I’d firstly like to apologize in advance to any of my veterinarian friends who may be slightly offended by this post. Yet, it’s a message and topic that I have long hesitated to blog about because of the relationships I have with so many veterinarians in my community. By being privileged enough to serve for four years on the Board of Directors for both the South Florida Veterinary Foundation and the South Florida Veterinary Medical Association, I have approximately 100 veterinarians’ cell phone numbers in my personal contacts, and consider about a quarter of those to be very close personal friends of mine. And, chances are, that if you are in that pie piece of close knit friends and trusted professional colleagues, then this post doesn’t particularly apply to you. Yet, I hope that as someone who I respect and value as a medical professional, you can find the time to educate your colleagues regarding dominance in puppy training.
I few months back I received a referral from a veterinarian. I have received referrals from this vet before, who boasts a state of the art clinic, has outstanding customer service, friendly and professional staff – an all around rock star clinic. I was excited to receive the referral of then 10-week-old puppy, because after all, puppies are a clean slate and an opportunity to teach my clients how to properly raise a puppy into a confident, good tempermented and well-behaved adult dog. For me, receiving a referral from a vet to a puppy client is the ultimate compliment, because in my eyes that veterinarian is giving me a vote of confidence to make sure that his client, will be his client for life. With a staggeringly high percentage of dogs being surrendered to shelters each year for behavioral reasons, a referral to a puppy client is the perfect opportunity to make sure that never happens, and that that puppy will grow into a wonderful canine companion for it’s family – one that that vet will continue to see until the faithful day the family brings their beloved dog in to say goodbye.
There was nothing particularly different about this referral at first. Routine puppy stuff like housetraining, play biting, crate training, and problem solving isolation distress filled up most of our first session together. As with all young pups, teaching my clients how to have their puppies trustingly tolerate restraint is also a top priority. After all, a dog that is confident in tolerating restraint is easier for the vet to deal with. And that’s why, good doctor, you sent the puppy to me to begin with, right? Right. Here’s where I start shaking my head.
I’m sitting on the floor, holding the puppy as I talk to my clients, reviewing how to teach gentle restraint and why it’s important. I begin to gently and slowly maneuver the puppy into a more restrained position, guiding the puppy down, and then onto his side where I can lay him flat to fake-examine him. This position will be one of many that I want the puppy to learn to tolerate, except we didn’t get too far when he began to panic. This was not a typical panic. A typical puppy displays some mild whining, maybe squirming and light mouthing in protest of being restrained because, after all, running around like a nut and playing is far more entertaining then having to sit still with someone restraining you. Occasionally you get a timid puppy who temporarily thinks their life is over so they squirm and shriek, but even that rare display quickly extinguishes within the first few seconds as the puppy realizes you are not going to hurt them and that there are delicious cookies involved! But this puppy, this poor terrified puppy, acted as if I was about to end his life and with every ounce of self-preservation, he thrashed and growled and shrieked, quickly followed by him biting me several times. It’s bad enough puppies have razor sharp teeth, but even worse that this puppy felt that he had to use those teeth in a very aggressive way in order to protect himself from his perceived threat; me.
I held onto him gently despite the needles puncturing my hands. I allowed him to right himself, but did not let him go because basic animal learning tells us that animals continue to do what works, so I was not about to let this puppy think he could aggress his way out of the situation which was in no way harmful to him. And then, this is what the owner said to me:
“Oh our vet already showed us how to do this exercise. He went over with us how important it is to make sure you are dominant over your puppy because our puppy did the same thing when the vet was trying to handle him so our vet quickly became alpha and forced the puppy onto his back upside down. The puppy peed on himself and was screaming and fighting but the vet did not let him get up until he submitted. The vet said he was an extremely dominant puppy and so that we need to practice submitting him often while he is still little and can’t fight back. We’ve been forcing him onto his back for the last week everyday and he still tries to bite us every time, he hasn’t submitted to us yet.”
I likely don’t have to describe to you the look on my face when the client cheerfully recounted the story for me. But I will share with you my response.
“I’m really sorry to hear that, I’m going to have to have a conversation with your vet because it seems he isn’t up to date on dominance theory in dog training. Your vet is someone I really respect and have a good relationship with, so I have to say I’m really surprised to hear what you just told me, yet at the same time it doesn’t surprise me because many vets simply have not kept up with behavioral science. Your puppy is not dominant, but is in fact absolutely terrified that he is going to be hurt. The reason he peed at the vet when he was held on his back is not because he submitted, but because he was absolutely terrified and likely thought, at that moment, that he would be killed. The way your puppy just reacted is very concerning to me because there is a good chance that because of what happened at the vet, and what you have been doing to him this last week, your puppy may never trust being handled. From this point forward, you have a big job to do to get this puppy to trust handling.”
As I left the clients house, I still couldn’t believe it. Actually, I can believe it and that’s what made it worse. Your vet is probably the one person you trust more than any other pet professional. They are the ultimate keeper of a dog’s well being, and yet a veterinarian was responsible for damaging this puppy for what may be his entire life. Puppies have a critical window up until about 12 weeks of life where experiences either make, or break how they will respond to the world for the rest of their life. Did you hear me? Experiences puppies shave in the first 12 weeks dramatically affect THE REST OF THEIR LIFE.
I’m really sad to report that even despite six weeks of owner compliance in doing very gentle and slow counterconditioning and desensitization exercises that the puppy is still extremely aggressive whenever he is restrained or touched on the collar. This is a puppy whose life had just begun, and he doesn’t trust people like a normal well socialized puppy should. People literally trust their vet with their dog’s life. That life needs to include their emotional well being as well as their physical health.
Veterinarians do have to keep up with continuing education in order to maintain their license to practice medicine, yet there is currently no behavioral requirement as a part of that continuing education. In all honestly, there doesn’t need to be. Vets should be able to do what they do best – medicine. I will never advise a client on a medical issue. My answer is “consult your veterinarian, I am not a vet.” So to a degree, I am optimistic that veterinarians who do have great relationships with canine behavior experts tell their clients “I can’t answer that question for you, but I know someone who can.”
If you are a veterinarian reading this, I encourage you to do your homework on dominance and dog training. There are fantastic resources on the AVSAB.org website, resources that were placed there by your colleagues and fellow veterinarians who have kept themselves up to date with behavioral science.
If you are a trainer reading this, part of your obligation as a canine behavior expert is to take the time to develop good strong trusting relationships with veterinarians in your community. Contact local clinics and offer to do free workshops for their hospital staff on low restraint handling and the importance of positive puppy (and dog) training. We are the experts in canine behavior, so it’s our job to make sure we are sharing that information with other pet professionals in an educational and non-threatening way. Never approach another pet professional with the “you’re wrong, I’m right” attitude, but instead approach with and open mind and open arms ready to embrace their staff the same way we embrace our clients with patience, knowledge and a safe environment in which to learn. Trust me, they will see the light if you are in fact as good of a teacher as you think you are.
And lastly, if you’re a dog owner reading this, I hope you trust your vet as much as I trust my own personal vet. No, it is not normal for your dog to be scared to go to the vet. If your dog shakes while waiting in the lobby, it’s because somewhere along the way someone failed to make that dog feel confident and secure in that environment. Regardless if your dog is or isn’t nervous to visit the vet, you should be able to trust your vet to do what is right by your animal, always. Vets and doctors are under oath to do no harm, and that includes dispensing any advice where your dog’s emotional well-being may be affected. Don’t be afraid to ask your vet if you can watch as they administer vaccines, draw blood, and examine your pet “in the back.” If they are properly handling your animal then they have nothing to hide. And, if at any point you feel uncomfortable like they are doing something to your dog that is not right, speak up. Ultimately you are your pet’s primary advocate.
Your vet’s job is to keep your dog physically healthy.
Your dog trainer’s job is to keep your dog emotionally healthy.
And your job, which is the most important, is to keep your dog safe.
So, to the vet who manhandled that puppy: I forgive you even though that puppy likely never will. Yet, I will do everything in my power to give you the resources you need to make better decisions for puppies entering your clinic going forward. And, lucky for you, you’ll never even realize how upset I was with you because your learning is just as important to me any of my clients. And to be a good teacher, I have to be patient with you, too.