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'Training is great, but my dog needs eye drops TODAY!'

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

These weren’t the words of my client Corey, but it is a common refrain of the pet owner whose stressed or fearful pet needs welfare-enhancing medications at home, TODAY!

When stressed or frightened animals may fidget, freeze, attempt to flee, or ‘fight’. The animals aren’t being naughty in this situation. Rather, their sympathetic nervous system, the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response, has been triggered by what the animal perceives to be a dangerous situation. These involuntary behaviours are just the brain and body’s way of trying to help the animal get to safety. Your Labrador might struggle as you try to put in ear medications. Your Shepherd cross may freeze, and then suddenly snap. Or your Chihuahua may bite.

When animals have learned to fear an event like husbandry or medical care, there are two approaches I like to use:

1. We can train the animal to accept future occurrences of the event using what’s known as cooperative care training: reinforcing (rewarding) desired behaviours that build towards the end goal of stationing calmly while the event occurs, and giving the animal the ability to consent to the event.

2. We can, often more quickly, change the animal's emotional response to the event, using what's known as systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning: slowly exposing the animal to all aspects of the stress-inducing event in small enough 'doses' that don't trigger stress or fear, while also pairing exposure with something the animal really likes - like tasty Froot Loops if you are a Chihuahua named Ella.

Corey reached out to me a few days ago, after she realized she needed help with Ella, her sweet Chihuahua. Ella needed eye medications, multiple times a day, and she had rapidly gotten worse every time attempts were made to treat her: Ella would struggle to escape, growl, and even bite. To complicate matters, Ella is on medications for her heart and has a collapsing trachea. These factors make it even more critical that Ella doesn't struggle while she receives treatment.

Corey and I had a Zoom consult, where I demonstrated how to use approach #2, to help Ella quickly become more comfortable with the eye drops. As you can see in the above clip from a few days ago, Corey did a wonderful job of putting the techniques into practice and was able to get the first drops into Ella's eyes without a fuss. I love Corey's smile and happiness here, and how Ella thinks this event is just all about eating Froot Loops.

Since this video was taken, Corey has adapted her technique to instil the eye drops, to ensure that the tip of the bottle doesn't come into contact with Ella's eye during treatment. Corey was such a keen student, she also forged on ahead without my help, and rapidly got Ella comfortable with ear medications too. Wonderful work, Corey! When working with clients, one of my biggest goals is to teach them the skills they need to help their pets overcome future challenges, without me. As the adage goes: 'Medicate the eye of a woman's chihuahua, and you help them for a day. Teach the woman how to medicate the eye of her own chihuahua, and she will be able to apply these skills to other husbandry requirements in the future.' Corey is also now eager to learn how she can work on cooperative care behaviours for these procedures, should they be needed again in the future.

PS - Froot Loops aren't ideal for everyday eating for many animals, whether you are human or canine. But when helping an animal overcome a learned fear of an event so that they may receive welfare-enhancing medications, we can temporarily throw this rule out the window. Froot Loops, for the win!

If you and your pet need help with eye or ear medications, toenail trims, or any other husbandry or veterinary treatment procedures, contact me and we can get started.

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