Allergy Shots for Dogs: How I Made Them the Best Thing Ever

This post is about how I made weekly allergy shots into a fun event for my two allergic dogs. It’s not about the medical aspects of allergy shots or how to administer them. Be sure to get specific advice and training from your veterinary staff if you will be giving shots at home.

I have two dogs with seasonal allergies that are severe enough to make them pretty uncomfortable, especially in the summer. I recently took them to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist. They got skin tests and the vet specialist determined that they were both good candidates for an immunology protocol. First, they would get shots approximately every three days while the serum strength and quantity were raised. When the shots reached full strength, the dogs would receive them weekly from then on. Here’s a photo of Clara’s allergy skin test in case you want to see what that looks like on a dog.

What follows is how I made the allergy shots a good experience for my dogs. It is not a “how to”; it’s unique to our situation. But I hope there are parts of it that can be helpful to others.

Allergy Shots Can Hurt

hypodermic needles with the serum for allergy shots
Clara’s dose, on the left, is a full CC

Regular readers know that I use desensitization and counterconditioning to make scary or uncomfortable events pleasant for my dogs. So you may be surprised to hear that I didn’t work on conditioning the actual allergy shots. It is theoretically possible to achieve a positive conditioned emotional response to an originally aversive stimulus, after all. But not very practical in this instance, right? Do I really want to stick my dog with a needle over and over, more than I already have to? With more and more liquid to work up to the quantity of a full-strength allergy shot? No thanks.

I did countercondition the steps up to the actual shot. We worked on my leaning over, feeling around on the dog, pinching up the skin, then touching with an object.

But we needed to go farther than this. The dogs also needed to perform a specific behavior while I gave the shots: they needed to stay still. I approached it as a down-stay on a mat with a (big!) distraction. (The down was the position in which I could best tent up some skin on Clara. She doesn’t have much loose skin!) The down-stay was not hard for them. They are so accustomed to staying on their mats and also getting goodies for various husbandry tasks that there was little training involved.

What I decided to do about the potentially painful shot was to create a reinforcement period afterwards that was really special. Enter the magic treat boxes.

small plastic refrigerator containers with bites of high value foods for dogs
Special containers with novel treats

The Magic Treat Boxes

I bought four small identical refrigerator containers. At any time, there are two of them in the fridge and I put bites of novel, high-value foods in them. In the photo above, the boxes have bites of roasted potatoes and bites of pizza with some creamy cheese on it. I eat a lot of stuff that’s not really suitable for the dogs because of the abundance of onions or hot peppers, so I keep around a few things to fall back on if I don’t have any of my own food to share. Beef jerky is super-popular with my gang and I save it for special occasions. Also, a few spoonfuls of canned high-quality dog food will do. But they really do enjoy the “special bites.”

My dogs are trained that there might be a longish period between an event and their reinforcers, so I leave the container in the fridge and only get it out after the shot is finished.  That way they don’t know ahead of time what they are going to get.

Our Allergy Shot Routine

  1. Start with all dogs out of the kitchen.
  2. Invite in the dog who will get her shot.
  3. Make any remaining preparations to give the shot while she waits. (I have usually drawn it up and brought it to room temperature already.)
  4. Cue the dog onto her mat.
  5. Show her the syringe and let her sniff if she wants. (This is the immediate antecedent that tells her for sure she is going to get a shot.)
  6. Give the shot.
  7. Move my hand with the syringe away from the dog.
  8. Pause. (I don’t want the end of the shot to be a cue for the dog to jump up.)
  9. Say, “Yes!”
  10. Accompany dog to the refrigerator while praising.
  11. Get out the magic treat box, open it, and start delivering the treats, still talking and telling the dog how great she is.

The video includes a real-time allergy shot session for both dogs, with no edits. Note that they have no collars on and no one is holding them. They are not being physically restrained.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

It Worked! Happy Shots!

Clara started her shots about six weeks before Zani did. So right now Clara is up to her full dose and is taking her shots once a week and Zani is still doing them every three days. After I set up our little routine, I didn’t anticipate what might happen when one dog got a shot and the other didn’t.

Dog looking sad because she is not getting her allergy shot and special treat
Sorry Clara, no shot today….

At the end of the movie, you can see what happened the first time Zani got a shot and Clara didn’t. That’s when I knew for sure that my little system was working well.

Since the shots can be painful, I’ve paid close attention to make sure that there is no fallout from the procedure. I’ve been looking for things like the following:

  •  a dog being reluctant to come into the kitchen;
  • a dog being reluctant to get on her mat;
  • a dog getting up and leaving or flinching away as I approached with the injection;
  • a dog getting generally avoidant of me.

There has been none of that. There has been the opposite. Zani and Clara are both eager for their turns. They are each excited to come into the kitchen for their “shot party.”  Their tails do stop wagging during the actual shot, but at all other times, their body language is happy and excited.

This week, the magic treat boxes have bites of some lovely, lightly breaded chicken from a Mexican restaurant. Zani’s shot is tonight and Clara’s is tomorrow. I’ll have to work on some kind of lesser consolation treat for the poor unfortunate who doesn’t get a shot!

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

16 thoughts on “Allergy Shots for Dogs: How I Made Them the Best Thing Ever

  1. Have you heard of SLIT, or Sublingual Immunotherapy? I wonder if it is used for dogs. First atests are done to determine what the allergy is to, then a patient specific dosage of drops is prescribed. This has been used successfully for 20 or more years in Europe.

    1. I think it’s pretty new in the states and so far just for humans I think. No doubt the vet dermatologists will be on it once there have been some tests on dogs. I took allergy shots for 10 years myself and one gets used to them, but sublingual would’ve been much nicer! Thanks for the comment!

      1. I would have thought it must be available in the States – unless there is some legislative reason for it not to be? A couple of years ago my Lab suffered constantly from excessive ear wax (and associated infections) so was referred to a Veterinary Dermatologist here in the UK. After tests various allergies were identified and the appropriate SLIT mixtures (with gradually increasing dose) was ordered – from a supplier in the US! (And it was successful! 😀 )

        1. Interesting! I read that the FDA has approved only two materials (grass and ragweed) for humans. And since Clara has about 15 allergies (including every bug bite in the area) and Zani about 13, I suspect it will be a while before SLIT will be available for them. Still, I’m really glad for the info!

  2. What a great video and a great post! So many of the procedures and examples of DS/CC and/or operant training procedures for force-free husbandry stuff involve two people: one who is doing the delicate husbandry task, and one who is feeding the dog the goodies. This shows a lovely alternative, one that’s especially valuable for those who do not have the luxury of another set of hands to help them train or desensitise/counter-condition their dogs to these necessities. Thank you for posting this!

    1. Thank you so much! I hoped that it would be helpful. It’s working well for us.

  3. Would this be a good way to desensitize a dog or puppy to vaccines/shots of any kind?
    I would have to ask my vet,to see if i can simply poke with a needle to simulate the shot,or maybe just slightly pinch the skin. Because i know you could condition it,but the moment your dog feels pain changes the picture completely. Any suggestions welcome to make dogs ore comfortable with shots in general.

    1. Hi Laura,

      Here’s a video from Laura Monaco Torelli where she teaches the behavior. She and another great handler, Sonya Bevan, both came up with the idea of putting a paper clip in a syringe to simulate a “poke” without breaking the skin. That’s one step that can help. I hope this helps. I realize my blog and video didn’t really cover this. My dogs were easy because of other training we have done, so I don’t feel qualified to advise on the process in general.

  4. The best method, of course, depends on the patient. For very active dogs who will not hold still I use a fun game that includes short “freezes”, during which they are briefly poked (with the skin tented), followed by continuing the game they enjoy. Most barely respond to the needle. With somewhat different games, that also worked with cats.

    The hardest part there is often teaching the person how to do the injection quickly and accurately.

    Regarding needles and such, have you even given sub-Q fluids? As you may have a larger needle and much longer time it’s never pleasant or fun, but most do adjust to it.

    1. Integrating play sounds like a fascinating approach if one has the confidence to do it (I don’t) and the dog for whom that is the right solution. I haven’t had to do sub-Q fluids. Just sub-Q and intramuscular injections. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Hi Eileen,

    Great post and video, as always! I love the idea of “magic treat boxes” for ds/cc, so your dog(s) knows there are going to be very high value treats in those special boxes.

    Can you tell me a bit more about your dogs allergies? Are they food-related and environmental or just environmental?


    1. Thanks, Emily! Both the dogs’ allergies are seasonal, so the veterinary dermatologist ran tests for environmental allergies only. Clara is allergic to some grasses and highly allergic to several weed and tree pollens, and practically every insect bite known to man. She’s also allergic to a couple of molds and human dander. Hah! She’s allergic to me. And to cats. Zani’s worst allergies are to grass pollens. She is also allergic to a couple of trees, and one type of mite. I’m really grateful to have access to a vet dermatologist and this option of getting them some true relief. Right now is the peak of the itching for both of them, and it’s just a bit too early for the shots to kick in. I’m hoping that this time next year they will be much more comfortable.

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