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Taking our canine best friend to the veterinarian for regular visits is one of the most important things we can do to ensure that our dogs live long and healthy lives. During annual vet visits, your veterinarian will vaccinate your dog and diagnose any possible health threats that only a professional can catch.
While some dogs do enjoy going to the vet, others get visibly stressed about vet visits. It can be scary to be poked and prodded by a stranger, even if they have the best intentions about making sure your dog is in good health. Whether they have good or bad memories of the vet, many dogs seem to know they are going to the vet as soon as they get in the car.
So how do dogs know they are going to the vet?
When you take your dog to the veterinarian, your dog notices many clues about where you are heading. Your change in routine, the different route you take in the car, and the smell of stress hint to your dog that something is different and they recognize the patterns of going to the vet.
Even Great Danes have to get in a car to go to the vet; it is a part of responsible pet ownership. So, let’s take a look at how dogs know they are going to the vet, whether they are a giant Great Dane or teacup Chihuahua, using visual cues, recognizing a different routine, or sensing your stress.
We will also look at some tips for making the trip to the vet less stressful for those with anxious dogs.
How Do Dogs Know They Are Going To The Vet?
We do not give our dogs enough credit for how much of our routine they observe and remember. Any change in that routine, like where you are driving or your stress levels, lets them know something is different about that day.
If your dog is easily able to pick up on those different patterns, there is a good chance that they know they are going to the vet.
Reason 1: The Car Ride
No matter what size dog you might have, as responsible dog owners we have to take our dogs to the vet annually, and that means a car ride.
How often do you take your dog for a car ride? Are they seasoned travelers, or do they only get to go for car rides on the rare occasion it is time to go to the vet?
If your dog is a homebody and one of the few times they ride in the car when they are going to the vet, they probably associate the car ride with seeing the veterinarian. I have a big dog that rarely goes for car rides, so when we put her in the car she knows she is probably going to the vet.
Here is a compilation of the reactions of different dogs once they know they are going to the vet, some are happy, some not so much.
Dogs have a surprisingly good memory, so if your dog rarely gets to go on car rides unless they are going to the veterinarian, they are likely to know that is where you are taking them. Picking up on patterns is easy for dogs, so if getting in the car always means a trip to the vet, they will remember that every time they get in the car.
Reason 2: Your Dog Recognizes The Route To The Vet
When you reach the dog park or favorite trailhead with your dog, do they start getting excited as soon as they realize what road you are taking?
I know my border gets so excited she will start suddenly screaming in the car as soon as she realizes we are heading to agility class. She recognizes and remembers the route to her favorite places, so it seems fair that she knows when we are going to the vet because she recognizes the route.
Dogs are much more observant than people give them credit for and are smart enough to remember the route to the vet. Dogs who have a bad experience, even if that bad experience is only routine vaccines or a stranger palpating their stomach, will remember and will know the next time you are going to the vet.
Reason 3: Your Dog Recognizes A Change In Routine
Obviously, if our dogs are smart enough to recognize the route you are taking to the vet, they are smart enough to notice something different about your routine.
A change in your routine like randomly coming home from work to put your dog in the car is a huge clue that lets your dog know they are going to the vet. If you go to the park every day with your dog but have to take them to the veterinarian, they will recognize that you do not have your normal walking shoes, backpack, and park toy.
An observant dog will know something is different, like maybe you are taking them to the vet.
If there are certain things you always do right before going to the vet, your dog will notice that change in routine. For example, my dogs usually only wear harnesses, but they wear collars to the vet. That is a change in our routine that lets them know they are going to the vet.
Reason 4: Your Dog Senses Your Stress
Whether you are taking your dog to the vet for a routine check-up or something more serious like surgery, it can be stressful for us as dog owners. You have a different demeanor when you are taking them to the vet than when you are taking them to the park and your dog usually notices.
Dogs are very empathetic and very connected to how we are feeling. So if they start acting stressed when you take them to the vet, they might not know they are going to the vet but instead are picking up on your emotional cues.
Dogs are social animals and pick up on body language cues very easily. They are very aware of human emotions and play off of them. This is a reason why they bond so strongly with their human family.
Reason 5: Your Dog Recognizes The Vet Clinic
Even if dogs do not quite know the route they are going on the way to the vet clinic, they will likely know you have taken them to the veterinarian clinic when you pull into the parking lot.
Vet clinics are a sensory overload filled with unique smells, stress hormones (not only their own, but the other animals who are there), and sounds. It makes a huge impression on your dog. As soon as your dog knows you are going to the vet, they might start stressing.
Most vets try to create a relaxing environment for their patients, but it can still be traumatic when they have to take our dogs away from us to perform nail trims, stitches, or major procedures like surgery. The area where dogs are crated can be full of loud, stressed dogs and cats. Dogs are as sensitive to other animals’ anxiety as they are to your anxiety.
This stressful environment is a good reason to crate train your dog at home before dropping them off at the vet for an extended stay. Already having positive associations with a crate will make their stay in the crate area of the vet clinic a little less scary for them.
How To Make Vet Trips Easier
Is your dog scared to go to the vet? Between the smells, prodding, and needles, it is not unusual for dogs to be nervous about going to the veterinarian. It can be an overwhelming experience for dogs, especially since we cannot communicate to them that getting medical treatment like shots, stitches, or x-rays is for their health, not a scary punishment.
This stress can be compounded if you ever have to leave a dog at the vet for a surgical procedure. It can feel like you are abandoning your dog and cannot be there to support them during a stressful situation.
However, while some dogs might always experience anxiety when they are going to the vet, you can use positive reinforcement or medicine to help make the trip easier and safer for both of you.
Create Positive Experiences At The Vet
It is critical to start socializing your new dog and puppy as soon as you bring them home. Studies have shown that puppies under 16 weeks old that are properly socialized handle new experiences such as going to unexpected places and meeting strangers with a lot more confidence.
So it is important to start taking your new puppy to the vet as soon as possible. Many veterinarians are happy to let you bring your new puppy to the clinic just to help create positive experiences at the vet.
Take 10 minutes to sit in the lobby and give them treats to condition those good associations. If they are not too busy, you could ask the doctor, receptionists, or vet technicians to give them treats.
This is an easy way to use positive reinforcement to help your puppy learn to handle the stress and smells of the veterinarian’s office with confidence and ease.
Raising puppies can be hard, but starting your puppy with positive experiences at the vet clinic early on will make it less stressful when you get in the car and they know they are going to the vet.
There are several different kinds of anxiety that dogs are diagnosed with, including separation anxiety, fear-based anxiety, and situational anxiety. Having a dog with anxiety does not mean you have failed as your dog as their owner. Some dogs are more prone to anxiety because of their breed, genetics, disposition, or past experiences.
Whether you have adopted an adult dog with an unknown background or bought a puppy with a naturally anxious personality, some dogs develop situational anxiety when you travel, during thunderstorms, or go to certain places like the vet.
If your dog’s anxiety spikes when they know they are going to the vet, there is nothing wrong with asking your vet for an as-needed sedative. Using medicine to help calm down your dog will make going to the vet much easier for both of you.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative stigmas surrounding muzzle training. A properly fitted muzzle is a great solution for different canine behavioral problems including reactivity, aggression, and fearfulness, and for dogs who will try to eat everything until they are sick.
Stressed dogs can be unpredictable, and nothing is more stressful for a scared dog than being poked and prodded by a stranger. It is hard for us to communicate to them that they are safe in a situation at the veterinarian.
If you are worried about a potential bite issue with your dog, there is nothing wrong with training them to wear a muzzle. It creates a safer situation for your dog, you, and your veterinarian.
An injured or scared dog is much more likely to lash out and bite, and if your dog knows they are going to the vet as soon as you start driving, they have the entire car ride to work themselves up.
I have a rescue dog who is scared of strangers and avoids them. However, the vet is a stranger she cannot avoid. She is extra stressed in a tiny room, so she is muzzle trained for the vet. I also let her wear it randomly on walks, in stores, and around the house. Now she does not associate it with the vet because it is a happy, fun thing!
Here is a great video from Kikopup to get you started on muzzle training.
There is no doubt that owning a dog is a lot of fun. It seems like there is a dog for every lifestyle, like couch potatoes that spend all day snuggling or high-energy dogs who love to go run a marathon with your every day. Whatever you do with your dog, make sure you make the best memories with them.
Part of making the most out of those memories is taking them to the veterinarian annually and whenever they are not feeling good. It is necessary for their health and longevity. Some dogs love to go to the vet and will start getting excited as soon as they get in the car and know you are taking them to the vet.
However, some dog starts to stress as soon as they know they are going to the vet. Dogs have a very good memory and can recognize the routine and route to the vet. And if you are stressed about going to the vet, they can mirror those emotions. It can make an already expensive vet visit more excruciating.
Owning a dog comes with a lot of responsibility and part of that is training to prepare them for the vet. If you have a dog that becomes anxious as soon as they know they are going to the vet, it is time to start creating positive experiences at the vet, around the clinic, and the route on the way to the clinic.
There is nothing wrong with talking to your vet about anti-anxiety meds or a trainer about muzzle training. These are tools that make will make the trip to the vet safer for you, your dog, and your veterinarian.
A vet will help make sure you will have a lifetime of activities and cuddling with your best friend. Take the necessary steps to make the trip as easy as possible, because your dog will probably know they are going to the vet. Regardless of how you have to manage the vet trip, know that you are doing the best thing for your dog and it is a small part of a lifetime of fun adventures!