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!

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