Assessing Strategies for Reducing Dog Fear During Routine Physical Examinations
Many dogs show fear and aggression during veterinary visits, posing serious implications for their health and welfare. The objectives of this thesis were to assess the efficacy of various recommendations for reducing dog fear during veterinary care, and to determine risk factors associated with veterinary fear and aggression. First, I assessed the effect of an environmental variable, high levels of veterinary background noise, by presenting dogs with either no additional noise (n=16), or a pre-recorded noise track (n=17) during an examination. Background noise only increased respiratory rate (F1,31=6.74, p=0.0143). Second, I assessed the effect of a social variable, owner presence, by conducting an examination with (n=16) or without (n=16) their owner present. Owner presence reduced the rate of vocalizations (F1,29=19.84, p<0.0001), and mean temperature (F1,27=6.13, p<0.0198). In both of these studies, dogs showed more fear during portions of the exam that involved more physical contact. I then assessed the effect of a 4-week desensitization and counter-conditioning training program. Dog owners either conducted training for handling and clinic visits (n=33) or did not (n=23); during the examination, control dogs had a higher odds (95% CI) of reduced posture compared to trained dogs (OR: 3.79, CI: 1.03-16.3), and trained dogs displayed a higher rate of lip licking than controls (F1,33=10.89, p=0.0023). Finally, to identify potential strategies for prevention of fear and aggression, I completed a risk factor survey. Dogs (n=1,346) were more likely reported as fearful in veterinary clinics if: neutered young, received first nail trim when older, rated as having severe non-social fear or stranger-directed fear and aggression, or had a prior negative experience at their clinic. Dogs (n=1,776) were more likely reported as aggressive if: received towel restraint or muzzling, or the owner used aversive training methods in response to unwanted behaviours regularly or in a veterinary setting. Current results suggest many of the recommended strategies for reducing dog fear during veterinary care have limited efficacy. This highlights the need for further research on alternative approaches to improving examinations, ideally focusing on prevention based on key risk factors including early exposure to veterinary stimuli and creating positive experiences in the clinic.