Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
Why Is Your Dog Scared of Shots?
Does your dog start freezing, salivating, and panting when you take him in to the vet's office in fear of getting a painful injection? Was your dog okay with shots until he got micro-chipped? Has giving your dog daily shots for his medical condition become a hassle? You are not alone. Countless dogs are this way, and I know this from a personal stance having assisted vets in giving shots after shots at the animal hospital I used to work for. It was not at all unusual for even the largest dogs to become extremely agitated at the sight of the shot.
If your dog has received several shots throughout his life; he knows well the routine. Just as dogs develop separation anxiety by recognizing the cues associated with your departure, dogs fearful of the vet learn rather quickly about what to expect during a vet visit. But what causes exactly this fear?
1. Negative Associations
Dogs may generally be fearful of going to the vet because they have associated the place with pain and unpleasant procedures. If the dog is sent to the vet only to have painful procedures done on a frequent basis, it is natural for the dog to start disliking vet trips, especially if the dog is sensitive. Because of this, it is important since puppy hood to take the puppy to the vet to meet staff and get lots of praise, treats, and pats. This way, positive associations should help override the negative. If the dog has learned that the vet's office is the place where great things happen, it should be less likely to become a place to fear despite being given shots. We will see more techniques to overcome the fear of shots below...
2. Fear of Being Handled
Because some dogs feel uncomfortable being touched by strangers, some may dislike being visited and given shots. For this reason, it is important to start making vet visits pleasant from early puppy hood by making "fake vet visits" happen. It is helpful to prepare "examination set-ups." Basically, you would desensitize the puppy to have its ears, mouth, and other body parts touched along with counter-conditioning. You would touch the paw and give treat, check the ears and give a treat, or open the mouth and give a treat.
By having a friend mimic a vet by placing the puppy on a table and have the friend touch the pup's ears, check the mouth and look at the paws and give treats, you would further enhance the training in associating handling with pleasant things such as food and praise.
My Dog Is Still Scared of the Vet's Office and Shots
While the above techniques may help make the vet hospital less threatening, there are still a few problems. One of them, is that for dogs in general the vet hospital may remain a scary place because of the nervousness of other dogs around. Dogs can easily sense fear of other dogs because scared dogs at times release anal gland secretions that are easily detected by dogs.
The other problem is that dogs can learn to see the vet's office as a nice place, but they still may fear the shots. I know this from personal experience; my dog hates shots but is happy to be in the waiting room because she has a history of going there just for treats. However, she knows that problems start when she is taken into the examination room and all the pre-shot cues unfold.
Unfortunately, mimicking all this is almost impossible, unless you find a vet office that is willing to have your dog see the examination room on a frequent basis and have a vet tech mimic shots as well. If you find a vet willing to do this, great! However, there are a few steps you can take to make those shots less intimidating. Let's take a look at them.
Dr. Sophia Yin Makes Shots a Pleasant Experience for a Cat
How to Make Your Dog Less Fearful of Shots
This guide should help improve your dog's fear of shots, making the vet visits more bearable. If your dog is very anxious in the examination room because he fears the shot, he is "over the threshold," a behavior term meaning your dog is overwhelmed. Most dogs will not take treats at this point. Through systematic de-sensitation and counter-conditioning you can help your dog learn that shots are not that big of a deal. The below exercise should be ideally conducted over the course of a few days at home.
Day 1: Syringes Bring Good Things!
- Get an empty syringe with no needle.
- Let your dog sniff it and give a treat, sniff, treat, sniff, treat.
- Remove the syringe (hide it behind you) and stop giving treats.
- Bring the syringe out again and give treats for sniffing it, sniff, treat, sniff, treat, sniff treat. End the session by giving a jackpot of treats after sniffing the syringe for the last time.
Day 2: Shots Are Great!
- Repeat step 1 through 3
- Bring out the syringe and mimic giving a shot by putting a little bit of pressure on the skin and make a silly noise like "picccchu" and give a treat.
- Remove syringe from out of sight and stop giving treats.
- Repeat mimicking the shot and make the silly noise and end the session with a jackpot of treats.
As your dog gets good at this, you can invite a friend to do the same and make the event more realistic such as placing the dog on a table or getting a fold of skin to pretend you are injecting. When the day for the shot comes, as the vet is about to give the shot, have treats ready. Say "pichuuuuu" as the vet gives the shot and give a treat as the vaccination fluid is injected.
Thundershirts or Wraps
If your dog is very fearful at the vets office despite making fun trips, the use of anxiety wraps or thundershirt may take a bit of the edge off.
Another great option if your dog is fearful of shots and has learned to associate the examination room with shots, you can ask your vet to give the shot in the parking lot. Many vets are willing to accommodate for this. This worked great for my female that used to yelp, urinate and put up a struggle when getting a shot. I combined the desensitization and counterconditioning method with getting the shot in the parking lot and she did not wink.
She really did not expect the shot in the parking lot due to the absence of cue suggesting a shot was to come. She was wiggling her silly butt to say hello and right when he was petting her he quickly gave a shot and I gave a few treats and she cared less. I could not believe the improvement!
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.
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 16, 2020:
Have you tried the step by step process? It's important to go gradually and make super high value treats happen contingent upon seeing the syringe (without the needle), then feeling a bit of pressure (without the needle, I use a pencil). Have your tried doing this outdoors when your dog is more distracted? A muzzle is important if the dog wants to bite.
JAZMIN RANGEL on May 15, 2020:
@Tiffany, please let me know if you figured out a way to help, mine does the same thing, he has renal failiure and needs to go through this ongoing shot treatment, its so painful, I see the same thing that happened to your pup, we dont know what to do...
Tiffany on June 20, 2018:
I have a diabetic dog and is extremely sensitive. He knows everything. He watches every move and won't fall for tricks. We tried to give him his chicken and treats but he won't eat it because he knows we're actually giving him a shot. When we give him the shot, he turns his head and body like a bull really crazy refusing to let us inject the insulin. He starts to bite us and his personality changed completely ever since he became diabetic. We feel really bad but he has diabetes and has no choice. Any suggestions on how to give the insulin shots more smoothly?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 23, 2015:
My girl is the same, when she was a puppy she even cared less, then one day she just decided to be terrified of them. The best experience was when the vet came out the parking lot and he pet her and then quickly gave the shot and she didn't even notice!
krazymind on April 23, 2015:
My female dog was not afraid of shots on her visits to the vet and she received treats for her behaviour. But now, she is 8 months and she is terrified, althout she gets really excited and happy when waiting and when she sees the vet. She plays a lot with the vet but I don't know what happened to make her afraid of shots, even if the vet gives her treats. We tried giving the shots on the floor but same reaction. Although she is happy she knows that that needle is going to appear at any second! I'll.try at home, faking the shot to see what happens. Thanks for the advice!
InizimiShooth on December 19, 2012:
You're so cool! I don't suppose Ive read something like this prior to. So nice to locate somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. really thank you for starting this up. this site is something that's needed on the web, someone having a little originality. valuable job for bringing something new to the world wide web!
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Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 24, 2012:
Thank you, the video with Dr Sophia yin shows her doing the exact same thing..
Larry Fields from Northern California on April 24, 2012:
Voted up and interesting.
A friend had a diabetic cat. I asked her how she got the cat to hold still for her insulin injections. She just gave the shot when her beloved pet was eating, and the cat didn't even notice.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 23, 2012:
They can be helpful in the case of vet visits, but I have seen best results when accompanied by behavior modification.
Natasha from Hawaii on April 23, 2012:
I've thought about getting one of those shirts for my girl dog. She panics at the vets. Even when boy dog is being prodded, she will jump on your lap and cling to you. She also starts shedding with nervousness instantly - it's pretty impressive.