Why I’m never taking my dogs to the vet again

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Yup, just what I thought… it sounds like I'm stressing you out, Jackson.
Yup, just what I thought… it sounds like I’m stressing you out, Jackson.
There’s no better testament to how much owners influence the behavior of their dogs than the vastly different experiences that Aaron (that guy I married) and I have taking our dog Jackson to the vet.

Aaron is the default parent (yes, I’m using the term “parent” because “owner” sounds too sterile for the type of loving relationship I have with my fur babies) to take our dogs to the vet during emergency situations, because I am NOT good with blood and, you know, not panicking. But I started taking our pets to the vet for all non-emergency purposes, because I’m the parent who works at home. In theory, it’s easier for me to be the vet person because my schedule is flexible.

Now, Aaron always reported perfect behavior from Jackson during his vet visits. But the last few times I took Jackson, he’d get panic-y in the waiting room, cowered from all vet employees, and bared his teeth at our usual vet!

WTF, Aaron, you liar! Our baby is a god-damn monster. And he really hates our vet. I have no idea why — she’s a totally sweet lady who always speaks gently to him and gives him treats. And he’s NEVER been one to hate people. Other dogs while on a leash, yes. But people? No. (Well, except for that one guy once… thank gawd.)

So this time, when Jackson’s weird bacterial infection on his neck refused to heal up completely, and seemed to be getting worse, I begged Aaron to resume his role as “the vet parent.” Jackson’s shitty behavior and my anxiety was making the visits way too stressful for me. And I suspected that my anxiety may even be triggering Jackson’s mood.

Aaron obliged, and took off work to be a good parent. I wished him luck as he left the house, even suggested he take the muzzle that had come in handy last time.

Guess what…

Aaron reported perfect behavior from Jackson! Jackson walked into the waiting room and sat like a good boy. He walked into the exam room and didn’t cower at all. And when the vet came in there was nary a lip raise, and in fact, he gave her a freaking kiss at the end!

So yeah, it’s me. I’m the problem. At home, I’m the dominant one, while Aaron is the sucker they walk all over. But at the vet, my anxiety disorder, and my fear of all things medical, turns me into a scared weakling, and my sweet boy into a scary monster. Take me out of the picture and — in the same setting, with the same people, and with the same medical issues — Jackson is a the perfect patient.

I think some of this has to do with the fact that Aaron is the son of a nurse — he grew up in a home where injuries and emergencies were handled with the cool head of an experienced medical professional. Whereas I grew up with a mom who had her own anxiety issues with blood and taking her babies to the doctor. For me, emergencies were times to completely panic and cry along with my, obviously very worried, mother. Are Aaron and I just re-enacting our parenting styles with our pets, and is Jackson just picking up on each of our energies? It certainly looks like it.

Sometimes it’s not just “bad owners that make bad dogs,” sometimes it’s good owners with bad anxiety. I’m sorry, Mr Jackson.

So, who else have pets that reflect your own bad habits? Have they helped you get over your issues, or have you — like me — found ways to pass off certain pet parental tasks? How are you balancing you and your pets’ conflicting behaviors?

Comments on Why I’m never taking my dogs to the vet again

  1. The first few times I took my dog and cat to the vet, I made my husband come with me – partly so there was one human per animal, but also so I could take my cues from him since I hadn’t had animals before so I wasn’t familiar with what was normal for a vet and what wasn’t. Now I can take both by myself.

    Right now I’m working on getting my dog to not ZOMGFREAKOUT when I get the leash. She has to keep her *butt* on the *floor* or else I put the leash back. Right now it only takes three attempts (so, about a minute) for her to learn to contain herself. My husband, on the other hand, likes getting her riled up (“Did someone say walk?! Why am I grabbing your leash?!?”) but then doesn’t like dealing with a riled up dog.

  2. This is so insightful! It can be hard to put oneself in the position of the dog and figure out their behavior, but it makes perfect sense that if mom is feeling anxiety, the pup will pick up on it and view the situation as a threat. It’s super important when you have dogs that are “dangerous” breeds because you always end up (regardless of if you want to) becoming a spokesperson for the breed. Always hard to tell someone that pitbulls are not all dangerous when the pit is getting nervous and acting on it. Thanks for writing this!

  3. We have a 80 lbs pit bull named Red who is the sweetest most gentlest dog with our kids, warms up to visitors well and would never harm another animal.

    When my husband walks her or holds her leash- she is cool, calm, everything’s fine. A little weary of large dogs that come too close to the kids, but still very calm about it. She gets playful and sniffs at everything. She has the typical pit smile the whole time.

    When I walk her, without my husband around, she’s on constant guard mode. Anyone or anything that gets too close for her liking, she lets out this deep, almost grizzly bear sounding growl like a “GET THE BLEEPING BLEEP AWAY FROM MY LADY!!” She’s ALL business. Ears alert,head straight, no time for sniffing. Gotta pee, and protect the lady.

    It’s hard because I’m a stay at home mom, so I have to walk her more often than not. I don’t panic, I know everyone and their dog in the area, but Red just doesn’t care. My husband and the trainer think it’s because my husband is so alpha, so Red doesn’t think that he needs protecting as much as I do. My husband is very much alpha, as were I calm and soft spoken. Even my kids are very calm and quiet children (I know, right, they’re like unicorns) I can control Red, control isn’t the issue. The issue is that many of my neighbors and folks at the local park are TERRIFIED of any dog over 30lbs. I often worry about someone thinking she’s a vicious animal and calling our vary anti bully breed animal control. So I try to walk her when I know others/not many others will be out, and I try to avoid the park without my husband.

    • Man, walking… Sigh. That’s where Aaron and I BOTH fail. Jackson is just a crazy nut job.

      My favorite story of walking WTFery is when dude freaking.the.fuck.out at another dog — spinning, barking, jumping — and then the leash came off his collar and the moment he noticed he wasn’t on the leash anymore… he stopped. And he just started sniffing around, totally ignoring the other dog that a minute ago was the worst thing he ever saw in his life. From vicious crazy asshole, to “ooh, this smells interesting.” WHAT!?

        • Growing up I had two dogs, a big open yard, and an Invisible Fence.

          My dogs were usually mellow, but when neighbors walked in front of our yard, they would start to fight. The teeth were bared, the growls were intense, and it looked for real. The first few times we rushed to stop them because we thought they were *really* fighting but they were actually *play* fighting. As soon as the neighbors were out of sight my dogs started playing normally again. Like nothing happened.

          I think knowing they couldn’t go anywhere – it was EASY for them to put on a show for other dogs. It made me think of the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain…

          The leash thing you are both describing fits into that for me also. “I know I can’t DO anything because of this leash, but I’m going to protect my family by acting scary” Take the leash away (or remove the curtain) and it’s not safe for the dog to put on a show like that anymore….so they stop.

          Just my two cents – but I think it’s a little glimpse into your pets psyche, and they are showing they love you and want to protect you.

        • What you’re describing is called barrier frustration – the leash/fence/other type of containment inhibits a dog’s natural behaviors and ability to communicate with other dogs. Dogs can have perfect social skills (or choose not to interact) in off-leash settings but get frustrated when the leash gets in the way because they either can’t access the other dog/person, or they can’t get away from it. Totally fixable through positive reinforcement training!

          • We totally have this experience with our youngest. He’s mommy’s boy…and always more defensive around me. But also, he’s a complete aggro hellhound on the leash, but off leash wants to play like nobody’s business.

            We have managed to convince him with the positive reinforcement thing that *certain* dogs are not to be lunged at…mostly based on our normal walk route. For example, there’s an Airedale that lives two blocks over that sits in his front yard with an invisible fence and barks and stands at his boundary whenever we walk by. Magnus has taken the cues of “leave it” to heart….and now freaks out and tries to pee on every bush we pass while ignoring that dog. *shrug* Baby steps, I guess!

      • That’s hilarious! My dog (a 42 lb. lab/shepherd mix) is TERRIBLE on a leash. We’ve tried training him, and he got a bit better, but when it’s cold (we’re in Wisconsin- it’s been in the negative double digits this week, ahhh!) and we have to wear thick gloves, we can’t properly hold his treats and clicker, so he reverts right back to yanking as hard as he can on his leash. However, like your pup, the minute he’s off it he calms down, stays near us, waits when we tell him to, and is basically perfect. Dogs are so weird.

        • I have not tried them, but they have these treat licks that kind of look like roll-on deodorant. Maybe that would be easier to hold with gloves? And one trainer I met just made a clicking sound with her mouth instead of using an actual clicker.

      • My family’s adorable but not-always-the-sharpest tool in the shed German Shepherd mix will bark at the top of his lungs at anyone who comes down their rural driveway. If they are on the “other side” of the invisible fence, he’ll keep barking until they leave or step onto “his side.” once they’re in his territory, he’ll plop his butt down or roll on his back for a belly rub. Vicious guard dog, that one.

    • So you said you already have a trainer, but maybe if you look into positive reinforcement training you could find that it will be a better match for YOU. You don’t have to be loud and be the alpha that way, and you usually don’t get the uneven power dynamics in a family that you get with the alpha concept of training.

      My dog is nervous in general. She prefers a routine of walks and proper “meet and greets” with other dogs. However, you can’t control other dogs and their owners. I usually call out “Hello! Can the dogs day hi?” to other people I encounter walking. That gives them the chance to interact with you or to avoid an interaction if their dogs are not friendly, etc. My dog tends to bark when she is faced with an owner/dog that won’t acknowledge us or is sort of dragging their dog away or in a semicircle around us, which are unnatural behaviors for dogs to experience.

      • We’re trying lots of different things for Red. Right now she’s in training to evaluate/become my therapy dog. She really helps my monophobia, but at the same time, my anxiety of being alone and my calm non dominant nature sets her off still. We can’t afford much training, but we work with her a lot at home. She’s has come a very long way from the angry, pent up energy mess of a dog she was when we rescued her. It’s a game of trial and error.
        So far the positive reinforcement seems the be the best for me and Red. I’m a VERY generous treat giver anyways. Lol. Ask my older cat’s pooch for proof. My husband tho, she just listens to him, like he’s a god of dogs.

        • The way I’ve heard it explained to a friend with a similar issue was that the dog needed to understand that it was not her responsibility to take care of things (i.e. protect the owner in this case). So I’m not sure if you have to be alpha over the dog to achieve that or if there’s some other way to explain to the dog that you will handle it and it’s not his or her job.

          Anyway, always tricky – I’m super grateful that we have such awesome fellow dog-owners where we live. 🙂

          • You can consciously control many signs you give to your dog, eye placement, body posture, hand position, breathing rate, tension on the leash or lack of, pace, ease of movement, tone of voice… but they can also smell those fear hormones. Your dog will want to protect you until you communicate in all of those ways that you don’t need it. Doesn’t take “alpha” it takes being calm and relaxed yourself, not anticipating conflict and sending the right signals.

  4. Great article! I was really worried at first when I read the title but the article went in a totally different direction than I thought.

    As a Vet Tech I see this first hand. Also many of our patients are way better for blood draws, nail trims, etc AWAY from their owners. I understand why our clients always want to be with their pets for the entire duration of an appointment. A lot of times it is just much easier for the pet to have a treatment done without a worrying parent beside them.

    • Yay! So glad to have a professional leave a comment. (Also, as a total side note, I’d LOVE to have you or one of your vet brethren write a guest post about what it’s like on the other side of the exam room doors.) I actually ask my vet to take him away from me to do whatever they gotta do. I have a feeling he’s a different story when he gets taken out of the room. I am NO HELP to you, I’m afraid.

      • Honestly, when we were kids, we would tell our mom to leave the room when we got shots and the like. She was (and still is) a nervous wreck with things like that. It doesn’t surprise me that dogs (and other furbabies) have similar reactions (but can’t say “MAHHHM LEAVE ME ALONE. I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF”).

        • My mom used to make it a contest between my brother and I to see which of us could be tougher and better behaved at the doctor. I always won.

          Also, I’ve been in pet care/sheltering/vet assisting for some years now and have done literally thousands of nail trims on dogs and cats. I’m the one they send the dogs with nails so black that light cannot escape their surface. And yet my 11 year old dog WILL NOT let me cut her nails. I have to take her to the vet to do it.

      • Former vet tech here, and I have to enthusiatically second all of this. I, too, was a little bit concerned about the title, but the article content is a very important topic that I would love to see more thoroughly addressed.

        When I was working in a very busy animal hospital, I was the one who did the blood draws/nail trims on the nervous patients. I just seem to have a talent and a light hand for finding a vein/snipping just below the quick and getting in and out with minimal trauma. I can definitely say that having the owner out of the room – just that, NOTHING else special that we do – solves at least two out of three of these anxious pet cases. They’re worried about you! They know Mommy/Daddy is upset, and they are on guard to protect you! We are really not trying to hide any super secret/cruel techniques from worried pet parents…it just really is that much easier for everybody, especially them, when they’re not bouncing and amplifying all of that nervous energy off of a nervous parent.

        My own dog is a very large greyhound, and like most retired racers, he’s totally comfortable with the vet. Like, to the point that I actually worry that he doesn’t even miss me when I leave him there. But he grew up in kennels, with constant vet visits, and that’s his safe place. And getting a nose-to-tail check, blood draws, and weight checks is completely routine and probably even soothing for him. Whatever: that’s why I found a practice I know and trust, and I try to remember that I am the patient’s family, not the medics. It’s related to why doctors don’t practice medicine on the people closest to them. But the main advice I would give for the anxious pet parent is to get to know your vet, and the whole practice. Most hospitals are very happy to give you a compete tour, and explain what happens behind the scenes. Just -knowing- what happens in those scary behind-the-scenes areas will be a big weight off your mind, and if you have a good practice that you understand and trust, it will make everything waaaaaaaaaay easier on you, your dog, and the people taking care of both of you.

        Love and Luck to OP and Jackson!

    • The first time the vet took the dog into the back for her shots, I was a little confused and worried. But it makes SO MUCH sense, and I’m sure it’s easier on the pet and the vet/vet staff to not have nervous owners hovering.

    • My husband tends to freak out when the techs take the cat in the back for shots or whatever. I always remind him that it’s faster & easier if we are not around. The techs are pros, they’re gentle, we *do* trust them, & we will only cause problems. And yes, the cat comes back none the worse for wear in something like a minute or two.

    • I saw this post initially on Megan’s blog and freaked out at the title too. My sister is looking into becoming a vet tech, and she tends to be much better with other people’s pets than the owners are. She was cat sitting for several weeks and I got to meet the cat (who I was told was absolutely crazy), and he was a perfectly mellow cat (yes he was also scared from the new environment but she just doesn’t freak the animals out like their owners).

    • It’s the same with dog walking even! I’m a professional walker and the days owners are home the dogs are completely different. It is so embarrassing when a dog that is usually all over you on a normal day barks their head off when you arrive. They often wont even walk more than a few blocks from the house, even if they usually go over a mile.

      Dogs are so sensitive and amazing, we almost never give them enough credit or take enough blame, I love this post.

  5. It’s time for our pup’s annual exam and the anxiety I experience at these visits usually come from worrying that something will be terribly wrong with our sweet girl. And, of course, my schedule makes it easier to do things like get her to the vet. Though she actually handles the vet surprisingly well even with my nerves I, too, very recently decided to ask my partner if he would be the one to take her and he agreed. I decided it wasn’t worth the extra stress on me and it certainly couldn’t be helping her have pleasant experiences either! I felt so much relief after that decision was made!

  6. I have to laugh at the timing of this post because we had an eventful weekend. My dog made friends with a neighbor’s dog (yay dogfriends!), and the human is pretty cool too. The dogs were playing well together, but my dog’s foot started bleeding a bit, which was obvious and so so so very red against the snow. We ended the play date, and I took her inside where I promptly PASSED OUT. Luckily Mr. sciencenerd was able to handle the dog and the wife just fine. Her nail had just cracked part way up, and there really wasn’t much blood at all, I just have 0% tolerance for blood when I’m not expecting it. So clearly my partner in pet raising takes care of all the blood, but we share the other pet duties 50:50.

  7. I struggle sometimes with feeling anxious (not vet-specific, just in general!) and I worried that if I got a dog I would end up making it super-anxious too and that it would misbehave because of me and we’d end up in a terrible spiral of angst!

    But I’m happy to report that now I have a dog, my anxiety has actually got a lot better-partly because I know it’s my job to be a calm, reassuring presence for my dog, partly because she’s a lovely calm girl herself so we both chill each other out!

    I know I’ve been lucky but it’s also been a really good challenge for me to get my anxiety under control and deal with stressful things when they come up. I sort of sense her looking at me for direction in those situations and it makes me keep it together if that makes sense!

    Good luck with your hounds everyone.

  8. I’ve experienced my pets picking up on my anxiety, and I have bunnies!

    I adopted a second bunny, and from all my research and watching bunny bonding youtube videos, I assumed it would be pretty simple. It. Is. Not. At least, not for me. My bunnies broke out into some serious aggression and scary fights (rabbits can be surprisingly vicious). I broke them up before things got bad, but it was really stressing me out. I was so anxious that they were going to fight and I know they were picking up on that, especially the bunny I’d had the longest. He was being very territorial and aggressive.

    Since then, I’ve changed some things up, researched what to do when a bunny gets territorial, implemented new bonding techniques, and I feel better prepared now. I am much calmer when I have a bonding session, and even though it’s taking a LONG time, they are making progress! They don’t fight and pretty much ignore each other now (which is actually a good sign). Calm me=calm buns.

    • The experience of bonding our first 2 bunnies is the main reason we don’t have a third! Not in a hurry to go through that stress again! We just accept now that our girl is a territorial bitch, and our boy is a bit of an idiot 😛

  9. My dear sweet dog of 14 years (recently departed, may sherestinpeace) was very, very, very in tune to my moods. We had an incident in the hallway of our three-story walking up apartment that shared a communal hallway in a old Victorian home. There were decorative plates on display in the communal hallway. Once day my neighbor had a child visiting. The child opened the door, saw a (leashed) dog she wasn’t expecting to see, screamed and slammed the door. A plate fell off the wall.

    So… the surprise appearance of the child, the scream, door slam and breaking plate was all it took to give my dog serious anxiety about the hallway. She began to pull on her leash and growl when she saw the neighbors. I was embarrassed by her behavior and would scold her because I thought that’s what I should do. I began to get anxious and she would then work harder to keep people in the hallway away from me, and it was a whole big hot mess.

    I called in a trainer who taught me how to “send a message of peace down the leash” which sounds a little hippie dippy, but actually, when you take a deep breath, your body chemistry changes and dogs can sense it. We also did a lot of reconditioning training. First, every time we were in the hallway, Bella got non-stop hot dog bits, all the way up and down the stairs. She was never allowed people food, so this was really OMGNOMS for her.Then, slowly, she only got them when we saw other people, then when she would see the person and “make a good choice” (i.e. turn to look at me all “wherez may hotdog hooman?!”) instead of lunging and growling.

    A lot of these methods are outlined in the book “The Power of Positive Dog Training” by Pat Miller, recommended by the same trainer. It is definitely not a “You’re the pack leader! You be the alpha!” book, which was not a good fit for my dog’s strong alpha personality. She did much better with an “I’m calm, you’re calm, we’re all calm” style approach. In fact, the only thing that my trainer agreed with Cesar Milan on was that 1.) tired dogs are good dogs and 2.) good dog training can make a real difference.

    For the record, Bella was a dream pawdicure client for the groomer. For me? It was a howling, paw-jerky, run around now your paw is bleeding” nightmare. I didn’t believe the groomer that she would primly lift each paw one at a time princess style for a nail grind until I hid behind a big display of pee pads one day and spied on her.

    • Ooh, I think I’m gonna check out that book. Thanks!

      Also, like hiding behind the pee pads, I didn’t believe that Jackson was behaving himself, until Aaron Instagramed a photo of Jackson sitting in the vet waiting room like a good boy, instead of lying on the floor, hyperventilating in a pool of drool and foam, like he does EVERY TIME with me.

      • I second this book! I train animals for a living, so I’m very very familiar with the concept of positive reinforcement training, but doing it with exotics through barriers and doing it with your pet, in your house, is a whole different ball game. It’s good for beginners but still useful if you mostly know what you’re doing, you just need some new ideas.

        • Eesh. Positive reinforcement training isn’t just one concept. It’s quite expansive and covers every behavior issue you could have. I tend to find that beginners mess it up, if not given explicit instructions, because it’s not that simple. It’s not just do the behavior, get a cookie– when you really get into it, there are so may details, timing issues, and concepts. In my years of having dogs, teaching dog classes, and competing in agility, I’ve never needed “new ideas” (which I’m assuming you’re referring to the old and debunked ideas of alpha this, dominant that). Positive reinforcement has made one of my dogs tolerate the vet (versus trying to bite him when we first adopted her).

          Science-based dog training for the win!

    • LOVE PAT MILLER! Especially the book “Do Over Dogs – Give Your Dog a Second Chance for a First Class Life” for rescue dogs or if you want to change your training method.

      Patricia McConnell’s books are great for general dog behavior information: Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash-Reactive Dog

      And Leslie McDevitt has a book called “Control Unleased” which is mainly about agility training, so most of it didn’t apply to me. But there was great info in the first couple chapters about how to enable your dog to feel confident and aware of her surroundings, which leads to fewer outbursts and more predictable behavior.

    • Yeah, I don’t think I’ll ever NOT have a big dog (preferably a bully breed) while living in the city. Can’t beat a dog that thwarts criminals based on site alone!

  10. Thank you for always seeming to post the right articles at the right time. I’ve been dealing with lots of vet, sick cat, and medication this week, and while I’m not up to participating fully in this thread, I just wanted to jump in and say that I understand completely. Much love to all!

  11. My dog totally picks up on my anxiety. If I’m worried about him, or if I’m boarding him because we’re going out of town and I feel guilty and sad about it…he acts a fool at the vet’s, or even worse sits there a shivering shaking mess that makes me cry. My husband on the other hand…I hate to quote Cesar but I guess he has “calm assertive” energy that makes the dog just happily do whatever he wants him to do. When I walk him on the leash, he pulls like crazy (luckily he only weighs 18 pounds, or I’d be dead by now) but my husband can walk him and he’s like a different dog.

    We both have good relationships with the dog and love him…it’s just weird to see the difference.

  12. Megan it’s great that you realize that your stress is part of what your dog is picking up on. I will often joke in the room as I’m giving vaccinations about who is more nervous about getting the shot the human or the pet. Part of really what can help is listening to the professionals and allowing them to do what they believe is best for your pet. The treatment area can sometimes be the very best place for a dog who is feeling as though they need to protect their human. Also I’d like to mention that when we use muzzles it’s because the pet is scared and is showing how it is feeling about the situation the only way that it can. It doesn’t mean that they are a bad dog. I really think that people have seen movies where dogs get muzzles placed on them because they are “bad” dogs. Lady and the Tramp anyone?

    • THIS!!

      The reason I cannot take my one dog to the vet is that he’s too protective of me. He wouldn’t let the vet in the room, growled at everyone and was a general monster like Megan described. The vet asked if she could take him in the back with a technician and he was an angel!! So we figured out the problem really fast. To solve it, now my hubby has to take him and he’s a calm happy dog again.

      Our other dog is the happiest dog at the vet (she loves the attention and treats) so I can take her. She’d be happy if I just left her there and she could just soak up all the attention all day.

  13. We just figured this exact thing out in my household too! When my mom or I take our sweet girl to the vet, she has to be muzzled, which is very stressful for her and us. When my dad takes her, she is cool, calm, affectionate, a perfect angel. Maybe it’s just a guy thing.

  14. Have you considered taking you and Jackson to training classes. Honestly they are more for the people and less about the fur-baby. Some places hav e a vet right there in the facility, you could see about lessons that take the two of you into the vets area and see if they can help you fix this. BTW Yeah animals and kids will both pick up on anxiety. It sucks but there it is.

  15. I was once asked to leave the room by our vet! Best vet ever! Ever since, my hubby takes our dog in for her annual boosters and I wait outside in the car. She still pees everywhere, but is much calmer with me not there, or so I hear.

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