Help, How Do I Stop My Dog From Trying to Bite the Vet?

If your dog tries to bite the vet, you are right to be concerned. Left untreated, this type of behavior tends to get worse rather than better. Discover why your dog is aggressive towards your vet, and what steps you can take to stop this behavior.

Help, How Do I Stop My Dog From Trying to Bite the Vet?
Ouch! A dog biting the vet is a dog owner's worst nightmare.

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If Your Dog Tried to Bite the Vet, Be Proactive About It

If your dog tries to bite the vet, you need to address this behavior. Left untreated, and with time, aggressive behaviors in dogs tend to get worse rather than better.

As much as you find the experience upsetting, take a deep breath. On the positive side, your dog didn't bite your vet, and he has made you aware of a problem so that you can be proactive and address it.

If you feel embarrassed, please don't be: vets are used to dealing with dogs who react negatively during visits.

When I worked for a veterinary hospital, we had many charts with red clips on them. This red clip was used to indicate to vets and staff of dogs who were uncomfortable being handled and who may bite.

The Importance of Tackling the Issue

Addressing the issue of dogs who try to bite the vet is important because dogs will need to see the vet for routine visits for the rest of their lives.

According to research, a dog's dislike of going to the vet negatively impacts the regularity of non-urgent veterinary appointments. Indeed, 22 percent of dog owners admitted that they would see their veterinarian more often if the visit was not associated with so much stress for their dogs.

On top of this, consider that dogs who act fearfully aggressive at the vet's office pose a danger to veterinary staff, their owners and themselves.

Therefore, a slight dislike of the vet is best tackled early, as the more dogs get to rehearse aggressive behaviors, the more established they become.

With time, your dog may react earlier and with more intensity because he feels more and more threatened and that he needs to defend himself.

Being at the vet can feel like an overwhelming situation for many dogs.

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Why Did My Dog Try to Bite the Vet? 7 Possible Reasons

If your dog tried to bite the vet, you might be wondering what caused him to react in such a way. The possible causes can be various, but in many cases, it's several reasons. Following is a list of several possibilities.

1. Lack of Socialization

When puppies are young, they undergo a critical socialization period between the ages of three and 14 weeks. During this time, puppies are more open to learning about their environment, other dogs, humans and other species.

Providing puppies with many positive experiences during this time can help prevent the development of fearful responses and subsequent behavioral problems.

Among the many places and experiences puppies need to be exposed to during this time, your vet's office and all the associated happenings play a primary role.

Getting your puppy used to the vet (both male and female vets), the veterinary facility and various veterinary procedures from an early age can help him become more comfortable and confident as an adult in future veterinary settings.

Organizing happy visits to the vet from an early age can greatly reduce the likelihood of fear and anxiety associated with trips to the vet.

If your dog missed out on all of this, then this can be a contributing factor to his dislike of being at the vet.

2. Dislike of Being Handled

On top of organizing happy visits to the vet from an early age, dogs benefit from learning to be handled.

If you can get your dog used to having his paws, ears and other body parts touched from an early age, this can make a great difference. Here are some exercises I recommend starting with since early puppyhood: exercises to get your puppy used to being handled.

It's not a bad idea to have a helper organize some "mock visits" where he or she pretends to be the vet and practices touching your pup and pretending to be listening to his heartbeat.

If dogs aren't used to being handled from a young age, or if they are, but no maintenance sessions are held every now and then, dogs may feel uncomfortable being touched and may react as a result.

3. Dislike of Being Restrained

Just as dogs struggle with being handled, some dogs may particularly struggle with being restrained. Restraining is a way vets and staff hold puppies and dogs still so that they can carry out certain procedures (shots, blood draws) or check their vitals.

If a puppy or dog isn't used to being restrained, they may react negatively and it may lead to them squirming or trying to bite the person doing the restraining and anybody else nearby.

As with getting puppies used to seeing the vet and being handled, it's equally important getting them used to being restrained using gentle, positive methods.

4. Dislike of the Vet

Sometimes dogs may struggle with being up close and personal with people they may fear for some reason or another.

Back when I was working for a veterinary hospital, I remember that along with a red paper clip attached to a chart, there were notes that helped us take steps to make the dog more comfortable if the dog had a deep dislike of some vet.

Notes could have said things like: "This dog does better with a female vet," or "This dog doesn't like vets wearing glasses," or other more specific things such as "This dog doesn't like vets who knock on the door before entering" or "This dog doesn't like vets who loom over them."

Interestingly, my Rottweiler Kaiser was usually okay with being at the vet until one day we visited a vet in a rural area. The vet peeked through the door to let us know that he was finishing up helping a cow give birth and would be with us shortly.

When he entered the room, he approached Kaiser and let him sniff his hand. As Kaiser sniffed his hand, he emitted a low growl. This was very uncharacteristic for him, but I couldn't help but notice that the vet's smock had blood stains on it. I was pretty sure he was reacting to the smell of that blood!

5. A Matter of Pain

Sometimes, dogs who try to bite the vet do so when they are in pain. If your dog has a history of being rather chill at the vet, and now for the first time, he's growled or snapped at the vet, there may be chances that he was feeling some type of pain.

The pain may be stemming from an ear infection, a painful tooth, achy joints, a pinched nerve in the neck or some other type of wound.

6. Sensing Your Anxiety

Dogs are masters in understanding our feelings by the way we move, talk and interact.

It's known that in an unclear situation, dogs will look at their caregiver to better assess it, and they'll adapt their behaviors based on their owner’s emotional expressions.

If you are particularly tense or worried about a vet visit, your dog may sense that, which can cause him to feel tense too.

7. The Power of Negative Reinforcement

This isn't really a reason for trying to bite the vet, but more of a phenomenon to be aware of so that you know what's going on through your dog's mind.

If your dog feels uncomfortable at any time, and he growls or attempts to bite, the person nearby him will likely move away or stop restraining him.

With time, your dog learns that "when I growl or snap, the person moves away or lets go of me; I will therefore keep growling or snapping in the future in similar contexts because this works."

This is the power of negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement takes place when our actions cause something we perceive as negative to stop or go away.

Some Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Need some examples of negative reinforcement? Here are five examples of real-life situations involving humans.

  1. Putting on the seat belt makes the annoying beeping sound stop.
  2. Moving immediately ahead when the traffic light turns green stops the impatient people from honking behind.
  3. By doing his homework, a child makes his mom's nagging stop.
  4. Moving away from the sun makes the burning sensation on your face go away.
  5. By clapping your hands, you stop a cat from trying to jump on your lap.

All of these behaviors make something unpleasant or not desirable go away, and since they work, we are naturally prone to adopting these strategies more and more in the future. The power of reinforcement!

Is Trying to Bite the Vet a Sign of Dominance in Dogs?

No, trying to bite the vet has nothing to do with "dominance," it's just a sign that your dog is fearful, in pain or uncomfortable.

The concept of dogs exhibiting dominance over people originated from observing the behavior of captive wolf packs. In the past, studies conducted by Schenkel on wolves in captivity revealed that an alpha wolf was ruling over the pack.

However, newer research conducted by David Mech on wolves kept free on Ellesmere Island revealed a whole different story.

Rather than being led by a dictatorial alpha wolf, an alpha pair was in charge, and they were acting more as a family.

This has changed the way we interact with our dogs, leading to less reliance on "pack rules" and more focus on kinder training methods.

Should a Dog Trying to Bite the Vet Be Punished?

No, by punishing a dog who growls at the vet or tries to snap, you are removing your dog's warning system, which will only backfire.

It's like ignoring your dog's check engine light or ignoring a fire alarm in a building. You are removing your dog's warning signal, and this may lead to a dog who ultimately bites without warning.

You should never suppress your dog's warning system, such as growling, lunging and snapping. It's important to understand that growling or snapping is a natural behavior in dogs and their only way to communicate their feelings of unease, fear, discomfort or pain.

Rather than suppressing your dog's warning signs, you should instead focus on identifying and addressing the root cause of the behavior.

A fear-free vet may be the ultimate solution to your dog's fear problems

Photoman via getty images

Concomitant Sources of Stress for Dogs in Veterinary Settings

How to Stop Your Dog From Trying to Bite the Vet

To stop your dog from trying to bite the vet, you will need to take a multi-faceted approach and tackle the issue from various angles. Following are several general tips to ameliorate the situation, but it's important that you seek professional help for safety and the correct implementation of behavior modification.

1. Address Medical Problems

If your dog tried to bite your vet because he was in pain, it's important to first ensure that the underlying medical cause of the pain is addressed.

Discuss pain control and steps you can take to reduce further instances of this mishap with your vet.

If your dog tried to bite because he was in pain, there are chances that his incentive to bite will fade once the source of the pain is addressed.

2. Prevent Rehearsal of the Problematic Behavior

As mentioned earlier, when dogs try to bite, there's often an element of negative reinforcement at play. The dog is able to get out of an uncomfortable situation and also gets to "vent" his negative feelings.

This causes dogs to want to adopt this strategy more and more in the future. Not to mention, when dogs are put into situations where they feel uncomfortable and fear for their lives, this causes them significant stress.

Therefore, it's important to take steps to prevent dogs from being put into such intense situations, at least until you can work on the problem behavior and teach your dog better coping skills.

3. Muzzle Train Your Dog

All dogs should be trained to wear a muzzle and form positive associations with wearing it from an early age, no matter how mellow your dog is. Any dog can bite when put into a scary or painful situation.

This is even more urgent in a dog who has already tried to bite somebody. Make sure to use a bite-proof muzzle for extra safety. You will still be able to feed treats through basket muzzles.

You will need to teach your dog to wear a muzzle in a positive manner, taking your time and ensuring your dog is comfortable. Here is a guide for teaching your dog to wear a muzzle. Aim for a positive, conditioned emotional response.

It's important to emphasize that just because your dog is wearing a muzzle doesn't mean he should be put into overwhelming situations. A muzzle should just be used to offer an extra layer of protection during behavior modification sessions.

4. Identify Your Dog's Triggers

It's important to identify what your dog struggles with when going to the vet. Think back on what happened right before your dog tried to bite.

Was the vet handling his paws? Was he inspecting his ears? Was he closely looking into his eyes using an ophthalmoscope? Was he lifting his paws?

This information can provide you with hints of what your dog is particularly struggling with so that you know what you will need to mostly work on. In some cases, there may be multiple triggers at play that will need to be addressed individually before being combined.

If your dog was in pain, consider that he may no longer feel the need to bite once the pain is addressed. However, it may still be worth working on the issue to reduce the potential onset of fear memories.

5. Use Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Once you have recognized your dog's triggers, you can start working on making them less concerning and even becoming a predictor of good things! This can be done through the combined use of desensitization and counterconditioning.

Desensitization is a behavior modification method that aims to expose dogs to their triggers starting at lower levels of intensity.

Such low-level exposures allow dogs to be under threshold, providing them with an opportunity to learn how to better cope with their triggers.

Counterconditioning is a behavior modification method that aims to create positive associations with triggers. These positive associations are often attained through the use of high-value treats.

For example, if your dog is normally OK with your vet until the vet tries to lift his paws, you know that you'll need to work on making those paw lifts less concerning.

With your dog wearing a muzzle, you can then start working, along with the help of a professional, on just moving a hand towards the dog's paw and feeding a treat. After doing several reps of this, you would then raise the criteria and move on to barely touching the paw and feeding a treat.

Once the dog is fine with this, you can then touch the paw more and feed a treat. After several reps of this, you can then start lifting the paw half an inch and feed a treat. Then you lift it a little more and more, working towards lifting the paw and inspecting it as your dog is fed several treats in a row.

Once interaction with the paws stops, feeding also abruptly stops. Paw touching needs to become a predictor of good things!

If your dog ever shows signs of feeling uncomfortable, take that as a sign that you have moved through the process too quickly and need to take the process a few steps back before moving forward again.

Afterward, the same exercise can be practiced with volunteers and then finally at the vet's office while always feeding the dog treats during the examination.

6. Familiarize Your Dog With the Vet and Office

It's important to help familiarize your dog with the vet and their office. Don't just take your dog there for visits!

Every now and then, swing by to just say hello to staff and give him treats. Feed your dog treats for stepping on the scale. Have him visit an exam room where a staff member feeds him treats.

Let him feel more comfortable going there, and also remember to act confident and happy so your dog senses all these positive emotions exuding from you.

7. Work Along With a Professional

To ensure everybody stays safe and for the correct implementation of behavior modification, it is important that you work alongside a professional using force-free behavior modification techniques.

Your best bet is to work with a board-certified veterinary behaviorist or a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Alternatively, you can work with a dog trainer or behavior consultant who also uses force-free methods and is comfortable with working on dog fear and potential aggression.

8. Pick a Fear-Free Practice

Did you know that nowadays, there are more and more fear-free practices? The fear-free movement has been crafted with fearful dogs in mind.

Fear Free veterinarians are specifically trained to provide veterinary care to dogs who manifest fear, anxiety, and stress. They implement strategies to ensure a positive experience so as to reduce any potential fear or discomfort associated with veterinary visits.

You can find a fear-free veterinary practice near you by visiting this Fear-Free Directory. Simply put your zip code in the required field, and you'll be matched up with vet practices that adhere to the fear-free movement.

Offering high-value food or toys throughout the visit can promote security and, ideally, positive associations. Desensitisation and counterconditioning are highly recommended, both to prevent and address existing negative emotions.

— Riemer S. et al.


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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2023 Adrienne Farricelli

(Excluding for the Headline, this article ("story") has not been edited by MiBiz News and is published from a web feed or sourced from the Internet.)