Although animals generally do not make good gifts, every year, veterinary clinics gain new patients and clients as families bring new pets home for the holidays. While the addition of a puppy to the family is always exciting and sometimes overwhelming, obtaining a puppy during the hectic holiday season can make it even more difficult for owners to provide a consistent and predictable routine to help start their pet out on the right paw. Because early removal from the litter can predispose puppies to behavior challenges such as fear, anxiety, and aggression, pet owners should be cautioned against obtaining a puppy that is younger than 8 weeks of age if they really want to make the puppy a holiday gift. It is generally recommended that puppies remain with their litter until 8 to 10 weeks of age.
Puppies are little sponges of joy and are constantly learning desirable and undesirable behaviors, even when not actively being taught. Early experiences and learning have a profound effect on a puppy’s future responses. The veterinary team can play a vital role in helping their clients teach puppies that new experiences, even mildly unpleasant ones, are positive. Visiting the veterinary hospital can be as much fun as taking a walk or a trip to the park or pet store! This article offers 4 tips for creating a strong Fear Freesm foundation for new puppies.
1. Make Pleasant Associations from the Start
Be proactive with food. Rather than waiting to see if a puppy will be “ok” with something, aim to make all experiences pleasant from the start. Dogs make associations quickly. For example, a puppy being placed on a cold, slick stainless steel table is frightened because it is unable to get good footing. Then someone lifts its tail and places a thermometer in its anus. Yikes! Being on this table is not pleasant (FIGURE 1).
In contrast, a positive association with the entire process can be made by providing the puppy with things it really likes, such as tasty but small treats, throughout the process. This is known as classical conditioning, a behavioral phenomenon that involves many factors. (BOX 1 contains a list of resources that interested readers can consult for fuller definitions of many behavioral terms and concepts mentioned in this article.) For example, the following steps can be used to help making the process of obtaining a temperature reading pleasant for the puppy:
- Offer a food treat when the puppy is picked up.
- Place the puppy on the table with a nonslip mat, where there is a little bit of canned puppy food to lick.
- Have the owner distract the puppy with frequent treats or licks of canned food while you gently place your hands on the puppy.
- Gently touch the puppy’s sides; then slide your hands down the dorsal midline, displacing the tail, and finally insert the thermometer.
This same process can be used to associate equipment and procedures like nail trimmers and nail trimming with pleasant stimuli. Any veterinary technician who has known a dog that runs in the other direction when it sees the nail trimmers or ear cleaner bottle has seen an example of a pet that associates these objects with unpleasant experiences. With the use of small, high-value food treats, most dogs can learn from the start that nail trimmers or ear cleaner bottles predict good things and will come running toward them.
Timing is important to create a predictive association with stimuli. Many dogs can be distracted with food treats before, during, and after a procedure (FIGURE 2). However, the most efficient method to create a strong positive emotional response to stimuli is to not only condition the response with the first experience, but also to have the novel stimulus (e.g., nail trimmers) precede the pleasant one (treat), as in the following steps:
- Nail trimmers are presented → puppy notices them → person gives the puppy a treat.
- Person touches the puppy’s foot → person gives the puppy a treat (FIGURES 3 and 4).
- Person touches the nail trimmer to a nail → person gives the puppy a treat.
In this learning paradigm, the nail trimmers predict the treats. Thus, over time, the dog sees the nail trimmers and anticipates getting a treat. The same behavioral response to receiving a treat will be displayed at the sight of the nail trimmers.
When the staff starts forming positive and pleasant associations with every interaction in the veterinary hospital, the puppy will be on its way to being a Fear Freesm patient for life. Continuous pleasant experiences with veterinary procedures throughout the dog’s life are necessary to maintain this conditioned positive emotional response.
2. Create “Just for Fun” Visits to the Veterinary Hospital
Let’s face it, going to the doctor’s office is not always pleasant for humans or dogs. Both species have to be touched in sensitive areas, and sometimes mildly uncomfortable procedures (e.g., injections, venipuncture) ensue. New puppy owners should be encouraged to schedule fun visits at least monthly during the first year of the dog’s life.1 A “fun visit” is a 10- to 15-minute appointment with a veterinary technician that does not entail any medical procedures but instead focuses on having fun and allowing the dog to acclimate to the veterinary setting and have a good time. Depending on the puppy’s comfort level, some training focused on desensitizing and classically conditioning the puppy to routine veterinary procedures and care can also be incorporated into select sessions. Building pleasant foundation memories through fun visits, coupled with the use of gentle control and low-stress handling techniques, creates Fear Freesm associations with the veterinary hospital. Those early foundation fun visits will remain with the dog throughout its life. Each fun visit can be thought of as being a deposit in the bank. Ideally, the clinic staff and owners will build up a substantial bank account, so when some slightly uncomfortable procedures are performed, they result in only small withdrawals.2
Using fun visits to increase the number of hospital visits for the client and the dog is a win–win for everyone. Familiarity helps to minimize fear, anxiety, and/or stress for both patients and clients. Repeated visits also allow veterinary team members to build a rapport with clients and patients, thus enhancing the hospital–client/patient bond. Increased visits are also likely to result in increased sales of retail items or services.
For active clients, the clinic should consider providing these fun visits as a complimentary service. The increase in sales and client and patient allegiance will yield increased revenue in both the short and the long run. As an incentive, clients can be offered the chance to enter a monthly or quarterly raffle for each fun visit. Product distributors can be approached about possible donations they might be willing to provide for the raffle.
For dogs that will need routine professional grooming, “just for fun” visits to the groomer should also be encouraged to acclimate the puppy to the grooming environment and being handled in a pleasant and positive manner.
3. Teach Fear Freesm Positive Solutions and Training for Typical Puppy Behaviors
Fear Freesm does not just refer to what happens while at the veterinary hospital. After all, dogs spend a small percentage of their time in such settings. Ideally, all aspects of a dog’s life should be as Fear Freesm as possible, including time spent in the home and interactions with owners. Veterinary professionals need to be knowledgeable about how to counsel owners to address typical dog behavior in a nonthreatening and positive manner. Some normal puppy behaviors that owners may find problematic include play biting/mouthing, chewing, jumping, counter surfing, barking, housesoiling, and digging.
Training and behavior solutions should be based on positive reinforcement and funneling typical canine behaviors to an appropriate outlet. Through environmental management, reinforcement of desired behaviors, and redirection from undesired behaviors to desired ones, puppies can be set up for success and helped to learn human-preferred behaviors.
Positive reinforcement training should use strong motivators such as food and play to teach and maintain behavior. Fear Freesm solutions and training avoid the use of coercion or correction-based training, which uses such elements as verbal corrections/reprimands, pinching, choking, or electric collars. The result of correction-based training is a dog that performs behaviors to avoid unpleasant consequences. This is not a Fear Freesm environment. The fear of making the wrong choice inhibits the dog’s behavior. To create a Fear Freesm learning environment, it is necessary to create an atmosphere that facilitates a pleasant learning experience without the fear of making the “wrong” choice.
For example, it would be inappropriate to advise owners to address puppy play biting and mouthing by grabbing the puppy’s muzzle, pinching its lips, or verbally reprimanding the puppy. These techniques do not funnel this innate puppy behavior to an appropriate outlet or teach the puppy how to interact with people. They only teach the puppy that people can be unpredictable and something to fear. A positive reinforcement solution would include making sure the physical, mental, and social needs of the puppy are being met, redirecting the puppy to an appropriate chew toy, and reinforcing the desired behavior (FIGURES 5 and 6).
Along with teaching basic manners and positive behavior solutions, puppies should be conditioned to travel in the car. Because trips to the veterinary hospital begin at home and often involve travel to the hospital via an automobile, acclimating and training the puppy to be relaxed in the car helps to ensure that a calm and relaxed patient reaches the veterinary hospital, thus making our job easier! For tips on making car travel stress free, watch the video at veterinaryteam.dvm360.com/make-car-rides-fun-fido.
4. Encourage Puppy Classes
Puppy socialization classes are a controlled and safe way to expose puppies to novel people, dogs, and environmental stimuli. Dogs that have not attended puppy socialization classes are more likely to display behavior problems involving fear or aggression toward strangers, unfamiliar dogs, or environmental stimuli.3–5 All puppies 12 weeks or younger should be enrolled in a good puppy socialization class. The socialization period is a great time to start foundation training. The brain and learning ability of puppies is adult-like, based on electroencephalogram studies, at 8 weeks of age.6 Attending a good puppy socialization class can help puppies reach their full potential and start them on a path to preventing fear, anxiety, and stress. Proper socialization and exposure during the sensitive socialization developmental stage is critical to creating resilient and at-ease adult dogs.
Not all puppy classes are created equal. Improper socialization and exposure can create fear and anxiety. Things to look for in a good class include the following:
- Puppy age is limited to the socialization period (<16 weeks of age).
- Proof of starting a vaccination series with a veterinary examination at least 10 days before class is required for attendance.
- Classes are taught by individuals who are specially trained in animal behavior, learning theory, and canine development, as well as medical conditions.
- Classes focus on a proactive and positive exposure to novelty and routine veterinary procedures (FIGURES 7 and 8).
Short, controlled off-leash play sessions with small groups of same-aged puppies allows for the development of canine communication skills with a variety of breeds of dogs. Although puppy classes should not be primarily focused on obedience training, introducing positive reinforcement training and puppy behavior solution strategies provides for a foundation based on trust and understanding. Below is a video example of handling exercises in a puppy class. In this video, a clicker (a handheld acoustic device) is being used to (1) mark the desired behavior, which is remaining still while being touched, and (2) prompt the assistant/owner to deliver a treat. The person doing the touching is clicking. This video demonstrates working through some avoidance to being handled. Notice when the dog is pushed too far and decides he wants to leave the situation. Higher-value treats are introduced, and the exercise is adjusted to more gradually acclimate the puppy to handling. The puppy is learning that gentle control and restraint can be pleasant, and the owner is learning how to listen to her puppy’s communication and reinforce desirable behavior. See the video below on handling a puppy in class.
Offering puppy socialization classes within the veterinary hospital is an invaluable service for clients. Not only does the clinic provide fun visits for puppies, the staff will develop a relationship with the clients and dogs, thereby creating a new profit center for the hospital while having a lot of fun! On a personal note, in-hospital puppy socialization classes are where I got started in behavior and training, and I encourage veterinary technicians interested in behavior to investigate these classes.
Puppies are constantly learning. Taking proactive measures can help teach dogs that the veterinary hospital is a fun—not scary—place. Clinics can provide pleasant associations, schedule fun visits, and offer a good puppy socialization class. Staff can provide pet owners with appropriate resources and information about creating positive solutions and training for their puppy.
After all, preventing fear is much better than treating it!