Today I booked an appointment with my vet practice to have Ettie spayed. They haven’t met her before* so once I’d made the appointment I immediately began to worry if they would like her. What if they didn’t like her? What if they thought she was a gobby, determined, feisty terrier (she can be all of those – and I love her for it!) and that instead of appreciating her character, they just rolled their eyes and counted the hours before she was allowed to go home?
Will they like her?
Wow, these thoughts came out of nowhere, and so fast! When I took a step back and began to think about why I thought it mattered it they liked her, some possible answers began to form.
First is the vexed issue of the pandemic. Restrictions mean that in all likelihood, Ettie will be going into the surgery by herself. Imagine her trotting through the door and jumping onto the reception desk to let them know she’s arrived – too cute! While I love this scenario, what will actually happen is that she will be taken from me in the carpark. Then she will have her fur shaved and they will take bloods. Later she will be sedated and then operated on. When she wakes up, she will be in a strange place without me.
Safe & defensive handling
Now I know that bar the carpark bit, many folks happily hand over their dogs to their veterinary practice. But not me. In the past I have had dogs who couldn’t be handled easily or safely by strangers. My being there with them during numerous procedures was essential. Luckily for us all (me, practice staff and my dogs), I am a professional dog trainer. When I worked at a shelter as a behaviourist, part of my job was to handle and restrain dogs who found everything from simple examinations to administering regular treatments very challenging. Such was the experience I gained during that time, and from colleagues such as Sue Sternberg, that I ran workshops teaching others about safe and defensive handling.
I tell you this because I know how tricky it can be to help a fearful dog get the treatment she needs. And not everybody has the skills required to do it safely and efficiently. Sometimes the veterinary staff have more skills and experience. Sometimes you do. Depending on what needs doing and to whom (i.e. your own dog or somebody else’s) a stranger handling the dog can be better than someone who is emotionally involved. And vice versa.
Does it matter?
But I’ve strayed from where I started. Why does it matter if I believe the staff like or don’t like my dog? If I don’t think they like her, I can’t believe that they care about her. She might not get as much attention as an infinitely cuter, sweeter dog. She might not get the cuddles and reassurance she needs. They might see grumbling as grumpiness rather than discomfort or pain. They might not take the time to assess her needs if their perception of her is that she’s unlikeable or aloof.
These are my fears. My projections. My very real hope, and expectation, is that all animals will be treated with kindness, care and respect. That they will all receive the treatment they need. And that they will all be given comfort and reassurance. That is what I expect from all professionals. Be they veterinary, training, behaviour, grooming, boarding, etc.
But sadly, I have seen both sides. I’ve seen dogs soothed by vets who’ve sat on the floor with them. And nurses setting up camp beds so they could care for their charges right through the night. I’ve observed trainers throw away their training plans until the dogs feel confident enough to start learning.
On the flip side, I’ve seen animals being ignored when in pain. I’ve seen animals labelled as ‘aggressive’ when they were in acute distress. I’ve seen dogs dragged across a veterinary waiting room floor. And being chastised when behaving defensively. In all these cases I was able to intervene and help. But if this was to happen to my precious Ettie, especially when I wasn’t there to advocate for her, I’d be devastated.
Again, I reiterate that I have no reason to fear that any of this will happen. I’ve chosen a wonderful practice with caring staff, some of whom I’ve known for many years. Both their experience and their thoughtfulness in dealing with previous dogs of mine and with friends’ dogs reassures me. But still I’m anxious.
As I’ve been writing I’ve tried to think of a single dog that I didn’t like. But as I think back through all my classes, consults, workshops, rescues, no dog pops up as being one I didn’t like. Yes, there were behaviours I didn’t like, but not dogs. As a grizzled old dog trainer, it still makes my heart swell when anybody says something nice about one of my dogs. If they single one out for praise or compliment one or – this is the best – say that they are a favourite, I can’t help but feel delighted.
We like the likes
And whether or not it’s actually true – not every dog can be the vet/trainer/groomer’s favourite – that they have understood how important it is for me to hear them say that is what matters. Trust is key to working with dogs. For example, in training, it’s about the client trusting me every bit as much the dog trusting me. Everybody wants to feel safe and protected. When you’re feeling vulnerable, this is more important than ever. Handing your precious dog over to anyone is an act of trust. Not blind trust. You need to have done your homework to ascertain the experience, values and record of that professional. But nevertheless, trust is key.
You are more likely to follow the advice of somebody you trust than somebody who you don’t believe in. This applies to all professionals. From doctors to mechanics, hairdressers to accountants. If you don’t trust in what you’re being told, or asked to do, you won’t do it. When I first started in dog training I was told that I should exaggerate when setting up scheduling for clients. For example, if my recommendation was to practise a particular exercise 4 times a day, I should tell the client to do it 6 times a day in the hope that they might do it a couple of times a day.
I quickly discovered that this advice was fatally flawed. Setting unrealistic goals eroded trust. How could I, having heard about all the things my client had to fit into her day, expect her to follow this ridiculous schedule? Didn’t I understand her life? There’s no way she could do it, so why even bother trying? So this advice was quickly ditched in favour of being open, honest and transparent. Showing compassion and understanding will elicit much better results than second guessing and under-estimating people.
Prep not panic
And so I will try to keep my worries at bay. To focus on the likely realities of the forthcoming appointment. I will prepare Ettie as best I can. I’ll try to teach her not to be scared of the clippers, to hold still while being injected or having blood drawn. I highly recommend a vibrating toothbrush for this task. It makes a noise and tickles and feels strange when held against her neck or leg. Not exactly the same as the clippers but an excellent approximation.
If you are interested in learning how to help your dog, or cat, deal better with vet visits, I highly recommend ‘Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behaviour Modification of Dogs & Cats’ by Dr Sophia Yin. I believe it should be standard issue in all veterinary practices. It can be difficult to source (though if you hit my link you’ve a great chance of getting it) and it’s pricy but worth every penny.
And of all my dogs, I think Ettie will cope best with not having me there. She’s pretty independent. and super sociable. She’s not easily phased. And of course, she will win the hearts of all the staff!
*My usual veterinary practice is fabulous. But they don’t offer keyhole spays hence we are using another practice who does offer this specialist op.
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