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Fear Free tips to handle the big boys (and girls)


Keep giants gentle during veterinary care by eliminating these sources of fear, anxiety, stress and pain.

"Listen. If you want me to remain a gentle giant, I'm going to need you to handle me a little more gently." (Shutterstock.com)The dog may be big, but safely handling and providing care to a colossal-sized canine doesn't need to be an overwhelming ordeal. Incorporating even small Fear Free changes can boast big results. To better avoid injury while handling, lifting, restraining and caring for large and giant-sized canines, consider the following strategies:

Avoid the wrestling match. Trying to contain the fighting fury of an 8-pound dog for an exam and vaccines is difficult enough. But when the dog looks like a heavyweight wrestling contender with supersized teeth, this heightens safety concerns.

Handling a large dog that's flailing and fighting to break free and threatening collateral damage to the veterinary team is stressful for everyone, including the dog, team members and pet owners within visual range or earshot. While adding manpower, restraint and protective measures like muzzles may be the default response, it's not the best way to deal with a fighting fido. Neither is holding the dog down in a compromising position, like lateral recumbency, while your team performs routine care.

Evaluate your default. It's vitally important to consider both your team members' and your own go-to responses for dealing with a dog when things go wrong, regardless of the dog's size. In short, if your practice's current handling strategy looks anything like a literal dog pile of people holding the dog down, it's time to rethink how you approach handling.

Dig for the root. It's essential to address canine resistance at its root cause, with most stemming from underlying fear, anxiety and stress (FAS), as well as exacerbated discomfort or pain from the handling or procedure itself. Fear Free strategies help ensure the canine has a calm, comfortable experience before, during and after a veterinary visit.

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Do your future self a favor. Forced restraint poses a major safety risk to both the pet and people nearby, as the dog is more likely to struggle or bite with fight-for-its-life strength. And, if by adding more restraint, a scary situation becomes even more distressing to the dog, this negative experience can be traumatic and increase his likelihood to react unfavorably in the future. In fact, these dogs tend to become even harder to handle during future veterinary visits. They're likely to escalate faster into a struggle or biting and to react even earlier at the initial signs that all is not well, such as at the sight of the stethoscope or a muzzle.

Replace restraint. Traditional restraint often puts dogs in positions that are unnatural, unstable and uncomfortable. But if you provide care in a comfortable resting position, such as letting the dog stand with a food distraction during nail trims, the patient remains calm and comfortable. The Fear Free approach replaces restraint, handling and holds with gentle control that positions pets for care. With gentle control, you use your hands to support and stabilize the animal, providing gentle guidance and reassurance during care to decrease the animal's need to struggle or pull away.

Pharmaceuticals could be your friend. Addressing even subtle signs of stress early and often with a multimodal approach is key to safe and effective care. And if care requires the dog to remain in a compromising position, such as the lateral position for radiology, consider other supportive, calming methods. For example, the veterinarian may suggest pharmaceutical intervention and sedation to help keep the procedure as physically and emotionally painless as possible for the pet. It can also help ease any handling woes.

Treat yo' patient. Tasty treats can help keep dogs entertained, occupied, calm and in place while they're stabilized into a needed position. This could look like delivering lickable, soft treats via a food puzzle to offer the dog a point of happy focus as he receives care.

Mitigate muzzle woes. By no means are muzzles off limits when it comes to handling, but use these handy tools to optimize their benefits for both the veterinary team and the canine. I prefer basket muzzles, as they keep the veterinary team safe while allowing the dog to still pant and take treats.

Take the time to positively condition the pet to muzzles and invite the pet to willingly wear these devices. The result: Dogs to feel more comfortable during the visit and during future care scenarios when you need the muzzle. It's important to condition any dog that is likely to need a muzzle early on or integrate training during Victory Visits. You can also refer the client to a reward-based trainer who can help the dog develop positive connections with muzzles. The payoff? If you need a muzzle in the future, this early training will keep the dog cooperative and calm. 


Stop slip-n-scare scenarios. Slipping and sliding on slick surfaces elevates the scare factor for big dogs. Sure, the slippery surface of the exam or treatment table may temporarily disable a struggling dog who may freeze from fear when set on the slick space, but the dog's body isn't the only thing that's at risk of sliding. A frozen dog's emotional state, comfort and compliance tends to slide downward too.

While the scared stiff dog may initially allow you to offer care in that moment, he will likely become even more fearful in the future and develop other coping techniques beyond the freeze to save himself from potential harm. This could include balking or fighting to get away before he's even on the table or struggling and fighting once he's on the table.

Providing stable, nonslip surfaces on floors and tables allows dogs to remain more balanced and makes care easier for you.

Elevate your exam and treatment area experience. While the floor is a more ideal space for the exam, if you must elevate the dog onto a table or another lifted space for an element of care, consider ways to make the experience less stressful for the patient. When possible, invite the dog to move into the space of his own free will. This is especially important when the dog is large and when lifting can in a steady and balanced motion proves difficult. This means you'll have to set up the environment to make this possible. This might include using lift tables, portable stairs, ramps, or step-up items, such as a sturdy stool or chair. As the dog moves, use your hands to help guide and support him as needed.

If you're lifting the dog onto the space, consider strategies to keep the dog as stable and secure as possible. For large dogs requiring more than one person to lift, work with your team members to lift the dog at a similar, steady pace to keep one person from lifting too high or fast. Keep movements smooth to minimize the readjustment needed as you transfer the dog onto the high space that's ideally already outfitted with a nonslip surface.

Think outside the clinic box. Consider where the dog is most comfortable. Depending on the dog and the location of your practice, you may encounter dogs who are most comfortable being outside. For these dogs, simply being indoors can be a stressor. If resources allow, you can help canines cope in these situations by conducting care in a more open space or even an outdoor location, such as a turnout area, patio or grassy space behind the the clinic.

To borrow a phrase from Steven Covey in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, when it comes to handling big dogs, “Begin with the end in mind.” Because while many of the traditional handling methods can achieve the immediate goal of getting care done that day, they can also come with great costs to both the pet and the veterinary team now and in the future.

Mikkel Becker is the resident trainer for vetstreet.com and works in conjunction with veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists to address behavior issues in dogs and cats. Her four-legged best friend is Willy the pug, a certified therapy dog through the Delta Society. They are both adventurists and enjoy traveling together to experience the great outdoors, from visiting the farm animals on the family ranch to taking hikes around their home in Seattle.

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