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Open AccessArticle

Effect of a Standardized Four-Week Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning Training Program on Pre-Existing Veterinary Fear in Companion Dogs

1
Department of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph N1G 2W1, Canada
2
Department of Animal Biosciences, Ontario Agricultural College, University of Guelph, Guelph N1G 2W1, Canada
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Animals 2019, 9(10), 767; https://doi.org/10.3390/ani9100767
Received: 30 August 2019 / Revised: 24 September 2019 / Accepted: 3 October 2019 / Published: 7 October 2019
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Fundamentals of Clinical Animal Behaviour)
Reducing veterinary fear in dogs is important for canine health and welfare. It is commonly suggested that dog owners perform counter-conditioning and desensitization training to reduce veterinary fear levels, yet the efficacy of this training has not been evaluated. We recruited owned dogs with pre-existing fear and conducted mock veterinary appointments before and after training to assess changes in fear responses. Owners of dogs in the training group (n = 15) were instructed to perform exam-style handling and to visit the veterinary clinic on a weekly basis for four weeks, and owners of control dogs (n = 22) received no instructions. Compliance to training protocols was poor, with 44% of owners non-compliant to the training program. We found that, during the examination, trained dogs had less reduced posture than control dogs, but trained dogs showed more lip licking during clinic entrance and examination. Owners reported an observable improvement in their dog’s fear levels across the training sessions, and general fear scores lowered during the second examination for trained dogs. We suggest that, although few behavioural indicators of fear changed in the predicted direction, veterinarians should continue to recommend this training until further research is conducted.
Many dogs show signs of fear during veterinary appointments. It is widely recommended to use desensitization and counter-conditioning training to reduce this fear. However, the efficacy of this method for reducing veterinary fear has not been examined. We assessed the effect of a standardized four-week training program on behavioural and physiological signs of fear in dogs with pre-existing veterinary fear. Owned dogs were randomly allocated to receive training (n = 15) or no training (n = 22; Control). Owners of dogs in the training group were instructed to perform exam-style handling on their dog and to visit the veterinary clinic weekly. Owners of control dogs were given no instructions. Fear responses were assessed before and after the training period by a blinded observer during clinic arrival and examination. Despite motivated owners volunteering to participate in the current study, 44% of owners were non-compliant to this training program. During examination, control dogs had higher odds (95% confidence Interval (CI)) of reduced posture compared to trained dogs (Odds ratio (OR): 3.79, CI: 1.03–16.3). Fear scores for trained dogs lowered during the second examination (p = 0.046), and 86.7% of dog owners reported a reduction in their dog’s fear levels across the training period (p = 0.007). When entering the clinic (p = 0.002) and during examination (p = 0.002), trained female dogs had a higher rate of lip licking than control females. The training program did not influence temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate, avoidance, trembling, vocalizations, or willingness and encouragement to step on the scale. Results suggest that this four-week training program was mildly effective at reducing veterinary fear in dogs. Further research is necessary to explore the efficacy of longer, more intensive, and individualized training programs. View Full-Text
Keywords: dogs; training; counter-conditioning; desensitization; fear; veterinary clinic; behaviour; welfare dogs; training; counter-conditioning; desensitization; fear; veterinary clinic; behaviour; welfare
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Stellato, A.; Jajou, S.; Dewey, C.E.; Widowski, T.M.; Niel, L. Effect of a Standardized Four-Week Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning Training Program on Pre-Existing Veterinary Fear in Companion Dogs. Animals 2019, 9, 767.

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