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Vets Taking Dogs in the Back Room for Exams, What Studies Say and the Fear Free Program

Updated on June 28, 2017
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Adrienne Farricelli is a former veterinary hospital assistant and now a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of dog books.

Why Vets Take Dogs to the Back Room

After taking your dog to the vet for quite some time, you may have gotten used to the vet taking your dog to the back room to do an exam, but why is this necessary? And most of all, what happens behind those closed doors?

As a former vet assistant working along vets in hospitals and shelters, I can provide an insider view of what happens behind those closed doors, when your dog is taken out of your view. There may be various reasons why your dog is taken to the back room based on various factors. Following are several.

A Matter of Convenience

One of the most common reasons for taking your dog to the back room is a matter of convenience. Next time you are in the examination room, take a look around you. You will likely notice an exam table and a desk with several drawers. Those drawers stock up several essential items such as muzzles, otoscopes, cotton balls, gloves, syringes, disinfecting products and more. How do I know? I cleaned up these drawers countless times!

However, as well stocked up as these drawers may be, they possibly house 1/3 of all the things vets need to carry out throughout examinations for diagnosing various conditions. Behind that door therefre unveils a larger room full of other equipment your vet needs access to.

So when your dog is taken through that back door, it could be a matter of convenience so that your vet is not forced to carry back and forth bulky equipment to the examination room. Also, the back door may lead to the same room where dogs are undergoing surgery or recovering from it. These dogs may need quiet to relax and squeamish people may not like the sight of surgical procedures.

But owners may still wonder, what happens behind those back doors? Most likely your vet is doing a blood pressure reading, taking an x-ray or using a Wood's lamp to see whether your dog has ringworm.

So for those concerned about their dogs, most likely when your dog is taken to the back, it's often to perform something that requires some sort of equipment that is not stocked up in the exam room.

As mentioned, this is often done for convenience, so that the exam room is not cluttered by things that can be easily knocked down, but also to perform sometimes messy procedures (you likely wouldn't like having your dog's smelly anal gland secretions on your clothing). Timing is also a factor, by going to the back room, your vet is not forced to waste precious minutes carrying bulky stuff back and forth which can easily put him or her behind schedule if this happens too often.

If you are concerned about your dog being taken back, to put your mind on ease, you can always ask in a polite manner such as "I tend to worry about the unknown, can I please know why my dog is taken to the back room?" Most vets or veterinary technicians will be happy to provide details.

Last time I was at the vet, I asked why it took so long to have my dog's x-rays done (it was just a lateral, one view x-ray of the stifle) the technician said that he needed somebody else to help him lift my dog up the table and that person was not available. My mind instead was playing all sorts of scenes of my dog not being collaborative and them having to take multiple pictures.

Liability Issues

One problem often encountered in the exam room is dog owners insisting on restraining their dogs themselves. As much as this sounds like a good idea, consider it from the vet and vet's staff perspective: this can be a big liability issue.

Yes, because there are countless stories of lawsuits from dog owners who are bitten by their own dogs in the examination room. Veterinarians know this too well because they can be liable for anything that happens to dog owners in the exam room. So it's quite normal for your vet to discourage you to restrain your dog when they have staff who have been professionally trained to perform safe restraining techniques.

Many years ago, I was once told to back off politely by making it look as a threat to my bond with my dog. My dog was held still to clean up a wound that was painful and I was helping, when the vet said to me " Let me have my professionally trained staff hold your dog for this procedure, we don't want your dog to associate this not-so-pleasant experience with you."

Less Stress for Dogs

Another reason dogs are taken to the back room is because of the belief that dogs are less stressed when they are taken back. One factor at play is space. Veterinary exam rooms tend to be quite small and there's belief that most dogs feel a sense of relief when they are taken to a bigger room.

Another reason is the "belief" that dogs tend to be less stressed when they are not in presence of their owners. As a vet assistant, I remember that we used to take dogs who were particularly difficult or fractious to treat to the back room. Did the dogs seem calmer there? Well, to be totally honest, I had mixed feelings about this. I did see some dogs appear to calm down, while others were just as fractious as in the presence of the owner and then some more appeared to be even more stressed than before!

Many dogs required to be muzzled and restrained, sometimes in ways that could have made dog owners uncomfortable. It's not like these dogs were hurt in any way, but they had to be kept still for certain delicate procedures such as a blood draw and this sometimes required several vet techs to keep these dogs from moving.

The sight of several people holding down a dog is not pretty, but I can't deny it was effective. Vets and vet techs are professionally trained in the art of restraint. They know how to hold dogs for their safety and the safety of the dogs.

Of course, dogs do not understand that this is for their own good and many would go into the fight or flight mode (try to flee or try to fight) until they had to give up and accept the fact that there was no way to escape the restraint.

So does taking dogs to the back room really reduce their stress? I had my doubts back then, and now I have even more seeing the results of a new interesting study that came out.

But first a warning, in this article I am in no way planning on criticizing veterinarians and their staff. To the contrary, I know they must do their job in the safest and most effective way possible and often they must do things quickly. I also know that many vets treat dogs in the back as they would treat them in front of the owner. So the purpose of this article is just to offer a fresh new perspective on things.

Scared dog at the vet
Scared dog at the vet

What the Study Says

I was intrigued by a recent study that came out which reminded me of the dogs who appeared to be more stressed when taken away from their owners. This study also reminded me that, back then, when I worked for the vet's office, I didn't know much about dog behavior as much as I know today.

For instance, the dogs who to me appeared back then "calmer' when brought to the back room, may have likely been frozen in fear instead. Some dogs who initially tried to resist the restrain and then appeared more calm, may have been simply subjected to the phenomenon of "learned helpless." Basically, these dogs give up, giving the illusion of" behaving", when in reality they are just in a subdued state of stress and fear.

Now, back to the study, what did the study find? The study, which was published in Physiology & Behavior Volume 177, 1 August 2017 not surprisingly concluded that yes, dogs are stressed when at the vet and that they show signs of stress (which in the study consisted of increased heart rate and increased lip licking). Signs of stress though were found to significantly diminish when the owner was petting and talking to the dog during the examination, The dogs demonstrated less attempts to jump off the examination table and their heart rate lowered!

The study finally concluded that "owner-dog interactions improve the well-being of dogs during a veterinary examination. Future research may assist in further understanding the mechanisms associated with reducing stress in dogs in similar settings."

Time for Change

I must say that I am very happy to have finally found a vet I trust and who is committed to making vet visits more pleasant for my dogs. The rooms are spacious, there's a cookie jar in each room, and dogs are taken out of the room only for certain procedures.

So far, my dogs have been given shots, blood tests, and biopsies in the exam room right in front of my eyes. Even when my dog had surgery, I was allowed to stay by his side until he fully recovered enough to stand up and come home.

The vet and staff not only have spacious rooms and do most of the procedures in front of dog owners, but also take numerous steps in making the experience more pleasant (or at least tolerable!) to the dog. For instance, last time I was there, the technician was having a bit of a hard time finding my dog's saphenous vein for a blood chemistry profile. As I was distracting my dog with treats, at some point it was getting stressful and my dog was starting to refuse the treats. Fortunately, just seconds later, the vein was found.

Most vets offices would just end things there. The blood would be collected and they would tell you to check out. Instead, this technician grabbed several treats from the jar and called my dog to him asked him to sit and doled out several treats in a row. This was to end the visit on a positive note just as you would with a training session when things don't go as planned and perhaps the dog is getting a bit frustrated not knowing exactly what is being asked.

For owners of dogs who are fearful at the vet, there is now good news: a new movement has been spreading in veterinary offices like wild fire. More and more veterinary offices and hospitals are now adhering to improvements in making their veterinary offices more and more pet friend and are offering what are known as "Fear free veterinary visits." Actually, at this time, I am happy to announce that there is even a " Fear Free Certification Program!" for veterinary offices!

"The truth is, once a pet has been frightened, it never forgets that experience."

— Dr. Marty Becker

A dog owner's best dream!

Introducing The New Fear Free Program

The late, veterinarian Sophia Yin started a growing interest in making vet visits less stressful through her "low stress handling" program. Popular veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, further created a push for a fear free program as his dream is of turning every veterinary practice into a Fear Free practice.

Sure, vets have a dog's physical well-being in mind every time a dog steps into their office, but what about considering a dog's emotional well-being too? Every time a dog goes to the vet and has a negative experience, it has a cumulative effective which is often only noticed once it becomes evident and a problem for all veterinary staff.

The dog may seem to tolerate going to the vet the first few times, but eventually the fear he feels at the moment will start expanding into anticipatory anxiety that starts the moment the dog enters the car. Soon, the dog is shaking, panting and whining if too many car rides end up to the vet and a fear of the car may eventually develop on top of that.

So for those curious to know, what does a fear free program entail? It entails many components such as making rooms more spacious, changing the color of walls and the color of the vet's coat (white may stick out like a Christmas tree to dog's eyes!), reducing waiting times, using calming aids for dogs and providing clients with tips to help their dogs associate the vet's office with good things (like frequent trips just to get cookies from staff!).

While the fear free program can help dogs better relax at the vet, dog owners should still though put some effort in helping their dogs get used to certain things that happen at the vet's office.

For instance, conditioning a dog to having his feet and ears handled, training the dog to accept wearing a muzzle and getting the dog accustomed to having his mouth inspected can really help a lot. Teaching a dog to go to a mat area may also be helpful for dogs who fear examination tables because of their slippery surface. Organizing mock vet visits with the help of family and friends is also important and all of this is best done starting at a young age when puppies are more impressable.

Fear Free: How Pet Owners Can Enjoy Veterinary Visits with Their Pets

References

  • Behavioral and physiological reactions in dogs to a veterinary examination: Owner-dog interactions improve canine well-being Erika Csoltova, Michaël Martineau, Alain Boissy,Caroline Gilbert
  • DVM360:Fear-Free: What you see is not what the cat or dog gets

© 2017 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 3 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      Good insight and information! I know many of my pet owning friends are worried when a vet or tech takes their dogs for more exams, etc. It's never really bothered me. Having to do all the exams and such in a small space would be like asking me to type on a computer while I'm in the bathroom. :)

      I also think that part of the anxiety that dogs feel is the anxiety and frustration their owners feel about going to the vet. Dogs are so intuitive and can sense that in an instant. It would be interesting to do a study to see if owners that are afraid of going to the doctor themselves are also afraid of bringing their dogs to the vet.

      That being said, I'm glad that my vet does a combination of in-room discussion and procedures in the back.

      Thanks for another great perspective on an issue so many dog owners face!

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