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Modifying behavior in patients that fear touch
Counterconditioning and desensitization prove key in reducing the anxiety felt by patients that don't like being touched.
A 3.5-year-old male neutered Shih Tzu presented to Animal Emergency and Referral Associates behavior service with a history of fear aggression when handled at the veterinary clinic or by the groomer.
This video demonstrates the dog's progress at our hospital after six behavior modification sessions using desensitization and classical counterconditioning over six weeks. When using these techniques, the patient's body language must be watched closely for signs of reactivity so that the anxiety-inducing stimulus can be stopped before the animal responds negatively.
We carefully instructed the owner in these methods, and she practiced diligently with the dog at home (this owner even purchased a grooming table for the dog to learn on at home).
This behavior modification process can take several weeks or months, so it was essential that this patient be sedated for all grooming that was required during the time period that our behavior team was using these techniques.
It's important to note that each patient requires different approaches and nuanced treatment plans. We're continuing to work with this patient, and we've since identified a dose of an oral sedative that works well for this dog during grooming. The goal is to modify the dog's behavior to accept grooming and other handling and ultimately discontinue sedative use. It's crucial to proceed at the patient's pace, and to not rush the behavior modification process.
Modifying this dog's behavior to accept being touched and associate it with a positive experience will reduce the dog's fear and anxiety during grooming and veterinary examinations and will allow safer, faster, and more pleasant encounters for the dog, staff, and owner.
Suggested resources for desensitization and counterconditioning
Yin S. Low stress handling, restraint and behavior modification of dogs and cats: techniques for developing patients who love their visits. Davis, California: Cattle Dog Publishing, 2009.
Overall KL. Manual of clinical behavioral medicine for dogs and cats 1st ed. St. Louis: Elsevier Mosby Publishing, 2013.
Emily Levine, DVM, MRCVS, DACVB, works at Animal Emergency & Referral Associates in Fairfield, New Jersey.