815000829
Korpivaara, M., Laapas, K., Huhtinen, M., Schöning, B., Overall, K. (2017) Dexmedetomidine oromucosal gel for noise-associated acute anxiety and fear in dogs—a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study Veterinary Record 180, 356. https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/180/14/356
Nicole Cottam, Nicholas H. Dodman,
Comparison of the effectiveness of a purported anti-static cape (the Storm Defender®) vs. a placebo cape in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia as assessed by owners’ reports, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 119, Issues 1–2, 2009,
Pages 78-84, ISSN 0168-1591, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2009.03.014. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S016815910900104X
Nicole Cottam, Nicholas H. Dodman, James C. Ha,
The effectiveness of the Anxiety Wrap in the treatment of canine thunderstorm phobia: An open-label trial, Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2013, Pages 154-161, ISSN 1558-7878, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2012.09.001. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1558787812001190
I have listed just a few of the studies on noise related phobias. For a comprehensive list of treatment options and studies on addressing Fireworks fear in dogs check this blog by ILLIS Animal Behavior Consulting. https://illis.se/en/nine-ways-to-reduce-firework-and-thunder-phobia-in-dogs/?fbclid=IwAR1Pa3RyK_7lfA41IB8IDBaepgxQt-u9jr3GQUuoOf9ecextYYrZMa3_Kxw
A 2015 study found that two-thirds of the dogs exhibited at least one stress sign for more than 20% of the observed time in a veterinary waiting room . Video analysis by a behaviorist classified 28.9% of the dogs as experiencing moderate stress and 28.9% showed high-stress levels. The Bayer veterinary usage study found that 40% of cats had not been to the vet in the last year and one of the main reasons given by clients was their cats were difficult to get in the crate and showed signs of stress at the veterinary clinic . These studies indicate that many pets have developed negative associations with veterinary clinics and they start showing signs of stress long before they enter the exam room. Stressed animals increase the risk of injury to staff, cause pet parents to put off bringing their pets in leading to later diagnoses and lost revenue.
The good news is there are many options for reducing stress while waiting for veterinary visits that are low cost, although some of the best options may only be achievable when renovating or building a new clinic.
Options for Owners
Dogs who waited outside were correlated with lower heart rates and serum cortisol concentrations than dogs who waiting in waiting rooms . If the weather allows, arrange to stay outside when scheduling an appointment. Upon arrival, call the clinic to check in from the car and then take your dog on a sniff walk near the clinic. The clinic can either call the pet parent’s cellphone when an exam room is ready or come to the entrance door and escort the pet parent to the exam room.
If waiting outside is not an option, teach your dog to be calm in the waiting room. Look up a relaxation protocol and start working on this protocol at home. Learn more about relaxation protocols here.
Build your dog’s stay cue and work on the Look At That game. All of these training items should be started in your dogs at home. Gradually build up to working on it at other locations and eventually utilize it during Happy Visits at the vet clinic. Here is a video of a pet parent using the Look At That game in a veterinary waiting room to help her reactive dog be more relaxed.
Bring high value treats and do Happy Visits in between the normally scheduled visits. Take your dog to the clinic and throw a treat party where you plan to wait for scheduled visits, most clinics will gladly accommodate this at no charge. If your dog shows several stress signs, take a step back and start with throwing the treat party in your car, then closer and closer to your designated waiting area.
Use Positive Reinforcement training to teach dogs to walk onto the scale and stay. Many dogs find the scale to scary, by pairing the scale with positive reinforcement training you will be reducing your dog’s fear and making this step easier for you and your dog. Weigh your dog when you first enter the waiting room 
Bring a friend or family member. When waiting in the waiting room have your dog or cat sit between the two of you or have your animal sit near the edge of the waiting space with both people providing a buffering effect between the animal and the rest of the clientele. If waiting outside, when you enter the waiting area to go to the exam room have one of you on each side of the animal. This provides an effect called splitting and can reduce anxiety. The extra pair of hands is also useful for helping for body blocking any overly friendly dogs if needed as well. This is especially useful for reactive or scared animals. One study found that dogs who came with couples were more stressed, but this could be because pet parents with fractious pets were more likely to bring their partner .
If your dog is highly stressed at the veterinary clinic, ask the veterinarian about medications that can alleviate your dog’s anxiety. There are many great options, but please do not use Acepromazine for this purpose . Acepromazine has some important uses, but relieving fear is not one of them. It is a tranquilizer which may make your dog appear calm but it has done nothing to address fear and anxiety and may make it worse over the life of the pet. Read more about acepromazine here.
An in-depth article by Veterinary Services that provides more information can be found here .
Low Cost Options for Veterinary Clinics
Stagger appointment times so that there are fewer animals in the waiting room at one time. Some clinics stagger appointment start times by 5 or 10 minutes. One study showed that dogs were less stressed when the waiting room is not chaotic, and dogs are given time to relax than dogs that were moved quickly. 
When possible allow the animal to wait in the exam room instead of the waiting room, give stressed or fractious animals the priority for this option.
Create a flexi lead exchange program. Improperly used flexis allow a dog to go from one end of the waiting room to the other in seconds, potentially stressing other animals out and possibly instigating a fight or tangled leashes. Have clients trade out their flexis for 4 or 6-foot leashes for the duration of their stay at your clinic. Flagler Animal Hospital’s flexi lead exchange program picture went viral on Grooming Foolery. Here was their facebook announcement that went viral.
Veterinary Speciality Center created a PSA video regarding flexi leads which could be shared with clients to encourage use of fixed length leashes.
Start doing payments and check-out inside exam rooms so that patients can walk straight from exam room to the exit.
Split Waiting Room by the primary species that frequent the clinic for fewer close encounters between species. [7,8] Please find a way that works for your clinic to prevent situations like the photo.
Create Cat only appointment times, so cats will not see dogs and smell dogs less. [7,8]
Encourage clients to wait outside with their dogs, make your landscaping walkable and enticing for a sniff walk . Install a park bench away from the clinic entrance. Post a sign encouraging clients to wait outside and providing the phone number for check-in.
Play classical, soft rock or reggae music at a low volume [9,10].
Train the receptionist to intervene when a dog comes into the clinic overstimulated by the other animals in the waiting room. Intervention options will depend on the clinic’s set up and environment and how crowded the waiting room is. The best option is to move the dog out of sight of the other animals such as going back outside or to an exam room or utilizing a visual barrier or a client bathroom. Have the Receptionist walk in-between the overstimulated dog and the other animals during this move. Talk to the client about options for next time, such as waiting outside or using a back entrance, or scheduling the dog at a less busy time of day and encourage the owner to have high value treats for an appointment that does not contradict the use of food. Here is a video by Dr. Sally Foote showing how a receptionist can intervene.
Moderate Cost Options for Veterinary Clinics
Provide Visual Barriers. Visual barriers are a standard tool in reactive dog classes to reduce stress levels and prevent reactive episodes. There are many ways to provide visual barriers. My favorite for hospitals has complete cubicles with doors which blocks other animals from paying the inhabitants of a cubicle a visit and encourages clients to space out.
Other options include panels coming out of the bench to provide visual blocking for animals sitting near the bench from each other. Cube shelving to divide the waiting room into at least 2 sections.
Raised resting locations for cat carriers. These can be benches or shelves. This helps further separate cats and dogs and allows the cats to be in a more natural safe space. Cubical shelves have the added benefit of providing visual barriers between cats. Have towels or sheets available for owners to cover their carriers covering the front of the cage. Here is a video by Dr. Sally Foote showcasing the Okaw Veterinary Clinic waiting room where she describes some of the design features she has found useful, they found that by raising the location of the cat carriers, dogs pulled less toward cat carriers and the cats were less stressed.
Pheromone diffusers for dogs and cats. Recent studies have shown that pheromones may reduce stress for some animals in the clinic setting, other studies have had inconclusive results. [2,11,12]
Floor Scales that are flush with the floor. Herander’s study found dogs found being on scales to be more stressful than the waiting room itself . Great clients will train their dogs to voluntarily hop onto normal scales, but many clients will not do this without active encouragement from veterinary staff, flush floor scales are a nice solution because untrained and fearful dogs are more willing to walk onto these scales. One example of this product can be found here.
Making the Best of Low Cost Options
I take my dog to Murrayhill Veterinary Hospital, they have primarily utilized the low cost options listed above. They stagger appointment start times, allow owners to wait outside, escort fractious pets to and from exam rooms, allow check out and payment in the exam room. They have a spread out waiting area with bench seating along the wall and a couple locations with limited visual barriers, I strongly prefer this arrangement to the U shaped seating arrangement of some waiting rooms. Click here to see their virtual tour. Here is their Fear Free Plan. Their cooperation and adherence to Fear Free ideas have helped me be able to keep Astrid relaxed and has prevented her from having any reactive episodes in their clinic.
Frontier Veterinary Hospital has the best designed waiting area I have seen in person. They have 2 fully enclosed cubicles to provide visual barriers and block unwanted animal interactions and additional standard bench seating away from the front entrance for when their clinic is busy. They provide outdoor green space with 2 benches with protection from the rain over 1 of the benches. They keep the waiting room as empty as possible through scheduling and moving clients to exam rooms when available. I am very pleased with their care for my cat’s mental and physical wellbeing and Astrid loved visiting their clinic for this photoshoot.
The Ideal Waiting Room
The ideal waiting room would be no waiting room at all. In 2016, 1st Pet Veterinary Centers in Mesa, Arizona won the Hospital of the Year with DVM 360 for achieving this. They made a smaller receptionist area and utilized the space savings to increase the number of exam rooms, Patients are escorted to the exam rooms immediately upon arrival. Here is their feature article on DVM 360.
I understand that change takes time and money. I hope that clinics will consider starting with the low-cost options and when it comes time to renovate or replace waiting room furnishings that clinics will consider the impact their selections have on clients.
Some of these options are not feasible for ER clinics. Because animals in ER clinics may experience increased waiting times in more crowded waiting rooms in a strange place they have never been before with a stressed and emotional pet parent, identifying reasonable ways to reduce stress in this environment should still be addressed because stress can hinder healing . One feature I would really appreciate in ER clinics is visual barriers to help provide both the pet and the emotional pet parent some privacy.
Special Thanks to reactive dog trainer Annie Phenix, author of The Midnight Dog Walker and admin for The Official Midnight Dog Walker facebook group. Her experience during a long wait at an ER with her elderly weak Border Collie Echo provided the prompt for this article and she has been so kind to review this article amidst Echo’s fight with cancer.
C Mariti, E Raspanti, M Zilocchi, B Carlone, A Gazzono 2015 The assessment of dog welfare in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic. Animal Welfare 24: 299-305 iSSN 0962-7286 doi: 10.7120/09627218.104.22.1689
John O. Volk, Karen E. Felsted, James G. Thomas, and Colin W. Siren. Executive summary of the Bayer veterinary care usage study. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association2011238:10, 1275-1282
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“Why don’t you train like a normal person” was the response from one man I had asked to call his uncontrolled dog that was charging straight toward my dog. His dog was completely ignoring the man’s commands. He continued to argue with me about how clueless and stupid I was to be training with methods he didn’t even inquire about and in this location (where leashes are required and his dog was the first and only uncontrolled dog I had encountered there). My dog had greeted his dog nicely despite his dog’s rude approach and I had simply proactively asked for him to control his dog to reduce the amount of stress his dog caused mine. Eventually, I got the guy to leave us alone but I had to be very assertive and rude.
When a reactive dog lunges and barks at something or we proactively tell people to stay away to prevent barking and lunging, we often receive scathing looks and negative comments. The idea that behavioral issues are all the pet parent’s fault is pervasive and inaccurate. Yes, an experienced handler can often prevent a dog from barking and lunging by managing a dog’s threshold distance from triggers and this can go a long way to helping the dog be more comfortable in it’s environment. But that handler did not necessarily cause the original behavioral issue. Nor is the handler in full control of the environment and therefore sometimes a trigger will get too close despite our best efforts and cause our dog to react. Nor does having a reactive dog doesn’t mean we inherited a money tree with which to rent private spaces to walk and rehabilitate our dogs. Nor do we have a magic wand to make the reactivity go away overnight, the treatment takes time.
Behavioral problems are not always directly caused by the pet parent. Some dogs have a genetic predisposition for certain behavioral issues including aggression (1,2). The environment in which a dog was breed effects a dogs risk for behavioral issues. Puppy mills and other environments that lack environmental enrichment or cause stress to the mother increase risk of behavioral issues in the offspring (3, 4). Some people adopt dogs with preexisting behavioral problems. Some dogs become reactive after being attacked by off leash dog or after a pet professional the owner thought they could trust scared their dog.
Some people tried to proactively train their dogs but followed the advice of a trainer or television celebrity that promoted punishment based techniques despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that punishment based techniques increase the risk for aggression and other behavioral issues. People are remarkably obedient to authority figures, so before you criticize these pet parents for following an authority figures advise please look up the Milgram Experiment (5). For more information on the scientific research related to training methods, see this blog by Zazie Todd. https://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/p/resources.html?m=1
Others people simply made mistakes during socialization, some dogs require more careful socialization than others. A person’s previous dogs may have been perfectly sociable and friendly while this dog is not, even though the person did not do anything different. In one retrospective study of 737 dogs, being a first time dog owner was associated with increased risk for multiple behavioral problems including aggression (6). Who hasn’t made mistakes their first time doing something? Is this a valid reason to shame and publicly criticize them?
I did a poll in the Do No Harm Dog Training Facebook group. This group is composed of dog professionals and pet parents whom are interested in humane training methods. I asked people who have dog reactive dogs to select the primary reason their dog became reactive and included an option for dogs that were reactive prior to adoption. The top three responses were dog was already reactive when I adopted him/her, attacked by a dog, and genetics. This group’s demographics include a higher percentage of well informed dog professionals and pet parents than the general population. This sample bias likely reduced the risk of direct owner caused mistakes leading to reactivity (i.e. socialization errors, which ranked 4 and 5 in the poll) though many participants became informed pet parents or went on to become trainers because of their experience with their reactive dog. Here is a link to the poll. https://m.facebook.com/questions.php?question_id=930053523867949
Whatever the reason a dog is now reactive, the cause is in the past and shaming the pet parent for their dog becoming reactive or for bring the reactive dog into public does not improve public safety and it may make the pet parent less likely to seek professional help. We hope pet parents will learn from any mistakes they made along the way that may have caused the reactivity or amplified it.
When we are outside with our reactive dogs our minds should be on the present, managing and treating the dog in front of us, not ruminating on the past and a complete stranger can not know what has happened in the past to make an accurate critic. If our dog is reacting, there is a good chance that the person is either the dog’s trigger or their pet is, this means the longer we converse with the person, the higher our dog’s stress level goes and more likely to behave poorly in the future.
Let me apologize ahead of time for the fact that many of us will seem short tempered or rude to you as we attempt to end the conversation or gain distance from you. We are either trying to prevent our dog from reacting by managing their threshold distance and length of time exposure to the trigger or if our dog goes CUJO as we work on gaining distance so our dog can calm down sooner and be negatively impacted by the stress for a shorter period of time. We don’t wish to be rude or aggressive, we are just doing what is best for our dog.
If we want to prevent reactivity and increase public safety, we need to advocate for better breeding practices, good puppy parent education (7), reduce risk of dogs being uncontrolled in a portion of public settings, and provide those whose dogs are showing signs of behavioral problems with good science based rehabilitation resources.
1. Våge J., Wade C., Biagi T., Fatjo J., Amat M., et al. , 2010. Association of dopamine- and serotonin-related genes with canine aggression. Genes Brain Behav. 9: 372–378.
2. Zapata I., Serpell J. A., Alvarez C. E., 2016. Genetic mapping of canine fear and aggression. BMC Genomics 17: 572.
3. McMillan, F., Serpell, J., Duffy, D., Masaoud, E., & Dohoo, I. (2013). Differences in behavioral characteristics between dogs obtained as puppies from pet stores and those obtained from noncommercial breeders Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 242(10), 1359-1363 DOI: 10.2460/javma.242.10.1359
4. Pirrone, F., Pierantoni, L., Pastorino, G., & Albertini, M. (2016). Owner-reported aggressive behavior towards familiar people may be a more prominent occurrence in pet shop-traded dogs Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 11, 13-17 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.11.007
Some dogs are on leashes for good reasons. Some dogs are leashed because they are reactive and their pet parent is doing their best to protect their dog and others in the community. When people allow their dogs to approach these dogs without obtaining permission from the pet parent, they are risking injury to their dog and causing stress and potentially panic for the leashed dog. Reactive dogs have a right to safely maneuver in public settings where leashes or adequate control of dogs is expected.
Reactivity is contagious, many of these dogs became reactive after being attacked by another dog and their pet parent is doing their best to prevent their dog from scaring your dog. Please be respectful and ask permission before letting your dog greet an on leash dog. If you can not prevent your dog from rushing on leash dogs then your dog should be on leash in these settings for your own dogs safety.
The following study found dogs on leash were twice as likely to threaten the other dog as dogs off leash, this is not a causal relationship. While some dogs do play great off leash but not on leash, others are intentionally put on leashes because they would threaten other dogs if they were allowed to run around off leash. ” Threat appeared twice as often between dogs on a leash as between dogs off a leash (P < 0.001). Dogs of the same genders showed a threat nearly three times more often than dogs of opposite genders (P < 0.01). Males (P < 0.05) and females (P < 0.01) bit dogs of the same gender more than five times more often than dogs of the opposite gender. Dogs showed a threat more often (P < 0.05) and they bit another dog more than four times more often (P < 0.05) when both owners were men than when they were women. ” https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159111002668