Having owners present or absent during routine veterinary visits and procedures continues to be a controversial issue. While many owners (myself included) maintain that it is imperative that we remain with our dogs during veterinary examinations, some veterinary professionals feel that dogs benefit if separated from their owner during routine examinations and procedures.
We already have quite a bit of science about this issue. A 2017 study found that when owners provided comfort to their dogs by talking and petting, the dogs had a reduced stress response during veterinary examinations, compared with when the owners sat quietly across the room (1; see “Be There“). A second study conducted by a different set of researchers reported that stress-related signs were reduced in dogs when their owners were present in the examination room versus when they were absent (2; see “Still Be There“).
Despite this evidence, policies that require owners to wait in a reception area while their dog is removed from them and taken into “the back” continues to be standard operation procedure at a substantial number of clinics. The primary argument used to support this practice is a belief that dogs will be more, rather than less, stressed with their owner present. We now have two studies, plus supporting evidence in other stressful settings, that directly refute this assertion (see “Hey Teacher“). The evidence that we have to date shows that dogs are less stressed when their owners are with them during veterinary visits.
However, we are not done yet. A related argument that is made in support of an “owner absent” policy is that because an owner may be nervous in the clinic setting, their nervousness will be conveyed to the dog, leading to increased fear in the dog. Recently, a two-part study was conducted by researchers at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse to test this particular claim (3, 4).
Does an owner’s nervousness increase their dog’s fear during a veterinary clinic visit?
Twenty-five healthy adult dogs and their owners completed the study. Each dog/owner pair visited a veterinary clinic on two occasions, spaced 5 to 7 weeks apart. In one visit, the owner stayed with their dog during a routine examination and in the other visit, the owner was absent. All visits were videotaped for analysis. In Part 1 of the study, the dogs’ behaviors were analyzed. In Part 2 of the study, the owner’s behavior was analyzed (see paper for complete design details).
Results (Part 1 – The Dogs)
Several significant behavioral differences in the dogs were observed between the “owner present” and the “owner absent” conditions. These findings are consistent with earlier study results:
- Willingness to Enter Exam Room: Dogs were more likely to voluntarily enter the clinic examination room and showed a more relaxed emotional state when their owner was with them compared with when their owner was absent.
- Interactions with Examiner: Dogs engaged in voluntary physical contact with the veterinarian for a longer period of time when the owner was present compared with when the owner was absent.
- Looking toward Owner: During the examination, dogs frequently looked at their owner. When the owner was present, dogs were less likely to stare at the door compared with the owner absent condition.
- Stress Signs during Examination: During the physical examination, stress-related behaviors and dogs’ willingness to be handled by the veterinarian did not differ significantly between the owner present and owner absent conditions.
Conclusions (Part 1)
The authors concluded that the dogs’ behavioral responses during clinic visits with or without their owner present showed that having the owner present had several beneficial welfare effects and no detrimental effects on the dogs. For this reason, the authors support a recommendation of having owners present with their dog during routine veterinary examinations.
Results (Part 2 – The Owners)
In the study, owners had been instructed that it was allowable to have visual contact and to verbally talk to their dog during the examination, but that they should avoid physical interactions. (Note: This may have been an important limitation).
- Nervous owner effect? The researchers found no correlation between nervousness on the part of the owner and the degree of nervousness or fear in their dog.
- Positive verbal support: Unexpectedly, positive verbal interaction with their dogs (i.e. comforting words, speaking quietly and kindly) did not significantly reduce signs of stress in the dogs. (Note: This contrasts to other studies showing that talking to and petting significantly reduced a dog’s level of stress. This difference may be due to the lack of physical comfort in the current study). In contrast……
- Negative/neutral verbal interactions: When owners either reprimanded/scolded their dogs or spoke to them with a neutral emotional affect during the examination, their dogs’ stress significantly increased. (Yikes. This is hugely important; see soapbox below).
Conclusions (Part 2)
The researchers found no correlation between nervous behaviors of owners and nervous/fear in their dogs. Conversely, the use of negative or neutral speech with the dog did increase a dog’s stress level. Therefore, having an owner present is still recommended, provided the owner is a true source of comfort and security (and not of punishment) to their dog.
Up on The Box: We now have results from three separate studies, conducted by three different sets of researchers, showing that having owners present with their dog during routine veterinary visits can reduce (NOT increase) stress and can encourage dogs to be more comfortable and social. Additionally, no support was found for the contention that a nervous owner leads to increased nervousness or fear in their dog while at the clinic. Additionally, the specific way that an owner speaks to their dog is important. An owner who reprimands or fails to comfort their dog verbally (neutral speech) may cause increased fear/stress in the dog. Of course, this is not surprising, given that we have ample evidence that negative reinforcement and punishment cause stress and fear in dogs (see “Dog Smart” for a complete review).
I felt the need to bring out the box because I wonder why we still see these policies in place at small animal clinics around the country. For dogs who are not aggressive and are simply frightened or nervous when they visit their veterinarian, their owners should be allowed to stay with them and to provide comfort during examinations and other routine procedures. The fact that this is denied to some owners, even when we have solid evidence that dogs benefit from their presence, is not only ill-founded and does not follow current science, but, in my view lacks compassion.
Continue to be there for your dog…… in the right way. Provide comfort, love and support.
- Csoltova E, Martineau M, Boissy A, Gilbert C. Behavioral and physiological reactions in dogs to a veterinary examination: Owner-dog interactions improve canine well-being. Physiology & Behavior 2017; 177:270-281.
- Stellato AC, Dewey CE, Widowski TM, Niel L. Evaluation of associations between owner presence and indicators of fear in dogs during routine veterinary examinations. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 2020; 257:1031-1040.
- Girault C, Priymenko N, Helsly M, Duranton C and Gaunet F. Dog behaviours in veterinary consultation: Part 1. Effect of the owner’s presence or absence. The Veterinary Journal, 2022; 280; 105788.
- Helsy M, Priymenko N, Girault C, Duranton C and Gaunet F. Dog behaviours in veterinary consultation: Part 2. The relationship between the behaviours of dogs and their owners. The Veterinary Journal, 2022; 281; 105789.
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4 thoughts on “Be the (Type of) Support Your Dog Needs”
Thank you for this! I’ve fought for more than 30 years for the right to stay with my dogs at all times. After my current vet reneged on his promise following COVID, I decided to find a vet who understood and agreed with my wanting to stay with my dog rather than just grudgingly putting up with it. I found a Fear-Free (uncertified) clinic and I’ve been much happier ever since — I hadn’t realized how much having to fight to stay with my dog increased my own anxiety.
My experience has shown that ALL of my dogs do much better if I stay with them. They cease being afraid of going to the vet, knowing I won’t leave them (I will wait with them even for an all-day procedure). One time my prior vet’s associate pressured me to let her take my dog in the back for a quick blood draw, which I reluctantly agreed to against my better judgement; the next time we visited, my dog was shaking all over, though she hadn’t trembled at the vet’s for years before that.
Never again! A new emergency clinic recently opened up in my area that advertises letting you stay with your dog at all times (VEG: Veterinary Emergency Group), so I no longer have to worry about even an emergency visit, just specialists (I’ve driven up to six hours to see a specialist who will let me stay with my dog).
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I’m trying to imagine the difficult position it would put staff in – posing the question, or trying to establish if you are :
‘An owner who reprimands or fails to comfort their dog verbally (neutral speech) may cause increased fear/stress in the dog’
I think we need some longitudinal studies to clarify further.
One wonders how much of the “less nervous in the back” has to do with the nerves of the individual performing the procedure rather than those of the dog. I admit I’m more stressed as a phlebotomist in front of the owner! It also used to be common advice to eliminate the owner from as much of the hands-on as possible due to insurance liability if the were injured, including fainting, not that that ever happens, of course! 😳. As an owner, I’d definitely rather be there, but I do think clinics have some rationale besides “we’ve always done it this way.’
Great post Linda. I suspect these policies still exist for the same reason so many vets recommend quarantining puppies before they have had all of their vaccinations. Unfortunately, insurance and money have a lot to do with it even though a vet’s policies and suggestions go against best practices and what’s healthiest for pets. Sigh
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