What About Your Fears?

By Deb Eldredge, DVM

It is well established that animals can pick up on our emotions, including fear and hesitation. Equine veterinarians are especially conscious of this, but it applies to small-animal practice, too. Think about your day and what patients you may dread seeing. Yes, dread.

Sometimes it is entire species. If you are not comfortable with reptiles or birds, you can simply say you don’t treat exotics. Or it may just be a specific breed or two of dogs that make you uncomfortable. Perhaps you were bitten as a kid, have had a close call in practice, or have even been attacked in practice. Your underlying concern will often be evident to the dog even if the owner doesn’t notice a thing.

Dogs can smell body odors and will recognize “fearful sweat.” They aren’t picking up on a smell directly from the emotion but rather the smells that follow from the emotion. Dog show competitors have used breath mints for years as an anecdotal way of masking “nervous pheromones” in their breath from their dogs. No one knows if it really works, but plenty of experienced dog handlers swear by it. Unfortunately, even a calm, confident, and friendly dog may become nervous and fearful if he senses fear in you.

Many large herding and guarding dogs give off an “aura” of power and protectiveness. With these breeds, it is often best if you are in the exam room before the dog. That way the space is yours and you allow the dog in. If the dog is settled in the room first, it becomes “his territory” and you are an intruder. It’s a small but important step, especially if you are uncomfortable with these dogs.

Having grown up with German Shepherd Dogs, I am extremely comfortable with them and most other large herding and guarding breeds. I know how to approach–with confidence but not direct eye contact. If the dog is clearly nervous, I let the dog approach me. I will often sit on the floor (if safe to do so) with some treats. At first I may toss the treats near the dog. Gradually I toss the treats closer to myself until the dog is taking a treat from my hand or on my leg. I may even do much of my exam while sitting down. When I do go to stand, I warn the dog of my action and may toss a treat in the other direction so that I move while the dog is distracted.

If I were nervous, the dog would pick up on that from my smell, my body language, even my voice. Instead, when I am calm and relaxed the dog is more likely to trust me.

If you are nervous about certain breeds, you can express that concern to your colleagues. Maybe swap–“I will do the Mastiffs if you do the Chihuahuas.” Still, there may come a time when you need to deal with a dog you would prefer to avoid. It could be your weekend on call or your colleague may be on vacation. Do your best to stay calm. Use sedatives if safe to do so (for the dog, not you). Remember the “whose room is it?” trick. Try a breath mint–can’t hurt! Follow the Fear Free teachings on treats–even if you are the fearful one and not the dog. Consider spending some time at a local dog training club or dog show meeting well-socialized, well-trained dogs of the breeds that concern you.

I would like to end with a personal experience. Over my veterinary career I have dealt with lions and tigers and bears. I have treated venomous snakes and worked with wild raptors. I always respect animals, but I do my best not to fear them. My one exception is spiders. I am a hard-wired arachnophobe. I ignore or avoid spiders outside or in the barn, but if they are in my house or near me, my heart races and I feel a full adrenaline rush.

One weekend, I received a call from an upset woman. I was the only vet who did any exotics in our area, and I was on call. In the background I could hear a young boy sobbing. The woman explained that her son, who was allergic to almost all animals, had a pet tarantula who had broken her leg.

I had them come in, and I took lots of deep breaths as I entered the exam room. There was a huge tarantula sitting quietly on this young boy’s hand as he gently stroked her. One leg was dangling by a thin piece of skin and there were a few drops of blood. I boldly snipped the skin and cauterized the stump – using a looong styptic stick. I then admitted I had no idea how the spider would do, but to please let me know.

I received cards of thanks from mother and son, and they dropped off a photo when the spider did her next shed since her leg regenerated. I still don’t like spiders, but I am glad I controlled my fears to help this unusual pet.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

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