Special dog behavior: Barking at the vet clinic

*The following information has been provided by Dr. Phil Zeltzman, a board-certified veterinary surgeon from Whitehall, Pennsylvania as a courtesy to goodnewsforpets readers. The following article is only for the sharing of knowledge and information; it is not intended to replace consultation of a veterinarian or other qualified pet care professional. To subscribe to his newsletter, here.

If you ever feel embarrassed or confused when your dog barks frantically at the vet clinic, you’re not alone. To learn how to avoid or treat this annoying behavior, I talked with Eric Goebelbecker, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) in Maywood, NJ.

Phil Zeltzman: “Before we go over different ways to address barking, can you explain why some dogs bark like maniacs to begin with?”

Eric Goebelbecker: “There are at least 4 important reasons:

1. Attention seekingExcessive barking can be a way of seeking attention. There are a lot of people to seek attention from at a vet clinic — not to mention all of the other pets.

2. Anxiousness or excitementBarking can also be an indicator of excitement. If a dog walks into the clinic already excited, perhaps from the car ride, or due to a prior negative (or positive) association with the hospital, barking can be the symptom that develops into its own problem.

3. BoredomSometimes barking is nothing more than a way to pass the time. Dogs can’t text their friends when they’re bored, so they try to strike up a conversation, regardless of whether or not anyone else is interested.

4. Fear or aggressionFear and aggression are actually closely related: the root of the aggressive behavior in many, if not most dogs, is fear. When some dogs become fearful, they become very vocal too, either because the best defense is a good offense, or just because the nervous energy has to escape somehow.”

Phil Zeltzman: “OK, so what solutions would you suggest?”

Eric Goebelbecker: “There are a few basic things you can do to greatly diminish nuisance barking.

Bring some distractions
A busy dog doesn’t bark. Bring a toy (such as a Kong type toy) or a time-consuming treat for your dog to play with instead of barking. Idle paws are the barker’s helper! However, if your dog displays strong guarding tendencies, you should skip this one to avoid a dog fight!

Pay attention
Pay attention to your dog, as well as what is going on around you. While you do not want to inadvertently reward the attention-seeking barking (more on that later), you can prevent it by paying attention to your dog. This doesn’t mean just watching. Try petting, playing, talking or whatever other activity keeps your pet’s attention on you.

Also, watch what is going on around you. Is that cat across the rooming staring at your dog, encouraging him to bark? For dogs, eye contact isn’t a precursor to conversation, it is a conversation. Maybe you need to move away or redirect your dog’s attention.

Keep that leash short
Is your dog wandering around the waiting room looking for trouble? Chances are, (s)he’ll find it! Give less leash and keep your dog close. At the very least, prevent wandering around the waiting room. It’s not a dog park, remember, it’s a medical office!And if you forgot your leash, your friendly receptionist would be happy to provide one.

Train the behavior you want
What do you want your dog to do in the waiting room? Chances are the answer is sit or lie down near you, and then quietly stay there. When is the last time you practiced that? One of the exercises I practice in classes is the “vet’s office.”

We set up a line of chairs, and have some students walk past each other with their dogs on leash, while other students are seated with their dogs in a “down stay.” This little bit of practice, one exercise for 15 minutes during 8 weeks of class, has a significant impact. Imagine the results if you practiced the “down stay” at home regularly yourself!

Try some rehearsals
If your dog is anxious because of what happens inside the vet’s exam room, try a visit without an exam. A few visits that consist of a trip to the waiting room, a few treats, some petting and praise, and then leaving without the scary part, can help diminish or eliminate the negative association your dog has with visiting the clinic. Discuss this with you veterinarian’s office staff, they’ll probably be happy to help.

Get some exercise
Regardless of the underlying cause, one of the most fundamental preventive measures you can take is exercise. A tired dog will not only bark less, but will also have less energy to look for reasons to bark in the first place.

I happen to be lucky enough to live close to my vet, so I can incorporate the walk to his clinic into my exercise plans, but with my high-energy Border Collies, a quick game of fetch in the backyard precedes even that, just to knock the edge off. It means more time and planning, but it’s clearly worth it.”

Phil Zeltzman: “Most clients probably live too far from their vet to walk. What would you suggest?”

Eric Goebelbecker: “If they live further away, a long walk before they drive to the clinic is an alternative.

If a dog still launches out of the car, excited to get into the waiting room, then we can get to the clinic a few minutes early and take a walk around the block before going in. Giving your dog a chance to burn some of their energy, and breaking up the association between the card ride and the office visit, can go a long way toward settling a dog down.”

Phil Zeltzman: “You explained what to do. Are there things dog owners should not do?”

Eric Goebelbecker: “Sure, there are several common mistakes people make when their dog starts barking.

Avoid scolding or harsh discipline
If your dog is looking for attention, then there’s an excellent chance that scolding or even just telling your dog to “hush!” is making matters worse. Attention is attention, and just like the naughty child that “does it for the attention,” dogs will often fail to differentiate between “bad” and “good” attention.

If your dog is barking because of stress or anxiety, scolding and harsh discipline also risks making matters worse, as it will only increase the tension. You need to address the underlying anxiety in order to really change your dog’s behavior.

Don’t feel embarrassed, angry or ashamed
If you tend to feel anger and embarrassment, your dog probably feels it. This can raise her stress level and contribute to the problem. Chances are, those “rehearsal” visits would benefit you too!

Try not to obsess over other people or dogs
If your dog is the one barking, don’t worry about the others, just focus on trying to distract your dog. You have a dog that barks, it’s not the end of the world.If your dog isn’t the one barking, good for you! Keep focusing on your dog and make sure (s)he doesn’t contribute to the fuss.”

Phil Zeltzman: “What about fear and aggression?”

Eric Goebelbecker: “If your dog’s barking is really a symptom of fear or aggression toward other people or dogs, please get help! It’s not going to get better or go away without behavior modification. Discuss the problem with your vet to find a behavior consultant (iaabc.org) or a certified trainer (ccpdt.org) who can help you.

In the meantime, many of the measures listed above will still help, and it may be worth discussing making your appointments during the slower part of your vet’s schedule in order to keep your dog’s stress level as low as possible.

For some dog owners, a trip to the vet can be a stressful and embarrassing occasion. Their dog barks constantly, making everyone’s wait almost unbearable. Fortunately, some basic preparation and a little bit of training can go a long way toward making vet visits much better — maybe even a pleasure.”

Phil Zeltzman: “Can’t beat that! Thank you so much for sharing these great tips with my readers.”

Eric Goebelbecker works at Dog Spelled Forward (dogspelledforward.com) in Maywood, in Bergen County, New Jersey. He is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT).