It can be challenging to find a veterinarian both you and your dog feel comfortable with. When searching for the right fit, always keep in mind that you both deserve to be heard, as well as treated with respect and kindness.
For owners, this means having a veterinarian that listens to their concerns and feedback. For dogs, this means going at the dog's pace and not pushing beyond their comfort zone.
One helpful resource for finding a vet is the Fear Free directory. You can also talk to neighbors, loved ones and dog professionals (trainers, walkers and groomers) to get a good referral. Don't forget that just because a clinic isn't affiliated with Fear Free doesn't mean they aren't putting all the relevant principles into practice.
Remember that despite all the various certifications available for staff, being dedicated to low stress handling is largely cultural. Management must be on board with putting these principles into practice, otherwise techs and other staff will not have the tools necessary to implement them. The most important tool of all is time. This means having the time to sit with your companion and help them feel comfortable.
I urge you to do your own evaluation before you commit to using a particular veterinary practice. Here's what to look for:
1) An empty waiting room
One of the best ways to minimize stress for animals is by keeping those that don't know one another apart. For most dogs and cats at the vet, all the other animals there are unfamiliar, which can create anxiety. Well run practices try to keep time spent in the lobby to a minimum and filter clients into exam rooms quickly.
2) Things aren't rushed
Techs and doctors take the time to hang out with your dog and see what sort of treats they like. They don't immediately begin touching your dog the moment they walk into the exam room.
3) All possible procedures are done in the exam room with the owner present
Your dog shouldn't be taken out of sight to do something as simple as a blood draw, anal gland expression or nail trim. Insist on being present for your dog's handling.
4) Happy visits are encouraged
One of the best things clinics can do for their patients is to invite them to come by anytime for treats. Doing this will help your dog feel more at ease with the clinic by creating positive associations. You know you've hit the jackpot when your clinic welcomes you to visit an empty exam room and practice getting on the scale.
5) Basket muzzles are used
Basket muzzles offer safety just like groomer's muzzles. They keep staff from being bitten, but with the added benefit of allowing the dog to pant. Think about it, how comfortable would you feel if someone clamped your mouth shut? Doing this only increases fear and anxiety.
6) Your dog is never held down and forced to endure something (especially something that is a want rather than a need)
A good clinic will send you home with information on the various pharmaceutical options to reduce your dog's anxiety, as well as resources that will help you work on it at home. An example of this is Nailed It! for at home nail care.
7) Ask your dog how she feels
Not literally, of course. Though it would be nice if our dogs could tell us in a language we understood. Since they can't, we have to try our best to learn theirs. A great resource for learning about dog body language is iSpeakDog. Some signs your dog may be comfortable at the vet clinic include: taking treats, laying down, soft eyes, or soliciting affection.
On the flip side, your dog may show discomfort by displaying some of the following: tucked tail, flat ears, "whale eye," or making herself small. You can see all the different ways dogs talk to us through body language by visiting iSpeakDog's Body Language Gallery.
Always keep in mind that just because a clinic has a Fear Free sticker on the door, does not mean they are putting those principles into practice. Just like anything else, Fear Free can be abused as a marketing ploy, which deceives clients and hurts animals. If you visit a clinic where this seems to be the case, please voice your concerns accordingly.
On the other hand, if you know of a wonderful clinic that isn't affiliated with Fear Free, spread the word about all the good work they're doing. Write a review, hand out a card or post on social media. It'll help other concerned owners like yourself find them.
If you're in our area by the Jersey Shore, we highly recommend Atlantic Veterinary Hospital!