How To Help Reactive Dogs At The Vet

When Sandy & I moved out of Toronto one of the hardest things to leave behind was our fantastic vet. Having worked in the vet industry in the past, this would be my first time looking for a vet without having worked there already!

On the advice of a friend Sandy & I booked an appointment with the Doctors at Nelson Animal Hospital in Burlington. Sandy & I have visited them twice and both times I’ve been thoroughly impressed. Sandy does not like sharing small spaces with other dogs which can make the waiting area of a vet’s office a tough place to hang out. But Nelson Animal Hospital was caring & happy to help us to make sure Sandy’s visit was as relaxed as possible.

If you have a reactive dog here are some tips to help make your vet visits successful:


  • Let Staff Know: as you are booking the appointment inform the receptionist that your dog is reactive. Many offices will have a specific procedure they follow to make those dogs more comfortable including making a note on the file so all staff will be aware.
  • Sandy’s reflection in the side entrance

    Ask If They Can Help: as soon as I told Nelson Animal Hospital that Sandy isn’t dog friendly, they offered me an alternate entrance so we wouldn’t have to run into any dogs. They actually had TWO entrances aside from the front door we could’ve chosen! One outside door led right into the exam room, and they also had a backdoor that could accommodate nervous, shy, or reactive dogs.

  • Bring Treats: you want to make sure that every trip to the vet has the opportunity to be a positive one, no matter what possibly unpleasant procedures may need to be done. I bring 3 varieties of treats for Sandy – plain kibble to reward her for being calm as we’re waiting to be seen, a medium value training treat (such as Flying Hound) for the Staff to give her or in case she gets distracted/stressed, and then a high value treat such as small cut up hot dogs for being calm with other dogs in view or for after a difficult procedure like a blood draw.
  • Brush Up On Your Dog’s Cues: how well does your dog respond to their name while distracted? Do they have a cue for eye contact/focus? If you have an upcoming vet visit now is the time to brush up on these behaviours. Whether your dog is fearful, reactive, gets overexcited at the vet’s or needs some help around the office’s cat!, it’s useful to have a cue to keep your dog focused. In preparation, take your dog’s eye contact cue to a variety of environments to practice performing the behaviour while distracted. For example, give the cue for eye contact in every room of your home, then take it to just outside the front door, on the sidewalk, in the park, and so on.
  • Have A Solid ‘Go To Mat’: (*You may need a professional’s help with this) instead of allowing Sandy to pace around growing more & more anxious, I bring her mat along and she lays on it while waiting for the appointment to start. Make sure your dog already has a positive association with their mat so it’s a good thing when it comes out – ie: at home Sandy gets all of her bones & kongs on the mat, so when it comes out at the vet she is happy to see it. I don’t ‘command’ her to stay on it, she’s welcome to get up & sniff around, but if she starts getting too worked up I cue her back to her mat and reward her for relaxing. Here’s a fantastic video from Sarah Owings on mat work if you’re starting from the beginning. 
  • Tell Staff You’re There Before Bringing Your Dog In: I always quickly run in to inform staff Sandy & I have arrived without Sandy in tow. This allows me to scan the waiting area or get instructions from the staff if needed (ie: they can let me know they are behind & we can wait in the car or they are ready and we don’t have to wait at all!).
  • Thank Your Staff!: without the help of the Receptionists, Vet Assistants, Vet Techs and Doctors, none of this would run as smoothly as it does. I make sure to take the time to thank everyone for the accommodations which allows Sandy to have a positive, low stress experience.

Sandy was an excellent, albeit bewildered, patient at the vet!

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on

Sandy & I would like to thank all the staff at Nelson Animal Hospital for making our experience such a positive one!

Trick Progress

In a previous post I talked about Sandy & I’s current trick – walking through my legs and standing on my feet. We’ve made some nice progress and she’s targeting my actual foot now as I fade the physical targets. She’s much more focused, calm, and not adding in a bow from which I conclude she’s targeting with purpose as opposed to guessing, which you can see more of in the first video from the previous post. Our next step is getting both paws at the same time.

I always start this trick with my feet way too far apart, thinking my feet are so close together when in fact it’s quite a stretch for Sandy to reach both my feet at that distance. In order to get her to balance on both my feet I’m going to need to move my feet closer than I perceive is close. Maybe I’ll be a training nerd and measure the distance between them!!

Trick fun!

Sandy loves learning tricks, she especially loves doing things with her paws

What dog trainers do when they find basketballs on the road.

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on

So I figured we’d work on the trick lots of trainers do – walk through my legs & target paws to my feet.

To my surprise, she struggled with this, specifically using both paws at the same time. I conferred with my excellent trick-training friends: Julie of Cat School and Lauren of Lauren’s Leash for some ideas.

(Here’s a photo of Lauren doing this trick with her dog Grayson when I visited them in NYC!)

Through discussion with them, I got Sandy targeting two yogurt lids side by side, then moved them to between my legs. Eventually I will get them further and further apart, but not until it’s clear she is targeting them simultaneously. The video below is our latest progress. She’s also added in a superstitious behaviour – can you see it in the video below?

New Home, Old Anxiety

I know that moving can be stressful for dogs, my dog Sandy being firmly in that category. She is a dog who likes her routine and can get stressed by changes in the environment. So upon moving to our new home in Hamilton I worked on leaving her alone for short time frames and every time I came back she was calm & relaxed, no signs of anxiety.

Found our local library

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on

Phew. Or so I thought.

The first morning I had to leave her for a few hours I got a call from my landlord that Sandy was barking. If you’ve ever gotten a call or had a note left about your dog’s behaviour you know what it feels like: your stomach drops, your face flushes with embarrassment, maybe you even get frustrated or angry that this is happening, why is my dog behaving like this!  

That’s the very question I asked myself: why was my dog behaving like this! Sandy had never experienced separation anxiety prior to this and I was shocked to get the phone call. But then I started piecing together some issues in the past year that I had ignored.

The brave adventurer

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on

As a dog trainer I’ve worked to be carefully attuned to signs of stress and anxiety in dogs I work with and yet, when it came to my own dog, I had explained away those same subtle signs I would’ve brought to the attention of a client. Before moving, while still in Toronto, some days I came home to Sandy panic barking. It was a bark I had never heard from her before.

If a client had come to me with that situation I would’ve recommended to record the dog while the client was out to see exactly what was going on. Without video, you can only speculate about your dog’s emotional state while you aren’t there.

Instead, I attributed her behaviour to needing to go to the bathroom, a change in our schedule, or maybe she had heard a strange noise. Now, after the phone call from my landlord, I saw that those were signs that she had been coping with increased anxiety. I had ignored them, which resulted in separation anxiety when the BIG change of our new home came.

Standing in the shadow of the escarpment

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on

I put together a training plan for Sandy that included her never being left alone in unfamiliar places, I was lucky to have family close that could look after her when I had to be out of the house, and I chose to put her on medication in order to get us to our end goal quicker.

Sandy is now weaned off the medication, she can be left alone for as long as needed with no anxiety and we have a reliable routine, which she loves. She actually wants me to hurry up and leave the house so she can get her stuffed kongs!

Here is some footage of the first trial of Sandy being left alone during our training plan. (Sorry for the camera angle, it tipped a little too far to the side!)

Note that initially she is alert, focused on the point of exit, but no vocalization or excessive pacing. She’s clearly not comfortable being left alone yet. Compare that to the second half of the video after she has worked through separation anxiety protocol.


If your dog has a behavioural change, don’t be ready with a quick answer to dismiss it.

If I had taken the time to consider why Sandy was behaving differently at our home in Toronto, it would’ve saved me the extra work when the additional stressor of the move occurred.

We Speak Woof in Hamilton (and surrounding areas!)

While We Speak Woof services Burlington, Waterdown, Dundas, Stoney Creek & Ancaster, Hamilton is where I call home (and offer services there too of course!).


A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on


Sandy & I moved out to Hamilton from Toronto in September of 2016. There I had spent 4 years teaching classes & providing private lessons with the fantastic people of When Hounds Fly.

Sandy and I worked on our photography skills to practice for graduates 😉 #dogsofwhf

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on



Now, Sandy & I explore the streets of Hamilton.

We found George

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on


We love it here and have lots of fun taking pictures in and around our hood.

Found them!!

A post shared by Katie Hood (@katiethehood) on


I’m excited to continue exploring the city with Sandy while helping the people of Hamilton with their dogs!