Pets With A Mission, Inc.: She Growled
Recently, I ran into a situation that I had not previously encountered. During a visit to our local veterinary clinic, my dog growled at the veterinarian. As a result, during the remainder of her examination she wore a soft muzzle. It was safer for her and the staff and I fully agreed that it was a necessary precaution.
A bit of background information is necessary to understand the dog and her situation. She is a medium-sized, six-year-old female dog. She was rescued from a hoarding situation. She was in good body condition but other than that, little is known about her care during the first four years of her life. She was in a city shelter for only two days before going on to foster care with a breed rescue organization. The foster family discovered that initially she was shy but given a little time, she would warm up to women. She avoid being around men. In addition, she strongly disliked having her tail touched. The length of her tail is naturally short and only about ¾ the length of an average Australian Cattle Dog’s tail. She is very sensitive about it being touched. She stayed with the foster family for two months before she came to live with me. I gave her time to adjust to her new home. Within a few days, she was comfortable around me and within a week she decided that I was her person. I took her to a manners class for the family dog. It gave her a chance to learn some skills such as come, sit, stay, and to walk nicely on a leash. In addition, the class provided some socialization with other people. By the end of the class, she would calmly accept a brief pat on the shoulder from people, even some men.
She has visited the veterinarian several times during her two years with me. Like many dogs, she gets stressed during vet visits. She pants, sheds some, and stays very near me, but she never growled at anyone until our most recent visit. So, the dilemma is what to do now.
The first option is to do nothing. I can hope that she just had a bad day at her last vet visit and growling was one-time bad behavior that will not happen again Or, it is possible that growling at the vet could be her new go to behavior? Then, a muzzle would be her new attire for the foreseeable future and as a necessity to protect the staff.
Of course, I advocate for my dog. I stay close to her throughout her exam since she does look to me for comfort and support. I will remind the staff “do not touch her tail.” I could bring favorite treats and use them to distract her during her next exam. Often, when a dog is stressed, they are not interested in food. I suspect that she will be uninterested in food but it is worth a try.
Additional socialization around people might help her become more comfortable around people. As a generalization, more socialization is a good thing, but I don’t think it would be very helpful in her current situation. She is an aloof dog. Aloofness might be her nature or it might be at least partially caused by whatever life events occurred before she was rescued.
Another type of training, specifically counter conditioning, could be helpful, She gets stressed when she goes to the vet clinic. Counter conditioning would work on changing her emotional response to what she views as a stressful situation. The goal would be for her to accept vet visits as a routine activity and lower her stress level which should stop the growling. Some dogs respond well to counter conditioning, but not all do. The down side of counter conditioning training is the time and effort that it takes to change a dog’s behavior. It is a lengthy process that takes months, even years, to accomplish. The vet visit would need to be broken down into dozens of small steps and we could not move to the next step until she was very comfortable with the previous step. The training would require lots of cooperation by the veterinary staff, as well.
What might counter conditioning training look like? She already likes car rides so we could drive to the clinic but not get out of the car. We would do that as many times as necessary over time until she was not stressed at that baby step. The next step would be to get out of the car and walk to the clinic door but not go inside. Once she could do that with little or no stress, we would go inside, stay for one minute, and return to the car. Next we might stay in the lobby for a few minutes and have one staff member say hello from across the room. Once she is comfortable with that step, she could enter an exam room and immediately leave. On other visits the staying time would increase. After that step, a staff member could come to the doorway of the exam room and briefly speak to her. Other steps might include: the veterinarian saying hello and promptly leaving, a staff member entering the room and having a brief discussion with me, a staff member talks with the dog, a staff member lightly touches the dog, the vet enters the room, the vet lightly touches the dog but does not examine her, the vet listens to her heart before leaving, and so on until a full examination could be conducted. Even after all that, she might not be able to complete all the steps. She might never be comfortable going to see the vet.
Next month, my dog will have her annual exam and we will see what happens. This time, I will take some treats and try to distract her. Hopefully, the muzzle will not be needed.