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Combining our skills to change canine attitudes

by
01 April 2016, at 1:00am

Francesca Riccomini says it requires combined effort, clear thinking, enthusiasm, sensitivity and flexibility to deal with dogs who are fearful of the vet clinic and staff.

“PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE” and nowhere is patience more needed than when conducting a desensitisation and counter-conditioning programme: the sort of programme that can make life less stressful for our pets, for owners and for veterinary professionals.

For example, as I discussed previously, a cat’s carrier can often be transformed from a thing for him to avoid at all costs to a pleasurable place to hang out – thereby making veterinary and cattery visits less dreaded by all.

Dogs too can bene t from this approach. And nowhere is achieving a good result more satisfying than when dealing with those canines whose fear of the clinic, and the staff contained therein, makes owners delay or avoid treatment and our working lives difficult, or sometimes downright scary.

However, here, even combined with optimism and goodwill, patience alone is unlikely to make much of a positive difference. Indeed, it may be quickly and permanently eroded if other skills are not also brought to the table and the whole situation approached in an educated and coherent manner.

A good understanding of the underlying science is, of course, an absolute essential but this is only likely to get us so far. For any such programme is essentially a practical exercise based upon sound knowledge and a number of other assets are essential for success.

Motivation matters

If clients don’t see there’s a problem, or view dealing with difficult dogs as something we should simply put up with, they are unlikely to buy into the idea that improving things would be “communally beneficial”.

Similarly, it can be quite de- motivating for owners, and behaviourists when they are involved, if clinic staff are less than enthusiastic. Thankfully with my clients everyone has done their best to make things work. After all, the veterinary team often suggest a behavioural input in the first place and we all gain from handling less distressed dogs.

The support motivated clients frequently receive from staff is also invaluable as they gradually work their way through such a programme, especially when spirits sag and people need to be buoyed up.

This invariably occurs at some stage if the problem is well established so the dog’s arousal begins some way down the road as tarmac and tyre sounds indicate the destination can only be the surgery or, when on foot, their owners take a particular route or turn a significant corner.

Patience and perseverance are also less likely to run out when someone on the sidelines is there to cheer even the smallest step forwards, no matter how long the programme takes – especially as to those involved it may well feel like forever!

Additionally, an outsider can sometimes “read” the behavioural signs that indicate a dog’s emotional state better than his handler and offer much-needed feedback and advice. Or, when progress seems to have stalled, she or he may spot slight changes that are required in the way the situation is being managed, something that is not uncommonly needed and can be critical.

Obviously, an educated observer is a real boon in these circumstances, which is why the enthusiasm for companion animal behaviour that so many veterinary nursing staff have makes their assistance invaluable when tackling problems of this sort.

Vital stages

Acceptance and ability to compromise are also vital. Some owners of troubled, and troublesome, pets, despite already having loads of demands upon them, are astonishing when it comes to the time and effort they will put into each tiny phase of the agreed regime. 

They take tremendous care never to proceed to the next step until their pet indicates that current progress is sufficiently well established and he or she is ready to do so.

Others are unwilling to give up anything, no matter how apparently trivial, in order to accommodate their pet’s welfare in this way. They are consequently less easy to work with and this is a problem because the dog’s emotional state and reactions to the clinic, staff and environs should, and must, dictate the pace as well as the nature of the behavioural regime.

This is not something upon which the animal is able to compromise, so people must be willing to do so or efforts are likely to flounder and everyone is probably wasting their time. In situations like this there are simply no “quick fixes”.

Observational skills essential

Good observational skills are another essential and, as ever, we can learn a lot from the mistakes people commonly make. For instance, some clients work hard organising frequent “happy visits” every time they pass their veterinary surgery or can arrange to drop in, while the staff offer praise, fuss and treats, which is great. 

Often though, when we examine what really happens on these occasions, we find the dog shows distinct signs of distress way down the road, is a nervous wreck when the waiting room is reached and even the greediest pooch eschews the proffered food.

Obviously, then, the place to do the “positive stuff” is the area just before arousal kicks in, thereby consolidating the pet’s calm, coping reaction. Then the secret is to move the whole process slowly towards the dreaded clinic, taking care to ensure it is the dog’s reactions that dictate the rate of progress.

Working together

Too much, too soon, therefore, can be as undermining to a programme like this as too little, too late; which is why we usually succeed only when working together and combining clear thinking, enthusiasm, sensitivity and flexibility with all these other assets in the interests of the affected dog’s well- being.

And, of course, an additional bene t for us is that when clients have been well supported as they tackle this issue, their gratitude invariably bonds them to the practice and its personnel as if by the use of super-glue.