Field Trip! To... The Veterinary Office

As the mascot of Right on Cue Dog Training, Sherlock has aspirations of greatness (...maybe) but when he was at the vet a few months ago, you wouldn't have believed he'd had a day of training in his life. This is pretty normal for a dog of his age, but was an indicator that we would need to do some socialization prep work before our next visit. Positive socialization (meaning exposure to new sights, sounds, animals, locations, etc..) is an extremely important aspect of having a well mannered dog. It is particularly important for young puppies, but even for adolescent dogs, like Sherlock, these exposures (as long as they aren't too stressful) are still an important part of shaping a dog's behavior. So, we try to go on regular field trips around town to help Sherlock learn to not worry about the sights and sounds of everyday life.

(Note: The goal of socialization is that your dog will make a positive association with those potentially stressful situations. The positive association is important; If your dog spends the entire time stressed, or being punished for practicing unwanted behaviors such as pulling on the leash or growling, then that socialization field trip is probably doing more harm than good. We recommend speaking with a trainer for more information about how to properly socialize your pet).

Today, our field trip was to our local veterinary office. We chose this location because...

a) Our vet office happens to be nearby and is a short drive, making it a low-time commitment training session (which for us gains big points in the: "should I take my dog here?'' game).

b) A vet office can be one of the most stressful places for any animal (and for those of us who have to try and get them there). Even little things like holding onto a dog while trying to speak with the receptionist to check-in, or having a dog stand on the scale, can be really frustrating if the dog is over-aroused. So it is helpful if I can help train my dog to be well-mannered in that particular location.

c) The staff at our vet office (and most others) are accomodating to letting us come and practice during slow days. A good veterinary office should have a pet's well being at heart and be familiar with the importance of positive socialization. Plus, their jobs are easier when my pet is calm and well-mannered, so it is win-win for everybody.

We prepared for this field trip by...

a) Practicing behaviors we would use there, at home first. In this case we knew we would need: loose leash walking skills, attention, sit, down stay, settle on a mat, hand target, and polite doorway crossings. We made sure all these behaviors were very reliable at home, and outside, before going to the office.

b) We practiced in the parking lot on 3-4 occasions first. Since our office is so close, we had previous positive field trips which were 5 minute (or less) walks through the parking lot.

c) I pulled out the best treats we have. Knowing we were walking into one of the most distracting environments possible, I knew I might have a tough time competing for Sherlock's attention and I wanted to pay him well for any moment he chose to give me that attention. I prepared by having his most highly valued treats ready to go in a treat pouch (hooray for warm chicken and dehydrated liver!).

d) I chose a time of day when it was likely that my vet office would be nearly empty. My goal was that we would have the challenge of being in the environment (and interacting with the staff) without the extra challenge of other dogs and people being in my dog's space. (Sometimes I will also call ahead to ask the receptionists if it is okay for us to come hang out in the lobby for a few minutes.)

When we got there, we...

a) Parked away from the building and other cars. Distance makes everything easier, so this gave us a few minutes to adjust to the situation before being nose-to-nose with it. (Also it was an easy exit in case we got there and then discovered it was going to be a bad time to practice. Parking at a distance meant we were not going to get cornered into a situation we were not prepared to handle.)

b) Waited to walk into the building until Sherlock seemed functional and relatively calm (not pulling on the leash, responding to cues, taking treats).

(It should be noted that on a different occasion last month we left after not being able to successfully complete this step. Despite being inside the office on multiple other occasions, on that particular day Sherlock's arousal level was high enough that things would have only gotten worse from going inside, so it was not the appropriate time for a training session.)

c) Entered the building with polite doorway crossings (always helpful to get things off on a good start, it also gave me a split second to evaluate the room before having my dog go inside)

d) Relaxed the leash, practiced some easy cues, and let him explore the room. The first thing Sherlock (the oh-too-typical adolescent dog) wanted to do was dramatically lunge around the room to smell every inch. When this happens, first instinct is often to yank on the leash and then hold it tightly, however this can often worsen the situation, so I focused on calmly standing still (and did not let him lunge or pull me over) then asking for his attention (which we practiced for a minute or two just to make sure his brain was still working). As soon as it was safely possible I relaxed and lengthened the leash so that he could quickly explore the room however he would like without feeling restrained (the room was empty and the receptionist had given us permission to walk around). This gave him a unique chance to fully investigate that wonderfully interesting lobby which he never gets to explore. After about 1-2 minutes he was calm enough to move onto some harder behaviors.

e) We practiced some more challenging and situation specific cues. We used hand targeting to practice sitting still on the scale a few times, we practiced a down stay at my feet while I stood at the counter to sign a pretend receipt, and I pulled out his settle mat to practice waiting for our appointment.

f) Kept it short and sweet. From the time I stepped out of the car to the time I got back in, it was 20 minutes total. One of the easiest training mistakes to make is to not stop when you are ahead. Once you start to see signs that your dog is stressed/tired/frustrated, you have already been there too long, so we always keep field trips short and sweet.

And let me tell you, Mr. Sherlock was a rockstar. That being said...

Did things go perfectly?... Absolutely not.

And that's okay.

I don't expect perfect, competition-style obedience from my 11 month old house pet. We were dong this field trip in order to practice the skills he does have, discover (but not punish) those skills which may need some more work, and to give him an opportunity to become more familiar and comfortable with a stressful place.

The goal of a socialization field trip (for a dog of his age) is to set up a situation which is just challenging enough that we both have to work a little bit, but not so challenging that either one of leaves feeling frustrated and stressed. And that is what made this a successful trip. Neither of us was perfect (Sherlock is still pretty sure that eye contact from any complete stranger is permission to run over and greet them as quickly, and ungracefully, as possible; And, in hindsight there are some leash handling techniques which I wish I had done differently) but we each left happy and better than when we went in. So we are calling it in a win in our book and already making plans for our next field trip!

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