When they’re feeling overwhelmed with a new puppy or they’re having a behavior problem with their dog, many people turn to their vet or the staff for advice. Sometimes they can be a great resource; unfortunately, being an expert in veterinary medicine doesn’t qualify someone to deal with training and behavior problems.
In fact, sometimes veterinary staff can be downright scary and make things worse. I’ve had a tech at my own vet tell me that forcibly dragging my anxious dog, Bramble, out of the room and literally scaring the piss out of him to do a blood draw and basic exam was “good for his socialization.” While eventually getting to the point where he can calmly go with strangers and tolerate a bunch of people touching him would be great for his socialization, I doubt that particular experience will help. The same tech wouldn’t leave the poor guy alone because he couldn’t understand that a stranger-phobic dog doesn’t need someone trying to force physical affection on him when he’s already having the worst day ever. I have to remind the receptionists not to stand right in front of the scale when he’s being weighed because they’re making him more anxious. My husband is already the one putting him on the scale and reading the numbers, so there is no medical reason for them to stand there; they just don’t understand how to keep an anxious dog under threshold.
It can be difficult to advocate for your dog in these situations, but it’s important and necessary. During his last vet visit, Bramble didn’t bark at the other dogs, allowed himself to be weighed, and had a shot administered quietly and without needing to be muzzled. That kind of improvement makes acting as your dog’s bouncer more than worth it in the long run. If the staff can’t work with you on not scaring your pet, it may be necessary to change vets. Dogs that can’t be safely examined get less preventative care and the vet may miss something important because they’re trying to rush through the appointment or can’t access the dog’s mouth because they’re muzzled. While we’re still working on his socialization, I certainly weigh treating minor health issues at home with the damage a potentially traumatic vet visit might do to the progress Bramble has made. If he were to get worse, he could need to be sedated for even routine treatment, which isn’t ideal for a dog that might already be sick.
Veterinarians can, of course, be very useful in working on behavior issues in some circumstances. Sometimes they’re related to health conditions or injuries that are causing pain or confusion. Many dogs that are “just getting old” and begin doing things like barking all night or peeing in the house have very treatable conditions and have more healthy years in them with the right care. If your dog has a sudden behavior change, a thorough exam is the first step to treating it. Anything from pain to thyroid issues to diabetes could cause your dog to turn into a terror.
Anti-anxiety medications can also be an invaluable component of treating some behavioral problems and are almost always necessary when dealing with separation anxiety. Of course, a vet is the only person who can prescribe these drugs, and they will have a good understanding of how they’ll impact other aspects of your dog’s health. While prescribing these drugs to anxious pets is becoming more common, plenty of people have to change practices to find a vet both willing to use drugs to help with behavior issues, and knowledgeable about what to prescribe for which problems. Just like in human medicine, general practitioners have general knowledge and a specialist or a veterinarian who has taken extra classes in behavioral medicine may be needed.
Your veterinarian may be an expert dog trainer, or she may not. It’s important that before you take training advice given by anyone as gospel, you do your own research. It’s not your job to become an expert, but it is important that you understand enough about modern dog training to question and understand the advice given. Many veterinarians do have an interest in training and behavior and have excellent advice and resources to give you, but it’s up to you to screen that advice before experimenting on your dog.