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
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.
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
- Start with all dogs out of the kitchen.
- Invite in the dog who will get her shot.
- Make any remaining preparations to give the shot while she waits. (I have usually drawn it up and brought it to room temperature already.)
- Cue the dog onto her mat.
- 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.)
- Give the shot.
- Move my hand with the syringe away from the dog.
- Pause. (I don’t want the end of the shot to be a cue for the dog to jump up.)
- Say, “Yes!”
- Accompany dog to the refrigerator while praising.
- 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.
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.
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!
Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson