I have written many articles in the past about trust and relationship-building with our 4-legged clients, and a recent personal experience prompted me to discuss this important topic again.
Envision through my experience how a dog, or any other animal who is taken to a veterinarian for reasons of discomfort, pain, or illness, might respond in a situation like mine. A visit to the doctor can be a scary experience for dogs because they don’t know what is going on. I realized on my last visit to the doctor, when I was frightened and anxious because I didn’t know the source of the pain I was feeling, that this is how dogs feel with almost every visit to the veterinarian.
In many cases, we, as humans, can intelligently process what is happening to our bodies and understand the source of our pain or discomfort, making visits to the doctor an anticipated occurrence. For example, I separated my shoulder once, and although I was in a lot of pain, I wasn’t frightened because I understood why I was hurting, and I understood that the doctor would be able to help me. When animals are ill or in pain, they experience a more visceral fear response. They know something is wrong and threatening, but they are unable to process the situation and cope as well as we can. Their visit to the veterinarian only compounds the fear they feel. During my most recent visit to the doctor, which was an emergency, I could relate to this instinctual fear response, and it was made very clear to me how animals must feel when they don’t understand what is happening to them.
That morning, I was awakened by debilitating pain. The pain was not as debilitating, though, as the fear and anxiety that accompanied it because I did not understand why the pain was occurring. This pain was not the result of a broken bone, sprain, or separated shoulder, which are situations I could have easily understood. When I visited my doctor as a result of this unexplainable pain, I was truly frightened. Thankfully, my doctor was very gentle in her assessment of my pain. Her presence was comforting, and she did everything possible to reassure me that I would be cared for. The doctor’s compassionate bedside manner didn’t remove my under lying concerns or the pain I was experiencing, but it went a long way in helping to ease some of my initial visceral fear.
A gentle and calming bedside manner is essential for working with animals, too. When a dog goes to see the veterinarian, a trainer, or a therapist – massage, chiropractic, rehabilitative, palliative, behavior, etc. – that dog will be neurologically primed if s/he has any level of pain or discomfort. In other words, a dog in pain will be more alert and guarded to physical touch and handling. A compassionate bedside manner based on respect and the promise of comfort care is especially valuable at these times. Even during emergencies, animals, like humans, need reassurance that they are in good, caring hands. Practices such as restraint and heavy-handedness can cause more discomfort or pain which result in an even more stressful experience.
An animal’s intellectual ability will never be on par with that of humans, but there’s no doubt that they are intuitive beings that sense when they are in danger and instinctively act on this for survival. The key to working with a dog in any situation is a good bedside manner, which is composed of empathy, compassion, and an open heart. It doesn’t matter if you are seeing a dog for a massage therapy session, a training session, a physical therapy session, or a vet visit, you must understand what pain looks like and what that dog is communicating to you at all times. Know your client. If a dog feels safe and they know you are there to help, they will let you.