Dog Trainer's Guide to How to Choose a Vet

“The physician must … have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm” - Hippocratic Corpus




Clients frequently ask me for advice with regard to their dog’s health, and I will answer them honestly (the biggest of which is that yes, your dog is overweight. Now do something about it.)


However, I have a very big grasp on how little I know medically about dogs; I train dogs, I'm not a vet.


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It’s not my area, and there are plenty of well-qualified individuals who can answer questions beyond “How do I clip my dog’s nails?”. That’s where your vet comes in.


Choosing a Vet


Choosing a doctor or vet can be a very difficult thing. It’s almost as dramatic an undertaking as choosing a pediatrician. You are placing the health and welfare of your dog/child in the hands of someone else, essentially asking them to Pilot your dog’s/child’s health. It can be scary handing over control. So take your time when choosing your dog’s doctor.


Use your resources and referrals. Do you like your dog’s groomer? Ask who they recommend for a vet. Did you adopt your dog? Ask the shelter who they like to use. Don’t forget to ask your friends, or even post on Facebook to get some recommendations. You may notice a trend of vets whose names frequently pop up, either good or bad. Choose wisely.


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So you’ve got a recommendation, and you’ve made your first appointment. Think of it as a first date.


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Things to look for:

  • Clean offices. No, I don’t expect the floors to be spic and span, but if there is anything other than dog/cat hair on the floor (is that dried blood?!) step away from the reception desk. Keep stepping. Right out the door.


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  • Friendly staff. If reception makes you feel like a jerk for just checking in for your appointment, then how do you think you’re going to feel when you call them later asking a “dumb” question about your dog’s symptoms? Yes, they may be very, very busy, and you may have to wait to have your question answered, but you should never be made to feel stupid for caring about your dog’s health. Expect respect, for both you and your dog.



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  • Easy set-up. For those of you with dog-reactive dogs, you know what I mean. It can be difficult working with your dog’s reactivity while out on a walk and another dog is across the street. It can be very difficult in a crowded waiting room. If the waiting room is over-crowded, approach the staff and ask if there is another option (waiting outside, or even better, a small room where you can wait).


  • Good communication. Ask your vet a question, you should get an answer. Note I did not state you should get the answer you are looking for. However, you should not feel shamed or stupid for asking questions. You and your vet are a team both working together to keep your pet happy and healthy. So if you don’t understand a procedure, or a medication, or symptoms, ask your vet. They should give you an answer in terms you can understand.


  • Good “dog-side” manner. Yes, your dog is scared, and perhaps you are, too. Your dog might not like the vet at first. Allow for some time to get a good relationship between your dog and your vet. Watch your vet: do they seem comfortable working with your dog? Do they take safety precautions when necessary (such as a muzzle or another person to assist)? Those are good signs.


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  • And sometimes “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer. If you think your vet knows everything, know that they don’t. It’s okay for them to say they aren’t sure, or don’t feel qualified to make a diagnosis. Remember, first do no harm! Knowing your limits (even as a vet) is a good thing.


And makes for wonderful BBC mock-umentaries.




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Finally, be aware that any vet can be subjected to biased reviews, undeserved slander, and malicious attacks. The very nature of their practice unfortunately includes taking animals to the Rainbow Bridge. Understand the difference between a poor practice and poor circumstances.


As a dog trainer, I'm in tune with what my dogs may need from a behavioral standpoint when visit a vet (ie., is my dog scared, hyper, excited, and when I need to Pilot them). My vet is focused on getting to the root of the health problem and fixing it. Sometimes we can bypass each other. Which is why I love my (new) vet so much. I've been seeing her for about a year, after my previous vet had the audacity to retire (thank you for your many years, Dr. Michaelowsky!!!!) I brought Ellis in to a new, highly recommended vet. She came across immediately as likable, friendly and knowledgeable, but Ellis was a little bit concerned by so much high pitched "let's-be-friends" cajoling from the vet: I'd literally just spent the past 6 months trying to decompress Ellis, who was prone to impulse control issues. Ellis needed updated shots, and while we got them done, the visit was a bit stressful. After the visit, I was very impressed with the vet (and the techs!), but I wished I had spoken up. Further, it was apparent that I had the Piloting situation under control for the most part with Ellis, except in this situation, where he still didn't quite trust me. To top it off, Ellis' first and only experience at this place was of high anxiety. That was up to me to fix. So I took him for a walk at least 1x per week up to the vet's office, got as far as their parking lot, gave Ellis a treat, and then walked home. Sometimes we'd just drive there, to shake it up a bit. I also promised to advocate for Ellis at the next appointment.


It's hard to give a person you like and respect negative feedback. But that's probably why you like and respect them: they can gracefully accept negative feedback.

Our next visit for boosters was a lot less energized due to Ellis being used to heading up to the vets office during our walks. When the vet walked in and tried to make friends with Ellis, I immediately stopped her, and mentioned that Ellis does so much better with less stimulation, and the less that's said, the better he does. She immediately switched gears and went silent. Ellis fell in love with her, and the trip was anti-climatic, to say the least.


Over the 2 years I've had Ellis, he's seen her many times, and once during an emergency, and I've been impressed with how she instantly remembers that, while quite a few other dogs love high energy love, Ellis thrives on calm companionship. Her attitude made a non-issue out of some pretty big medical problems, at least behaviorally speaking. Her skill as a vet was able to shine through, and for that I'm extremely grateful.


Black pitbull dog

She did say he looked like an "alien space baby". And she's not really wrong.


Choosing a vet, or even a dog trainer, or boarding location, is a very personal thing. You are asking someone else to care for the health and well-being of a very important part of your life: your pets. It’s okay to take a pass on a vet just because you got a “strange vibe”. Listen to your gut, don’t be afraid to speak up if you have questions, and trust your instincts. Your pet will thank you with a long, happy, healthy life.




Kerry Stack

Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

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