Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Why Vets Take Dogs to the Back Room
After taking your dog to the vet for some time, you may be used to watching them disappear to the back with the veterinary staff. But why is this necessary? And, more importantly, what happens behind those closed doors?
As a former vet assistant, I can provide an insider view of the various reasons why your pet is taken to the back.
1. A Matter of Convenience
One of the most common reasons for taking your dog to the back room is simply a matter of convenience.
Next time you are in the examination room, take a look around you. You will likely notice an exam table and a desk with several drawers. Those drawers are stocked with several essential items, such as muzzles, otoscopes, cotton balls, gloves, syringes, and disinfecting products. How do I know? I cleaned up these drawers countless times!
As well stocked as those drawers may be, they only house a third of the things that are needed to carry out a thorough examination. The back room is full of other equipment your vet needs access to.
It may also be the same room where dogs undergo surgery or recover from it. Sometimes these procedures get messy — you likely wouldn't want your pet's smelly anal gland secretions on your clothing.
Animals undergoing surgery may also need quiet to relax. Furthermore, squeamish people may not like the sight of surgical procedures.
Staying on Schedule
Timing is also a factor. Going to the back room saves precious time because your vet does not have to carry bulky equipment from the back room to the exam room, which can easily put him/her behind schedule.
What Exactly Goes on Back There?
Your vet is most likely doing one or more of the following:
- A blood pressure reading
- An X-ray
- Using a Wood's lamp to see whether your pet has ringworm
- A surgery
If you are still concerned, you can always politely ask, "I tend to worry about the unknown. Can I please know why my dog is taken to the back room?" Most vets or veterinary technicians would be happy to provide details.
The last time I was at the vet, I asked why it took so long to have my dog's X-rays done. The technician said that he needed someone to help him lift my dog onto the table, but that person was not available. It was a good thing I had asked because my mind was racing with all sorts of presumptions about my dog not being cooperative.
2. Liability Issues
A problem that I often witness in the exam room is that owners insist on restraining their dogs themselves. Although this sounds like a good idea, this can be a big liability issue for the vet.
There have been lawsuits pursued by dog owners who were bitten by their own dogs in the examination room. Because veterinarians are liable for anything that happens to owners in the exam room, it's quite normal for them to discourage you from restraining your pooch when they have staff who are professionally trained to perform safe restraining techniques.
Many years ago, I took my dog to the vet to have a painful wound cleaned. At first, I tried to help, but the vet said to me, "Let me have my professionally-trained staff hold your dog for this procedure. We don't want him to associate this not-so-pleasant experience with you."
3. Less Stress for the Dogs
Another reason is that the back room offers more space for your pup so that he/she does not get as stressed. Exam rooms tend to be quite small, and most dogs feel a sense of relief when they are taken to a bigger room.
The Assumption Dogs May Feel Less Stress
There is a theory that dogs tend to be less stressed when they are not in the presence of their owners during an exam. As a vet assistant, I remember that we used to take dogs who were particularly difficult or fractious to the back room. Did they seem calmer there?
Well, to be totally honest, I had mixed feelings. I saw that some pups appeared to calm down, while others were just as fractious as they were in the presence of their owners. Some appeared to be even more stressed than before!
4. Unpleasant Sight for the Owners
Many dogs have to be muzzled and restrained, sometimes in ways that could make owners feel uncomfortable. Of course, they are not hurt in any way. They simply have to be kept still for certain delicate procedures, such as a blood draw. This sometimes requires several vet techs to keep them down. The sight of so many people restraining an animal is not pretty, but the method is effective.
Of course, dogs do not understand that this is for their own good, and many go into the fight or flight mode until they just give up and accept the fact that there is no way to escape the restraint.
So does the back room really reduce their stress? I had my doubts back then, and now I have even more after seeing the results of a new interesting study that just came out.
A Study About Dog Stress Levels During Visits to the Vet
I was intrigued by a recent study published on August 1, 2017 in Physiology & Behavior Volume 177. It reminded me of the dogs who appeared to be more stressed when taken away from their owners. This study also reminded me that I didn't know as much about dog behavior back when I was working in a vet's office as I know today.
- For instance, the dog who I thought appeared to be "calmer" when brought to the back room may have likely been frozen in fear instead.
- Some dogs who initially tried to resist, and then appeared calmer afterwards, may have been a victim of "learned helplessness." This means that they simply gave up. Their behavior might be mistaken for "behaving," but, in reality, they are in a subdued state of stress and fear.
This same study revealed that dogs show signs of stress when at the vet, which, according to the study, consisted of an increased heart rate and an increase in lip-licking. Signs of stress were found to significantly diminish when the owner was petting and talking to their pet during the examination; the pets demonstrated fewer attempts to jump off the examination table, and their heart rates lowered!
The study concluded that "owner-dog interactions improve the well-being of dogs during a veterinary examination. Future research may assist in further understanding the mechanisms associated with reducing stress in dogs in similar settings."
It’s commonly seen in at veterinary offices or grooming salons. The anxious dog enters the building, panting, pacing, whining, and maybe getting a “nippy” when picked up. Once the dog is in our treatment area, away from its owners, the dog suddenly is “fine.” It must have been protecting its owner. (Wrong.) Maybe it was the owner’s obnoxious comforting that made the dog act out. (Also wrong.) Extremely fearful dogs enter a state of learned helplessness.
— Amy L. Pike, veterinary behaviorist
Time for Change
I must say that I am very happy to have finally found a vet I trust and who is committed to making vet visits more pleasant for my dogs. The rooms are spacious, there's a cookie jar in each room, and pets are taken out of the room only for certain procedures. So far, my dogs have been given shots, blood tests, and biopsies in the exam room right in front of my eyes. Even when my pooch had surgery, I was allowed to stay by his side until he fully recovered enough to stand up and come home.
The vet and staff also take extra steps to make the experience more pleasant (or at least tolerable) for the dog. For instance, they offer the possibility to hold exams in a large fenced-in yard. Also, last time I was there, the technician was having a hard time finding my dog's saphenous vein for a blood chemistry profile, but he allowed me to distract my pup with treats while he was finding the vein.
At the end of the visit, the technician grabbed several treats from the jar and asked my dog to sit. Then, he doled out several treats in a row. He did this in order to end the visit on a positive note, just as you would in a training session if things didn't go as planned, and the dog gets frustrated.
More and more veterinary offices and hospitals are now adhering to improvements to make their offices more pet-friendly by offering what are known as "fear-free veterinary visits." There is even a Fear-Free Certification Program for veterinary offices!
"The truth is, once a pet has been frightened, it never forgets that experience."
— Dr. Marty Becker
Introducing the New Fear-Free Program
The late veterinarian Sophia Yin started a growing interest in making medical visits less stressful through her "low stress handling" program. Following in her footsteps, popular veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker advocates for "fear-free programs" because his dream is to turn every veterinary practice into a fear-free practice.
Every time your pet goes to the vet and has a negative experience, it has a cumulative effect that often goes noticed until a resulting negative behavior becomes evident and becomes a problem for both owners and veterinarians. This is why it's important for doctors to consider a dog's emotional well-being as well as its physical well-being.
What does a fear-free program entail? It encourages veterinary offices to make their rooms more spacious, change the color of the walls, change the color of the vet's coat, reduce waiting times, use calming aids, and provide clients with tips to help their dogs associate the vet's office with good things (e.g. taking frequent trips to the vet just to get cookies from the staff).
What Owners Can Do to Help
While the fear-free program can help dogs to better relax at the vet, owners should still help their pets get used to certain things that happen at the vet's office, like:
- Conditioning him to have his feet and ears handled
- Training him to wear a muzzle
- Getting him accustomed to having his mouth inspected
- Teaching him to go to a mat area. This is helpful for dogs who fear examination tables because of their slippery surfaces.
- Organizing mock vet visits with the help of family and friends
All of this is best done when the puppy is at a young age and is more impressionable.
In this article, I am in no way criticizing veterinarians or their staff. On the contrary, I know they do their job in the safest and most effective way possible, and that they often do things quickly. Many vets treat dogs in the back room the same way they would treat them in front of the owner. The purpose of this article is to offer a fresh new perspective on things, not to criticize.
- Erika Csoltova, Michaël Martineau, Alain Boissy,Caroline Gilbert, "Behavioral and Physiological Reactions in Dogs to a Veterinary Examination: Owner-Dog Interactions Improve Canine Well-Being," August 1, 2017.
- Heather E. Lewis, AIA, "Fear-Free: What You See Is Not What the Cat or Dog Gets," September 24, 2015.
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.
© 2017 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 27, 2018:
Hello Glenn, thanks for stopping by! Fortunately, more and more vet hospitals are joining a fear-free program that aims to reduce stress in veterinary hospitals. I am happy to have a great vet who will draw blood or take fine needle biospy samples right in front of me without taking my dog to the back room. My dog gets highly stressed when taken back.
Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on July 17, 2018:
Wow! This was tremendously educational Adrienne. I had no idea that some dog owners mistake obedience when it’s really a subdued state of stress and fear. I also found it interesting about not associating unpleasant experiences with a dog’s owner. I can see how important that is. Great article and very useful for any dog owner.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 27, 2017:
Good insight and information! I know many of my pet owning friends are worried when a vet or tech takes their dogs for more exams, etc. It's never really bothered me. Having to do all the exams and such in a small space would be like asking me to type on a computer while I'm in the bathroom. :)
I also think that part of the anxiety that dogs feel is the anxiety and frustration their owners feel about going to the vet. Dogs are so intuitive and can sense that in an instant. It would be interesting to do a study to see if owners that are afraid of going to the doctor themselves are also afraid of bringing their dogs to the vet.
That being said, I'm glad that my vet does a combination of in-room discussion and procedures in the back.
Thanks for another great perspective on an issue so many dog owners face!