4 reasons why habituation is not a good choice of technique to reduce fear at the vet’s

If you’ve read my other posts in this series, you know I’ve been promoting counterconditioning (or re-learning) as one of the best techniques to reduce fear in the veterinary clinic.

You might be thinking: “Aaaaw, that’s too much of a hassle, there’s no time. Why not just grab the animal, do what needs to be done, and with time, the animal will get used to it? It will habituate.”

There are four reasons why I don’t think that’s a good idea:

  • If it works, it’s a slow process
  • Meanwhile, you risk injury in staff handling the animal and difficulty in diagnosis.
  • You run the risk of sensitization (the animal becoming successively more fearful)
  • You risk confusing successful habituation with learned helplessness (animals giving up; a potentially pathological reaction)

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One of the 5 most important words in animal training: counterconditioning

Revised September 2022.

I collaborate with a vet who claims that many of the dogs that visit her facility are so eager to get inside the door that they pull their owners by the leash all the way from the parking lot.

Her secret?



Six syllables. I know, most people tune out beyond four. But I still think you should learn this particular term. Why?

Because it’s one of the most important techniques in animal training (arguably top five).

Counterconditioning may be the difference between your dog eagerly pulling to get to the vet’s, or shaking like a leaf on the examination table.

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Why vets shouldn’t avoid treat feeding in the clinic

(revised Jan. 2019)

Is your dog or cat offered treats during the visit to the veterinarian?

I can think of two reasons why this might not happen.

  • The vet is unfamiliar with how extremely useful treat feeding is in preventing, reducing and eliminating fear in the veterinary clinic. After all, it’s typically not something they learn in vet school (although thanks to organizations like Fear Free, that’s now rapidly changing!)
  • The vet doesn’t dare feed treats in case the animal needs to be sedated, thinking that “animals need fasting before sedation”.
Feeding treats at the vets is not coddling – it’s a way to prevent and reduce fear.

For several years, I’ve been teaching about fear, anxiety and stress (FAS) in pets during veterinary visits. Among several topics, I’ve spoken about why treat feeding is such a powerful technique to reduce and eliminate – and prevent – fear and fear learning. This is called counterconditioning

But in the various groups of veterinarians and vet technicians I’ve lectured to over the years, I’ve kept hearing the same objections over and over again:

“That sounds great”, the vets would say. “But if we need to sedate them, we can’t feed them so soon before we put them under”.

That got me curious, and I started asking questions:

  • How soon before sedation can we feed, then?
  • What if you just feed a teeny weeny little tidbit?
  • How about broth – liquids surely must have really short gut passage time?
  • How big is the increase in risk if you do feed before sedating?
  • How dangerous are the complications, anyhow – would the benefits be worth the risk?

As a scientist, my knee-jerk reaction was to look for the article that addressed those questions.

I didn’t find one. There wasn’t any. Nobody had looked at that!

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