Do you struggle with taking your dog to the vet? Is their stress and fear so intense that they tremble, salivate, pant, or even resort to attempts at escape or aggression? In the end, the vet visit is likely essential, so you probably force your dog to complete the visit (and promise to make it up to them later!).
When grooming, does your dog panic at the sight of nail clippers? Do they tremble in the corner as you draw a bath? Is a trip to the groomer a stressful experience for everyone involved? Regular grooming is just as essential for health and happiness as regular veterinary care, and, in the end, you and your groomer will likely muscle your way through the visit… and of course give plenty of cookies afterwards.
Learning by Association & Fear Learning
Most dogs only visit the veterinarian once or twice a year, and, for most dogs, grooming is maybe a monthly occurrence. Dogs are masters of classical conditioning—or learning by association. When we force a dog to submit to physical handling they are not comfortable with, we’re conditioning an innate reflex to the signals of that event. Over time, our dogs learn to associate those signals with that uncomfortable event. For example, the sight or smell of a veterinarian’s office might bring on panic and the sound of grooming equipment or sight of nail clippers are signals that an uncomfortable grooming session is approaching.
Fear learning is a powerful thing. When we are scared or stressed, our brains try to remember details, signs, and other signals so that we can avoid a similar event in the future. This can result in dogs being triggered by sights, sounds, and smells that we might not expect, and can lead to dogs to be less confident in the safety and security of the world around them.
In the past, both in grooming and veterinary medicine, it was common to believe that some dogs were simply better equipped for being handled for exam or grooming, and that for those who were less tolerant a certain amount of pressure or force was needed to complete the service. The intention was never to do harm to the dogs. When an essential service must be provided, those who care for dogs rarely have the option, or time, to try to alleviate the stress of the experience entirely. Most professionals who work with dogs will do everything in their power to make sure that the dog’s visit is as stress-free as possible. It is not the fault of your groomer or veterinarian if your dog is stressed by appointments with them. But if your dog only associates a bath or the sight of a stethoscope with an unpleasant experience, chances are they will be conditioned to have a negative response.
As dog owners, we owe it to our furry friends to make these experiences pleasant and stress-free. Cooperative Care and Fear Free handling are words to describe a growing trend in the veterinary and grooming world that focus on training an animal to become a willing participant in the process of caring for them. This concept avoids the common force, pressure, or coercion that can occur in the veterinarian’s office or grooming salon, and instead focuses on building up positive association to being handled, and allows the animal to “opt-in” and be willing participants in their care.
This training is accomplished at home, in hundreds of positive moments or short training sessions that prepare your dog for uncomfortable or even unexpected types of physical handling. The concept of cooperative care has been applied successfully across many species.  you can see a tiger undergoing a voluntary dental exam and blood draw, and  a stingray presenting herself for a pregnancy ultrasound.
Be proactive! If cooperative care can work for zoos, it can work for your dog! By committing to cooperative care training long before you need to apply it in a veterinary office or grooming salon, you are committing to the health, happiness, and quality of life of your pet. Cooperative Care protocols can be taught by a trainer in classes like our Virtual Private Lessons or Dog Only Private Lessons. These methods are best taught in a safe, neutral environment such as at home or inside the Dogs In Harmony training center. You can also look for groomers or Fear Free veterinarians who support these practices.
In our next Harmony Forum post, we’ll be discussing how to get started with cooperative care. For Sunnyvale locals, we’ll also link to Veterinarians and Groomers in the area who support Fear Free/Cooperative Care practices.
Looking to help your dog have a fear free veterinary or grooming appointment? Contact us at to schedule private lessons.