Canine aggression - 18 ways to avoid conflict in the consulting room

All dogs can snap and bite, with some needing very little provocation. The main reasons they become aggressive in the veterinary environment is that they are anxious or afraid. They are protecting themselves. Vets and nurses come into contact with dogs of all sorts of shape, size and temperament every day. The ability to understand and respond correctly to aggression in the consulting room is essential for the health and wellbeing of everyone involved, including the patient.

Posted: 17 July 2018

Canine aggression - 18 ways to avoid conflict in the consulting room


What is aggression?

Aggression is usually considered to be a threat, encounter or attack that is directed towards one or more individuals. It may be normal or abnormal depending on the context in which it occurs. Aggression usually arises out of feelings of anxiety or fear and a desire to self-protect.

In a confined consulting room there is very little room for error, and the consequences to you, your colleagues, the owner and the dog are great.

What triggers aggression in the consulting room?

Much of the time, the behavioural problems arise from a lack of understanding of the signs the dog is giving. In the event of miscommunication between the dog and the clinician, the fear and aggression can escalate rapidly.

Many dogs coming to the vet are anxious, unsettled and frightened. Too often the whole process can be filled with events that accentuate the fear.

It’s not surprising our canine patients become frightened. After all, they have to deal with;

  • Other dogs
  • Unfamiliar people
  • Needles from vaccinations, antibiotics and blood tests
  • Bodily interference – e.g. temperatures, teeth and tummy prods
  • Surgery – e.g. routine neutering
  • Feeling unwell

Dogs are very sensitive animals, with a complex and elaborate body language to express how they feel. Being able to understand this behaviour takes time and experience. We’ve summarised some of the tell tale indicators below.

Body language gives us warning of potential conflict

A frightened dog will often be looking for reassurance by nudging, licking and pawing at you or the owner. Look for some or all of the following;

  • Yawning
  • Smaller eye shape
  • Lowered head position
  • Lips pulled back at the corners slightly
  • Grinning – lips pulled up showing their teeth
  • Ears flattened to the head The dog avoids eye contact with you
  • Tail held low or tucked under between the legs
  • Hunched body appearance trying to look small
  • Cowering on the table or the floor
  • Leaning away from you
  • Hairs shedding easily

The APBC produces a useful infographic >

In an aggressive dog you may see some or all of the following;

  • Eyes may appear smaller or larger than normal
  • Staring and focused gaze with a tense facial expression – in this situation avoid eye contact
  • Looking at you from the corners of the eyes, showing the sclera – possibly about to launch at you so back away slowly
  • Wrinkling of the muzzle
  • Showing teeth
  • Growling
  • Lips moved forward and puffed
  • Wrinkled forehead
  • Ears up and forward
  • Wagging tail, often held stiff and high
  • Standing upright to appear bigger
  • Hackles

If you notice any of these signs, it’s imperative that you act immediately to reduce the threat levels to the dog.

Avoiding canine conflict – 18 suggestions

  1. Ask the owner – it makes a lot of sense to find out from the people who spend most time with the dog how it’s likely to react. Most owners will be keen to avoid a problem and will tell you if their pet is unpredictable or difficult to handle.
  2. Don’t rush – take your time, allow the dog to settle in and feel less threatened. This will allow you to watch their behaviour and body language, as well as allowing the dog time to relax.
  3. Educate the owner – encourage them to avoid kissing and cuddling the dog on the examination table or in the waiting room. This will only reinforce any fear.
  4. Never shout or punish – any kind of physical punishment will only make the dog more anxious and will almost certainly make the situation worse.
  5. Use controlled restraint – make sure you have muzzles, leads, collars and blankets available. You’ll need a range of sizes to fit different breeds. It’s always polite to ask the owner first to ensure they understand why you are using restraint. It also helps if you teach owners how to fit muzzles and collars from an early age, as generally an owner will be more successful when/if the dog is stressed.
  6. Avoid eye contact – it’s generally better to ignore the dog and talk to the owner whilst the animal settles down. Never make direct eye contact with a frightened or dominant dog.
  7. Crouch down – get down to the dogs level rather than standing over them in a dominating way.
  8. Watch your own body language – try to be aware of how you are reacting and behaving, as you may inadvertently be adopting a threatening posture, which would make the situation worse.
  9. Stay calm – always approach the animal quietly, calmly and slowly, and preferably from the side rather than the front or behind. Speak softly and calmly. Sudden movements and loud noises can increase a dog’s apprehension.
  10. Remove bad smells – the acute sense of smell in dogs will allow them to pick up all sorts of sings of fear left behind from other patients. Clean the examination and waiting rooms thoroughly. Remove any trace of ‘scent glands’ from the consulting table. Empty the clinical waste bin regularly.
  11. Use rewards – small palatable treats will often work wonders, though not for all dogs. It’s important to only give the treat at the right time to recognise and reward the good behaviour. For example, don’t give the treat to the dog on the floor after the dog has been examined on the table. Give the treat on the table.
  12. Avoid cuddling the dog - dissuade the owner from cuddling the dog. Often a gentle stroke or reassuring word will help the dog stay calm. Use gentle caressing hand contact.
  13. Less restraint – in many cases, minimal restraint works better. You’ll have to make a judgment in each individual case. Some dogs react more violently to being firmly held.
  14. Medicate if necessary – some dogs can only be handled and examined safely if we use chemical restraint. In most instances, anxiolytics will be all that’s required, but occasionally you’ll have to resort to using pre-medicants, sedatives and general anaesthetics. Be aware though that acepromazine increases noise sensitivity and may lead to more unpredictable behaviour.
  15. Pheromones – there are benefits with using the dog appeasing pheromone products. A plug-in product in the consulting room may help many patients throughout the day. Why not encourage the owner to use Adaptil at home as well?
  16. Warn others – always be aware of the risk to others, so when appropriate, use clinical alerts and signs on cages to warn others.
  17. Another day - don’t feel you’ve failed if you can’t safely examine an animal. It’s always better to walk away and try another day.
  18. CPD – talk to recognised behaviourists and attend behaviour courses as part of your CPD programme. The Association of Pet Behaviour Councellors (APBC) has a list of members and recognised specialists.