How Do Dogs Know They Are At The Vet?

Dogs aren't going to want to hear this, but regular visits to the veterinarian are a fact of life. A healthy adult dog should go to the vet at least once a year. Puppies, senior dogs, and sick dogs have to visit the vet even more frequently.

Understandably, many dogs aren't wild about visiting the vet. But how do they know they're at the vet, and how can we help keep them calm?

Dog on sofa
credit: Chris Amaral/DigitalVision/GettyImages

Do dogs know they're going to the vet?

They shouldn't know until you're pretty close. Ideally, you take your dog many places in the car, not just the vet, so they don't associate the car with vet visits.

If your dog has been to the vet before, they most likely will understand where you are once you open the door to the waiting room.

Dogs are also keen observers of patterns, and they might be able to understand that you're headed to the vet if you have a routine that's specific to vet days. For example, if you always bring a magazine for yourself and a Kong toy for her, she might put together that those things usually mean a vet visit. (However, this is probably only true if you've already gone to the vet with your dog multiple times — your newly adopted dog isn't going to figure this out right away.)

Why don't dogs like the vet?

Can you blame them? The vet is full of potential for pain and anxiety. There are examinations, needles, and strangers everywhere. Worse, you can't explain to a dog that a vet visit is for her own good, so to her, it's just a place with slippery floors, rectal thermometers, and no observable benefit.

Veterinarian Dr. Debora Lichtenberg points out that a dog's fear gets worse when bad experiences are repeated. If your dog has had a bad experience every time they've been to the vet, it's understandable that they wouldn't want to go back.

Dogs looking at each other in veterinary clinic waiting room
credit: Thinkstock/Stockbyte/GettyImages

What to do if your dog is afraid of the vet.

It's important to take steps to minimize fear long before your dog actually sets foot in a vet's office.

Basic Training: teaching your dog some basic commands helps both you and your dog feel more in control in stressful situations (like a vet visit). Make sure your dog knows the basics, like sit, stay, and heel. These commands make it much easier to let your dog know what to do once they're at the vet, and provides them with some familiar structure.

Advanced Training: if you want to kick it up a notch, you can teach your dog more specific commands, like turning around, lying on her side, or lifting her paws. These commands will take a little more training time, but they can be very useful during a veterinary examination.

Positive associations: take your dog on car rides to fun places. Don't let the vet be the only destination your dog has ever experienced at the end of a car ride, or they might become hesitant to ever jump in the car. Try to take your dog on a few car rides to various places: the park, a friend's house, or to the pet supply store.

If you have time, your vet isn't too far away, and you're in an "extra credit" mood, you can even take your dog to the vet just to reward her. Walk her to the door, give her a treat, then walk her inside and give her some more treats. This activity will help teach your dog the idea that a visit to the vet = treats. (This step won't be feasible for many people, so don't feel guilty if you're not in a position to do it.)

Touch: Regularly spend time getting your dog used to being touched in places like her mouth, paws, and ears. Most dogs aren't wild about this at first, but it's crucial to get them accustomed to being touched in places that the vet will inevitably examine. How do you do this? Like most dog-related things, the answer is "treats." Create an association between being touched and receiving treats. Just touch your dog gently in a given place. For example, pick up her paw and then give her a treat and verbal praise. Repeat the process as often as you can, and on as many body parts as possible.

Veterinarians with a dog
credit: Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/GettyImages

How to calm your dog at the vet.

Arrive at the vet a few minutes early to make sure your dog has time to use the bathroom before going in, and to allow time to get settled. Try to remain calm and act like this is no big deal, so your dog can observe your calm mood.

Use lots of treats and praise during the examination. If it's okay with your vet and your dog isn't there for a stomach issue, you can even bring a jar of baby food to distract your dog during the exam.

It's okay to speak to your dog in soothing tones, but don't do it to a degree that makes them think this is a big deal. It's best to treat a vet visit like it's a routine thing that happens to involve lots of treats and occasional baby food.

Conclusion

Dogs who have been to the vet before know they're at the vet because of familiar sights, sounds, and smells. Vet visits can be stressful for your dog, but they don't have to be. A little prep work and a lot of positive reinforcement can go a long way toward minimizing dog stress around vet visits.