Updated: Feb 23
Part One: Leia
It’s that cliched line you read on so many dog trainers’ bios: I’ve had dogs all my life. I have had dogs for most of my life, beginning at age 11 (and it would have been a lot sooner had my mother given in sooner!). Yet, until I acquired the two that I currently have, I had never had a dog with fear/anxiety/reactivity issues. Maybe just luck of the draw, but I do worry that there is something else at play here. There has been a fair amount of research on fearfulness in dogs, including surveys showing that the problem is widespread. Having worked as a trainer and seen so many cases of fear and reactivity in recent years, this comes as no surprise to me. Various factors have been shown to correlate with fearfulness in these studies, including inadequate socialization. But we still have much to learn about the issue. I believe there are a combination of factors contributing to this, including inadequate socialization early in a dog’s life, a reduction in human social interactions caused by increasing technology in modern lives (not to mention the added impact of the pandemic), and the increasing numbers of dogs who are adopted from shelters or rescue groups. But suffice it to say that having these two dogs has really opened my eyes to what it’s like to live with dogs with these issues, and as a trainer I actually think that’s a valuable thing! Both of my dogs are adults now, and their issues with fear and reactivity are mild to moderate, and nowhere near the severity of many dogs I have seen. But had they ended up in the hands of someone with less knowledge of dog behavior and how best to deal with these issues, I can certainly see how they might have gotten worse and could have been re-homed, surrendered to a shelter, or even euthanized. This is especially so with Leia.
When it came to socialization for Leia, I found myself in a quandary. I knew how important it was to socialize puppies, but when I spoke to our vet about where I could safely take her, and how I could socialize her without exposing her to infectious disease, I was told I really shouldn’t take her anywhere in public until she was fully vaccinated. I could tell our vet was conflicted about saying this, but she stuck to her position, even when I asked if walks in our own neighborhood were okay. So I did the best I could to socialize her, but I know it was not sufficient. At the time, I had not yet learned that the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior had started recommending that puppies start socialization classes after getting their first puppy shots, but even if I had, I didn’t have my business yet, and I didn’t know of any quality puppy socialization classes in our area.
Until she was over a year old, we didn’t have any issues at the vet. But when she was around one year old, Leia started having intermittent lameness in her right back leg. Eventually she was diagnosed with luxating patellas, and we were advised that she would need surgery to correct it. Leia had to stay overnight at the veterinary specialty hospital. I do not regret having the surgery done, as it 100% solved the problem and she can run and do everything a dog needs to do. Unfortunately, though, the experience was very emotionally traumatic for her. Since we didn’t do any proactive cooperative care work with her at her regular vet, I can only imagine how terrifying it must have been for her to be in a strange place, with unfamiliar people, being held in a stainless steel cage and walking on slick floors, smelling the strong odor of disinfectant, and being touched and handled in very intrusive ways by all those unfamiliar people! A dog that has the benefit of either an innate temperament that is gregarious and trusting, or has plenty of positive exposures to novel environments and people during puppyhood (or both), would be stressed for a few days after the experience, but recover completely. Leia had neither of those things working for her, and as such the experience left an indelible mark on her feelings about veterinary settings, and about being touched or handled, especially on her hind quarters. After her surgery she began reacting aggressively when the vet tech would try to get her temperature. She got the dreaded “bites without warning” sticker on her chart, although technically she hasn’t bitten anyone yet, but she does growl and snap.
All of this has been new territory for me. Prior to Leia, I had not worked closely with dogs with aggression (by choice), so having one of my own gave me special insight into what it’s like. Through continuing education courses, I have learned the techniques that help with fear based aggression, and I have seen up close how much they can help. Through desensitization and counter conditioning, I am trying to slowly give her a better association with handling and procedures, as well as the veterinary clinic itself. It’s slow going, but I see improvement with every session. Leia has inspired a real passion in me for cooperative care, and it’s now something I promote to all my students, as both a proactive and rehabilitative practice. I feel that we shouldn’t have to accept as the status quo that our fur babies just have to suffer through going to the vet. I know it can be so much better than that!
If your dog or cat does great at the vet, that’s wonderful! But if you have an animal that trembles, hides, pants excessively, or displays other signs of fear or aggression at the vet, it’s never too late to work on making the experience better for them! To get an idea of how the process works, check out my first cooperative care video on our YouTube channel:
In my next installment, you’ll hear about Luke, our other scaredy dog!
Leannah Fulmer, CPDT-KA