Monday, July 23, 2012

It shouldn't be this hard

It shouldn't be this hard to find a vet that meshes with our beliefs and commitment to the physical, mental, and emotional care of our dog.  Yet somehow this seems to be a challenge.  We switched practices last year and while the new veterinarians are fantastic, the staff is less than pleasant and it has become a real challenge as of late. 

More often than not our vet ran at least 20-40 minutes late for every appointment.  While I don't care about a wait if someone tells me, I also have to keep Abby's best interests in mind.  That timing of an extra 20-40 minutes waiting in the lobby is the difference between Abby being able to tolerate her appointments and the services the staff will provide, and her becoming a pacing and panting wreck who looks to bolt at every opportunity. 

Most recently we have tried to take a proactive approach to her appointments.  I came to the realization that it is my job in life to try to alleviate Abby's fears, and if I cannot do that I must do everything I can to limit her exposure to those fears and give her coping strategies that set her up for success.  We do that presently with a whole host of things.  We ask Abby to wait at a door while we open it and look outside to make sure the coast is clear and we avoid an ambush.  We limit her exposure to other dogs, and only when she expresses genuine interest and calm posturing do we briefly allow contact.  Why is the vet different?  The answer is that it shouldn't be. 

I don't know about you, but every dog I have ever owned has been afraid of the vet and displayed this in a wide variety of behaviors.  Some have paced or panted, some have whined, and some have even growled at anyone appearing in scrubs or a lab coat.  And when you really think about it, is it any wonder they're scared?  Think of how you would feel if you were brought someplace where people spoke in a language you didn't understand, and tried to touch you right away?  Maybe you liked being pet on the head, or maybe you didn't, but either way it quickly becomes a process of doing strange things to you.  Sounds terrible, right?  And then imagine how you would feel the next time you went back and it was exactly the same.  No wonder dogs are scared of the vet! 

Throughout Abby's entire GI issues of last year, I grew convinced that I needed to be an advocate in her health.  But most recently I've realized I need to be her voice in advocating for emotional and mental well being.  There are several components to that.  The first thing I tried to do was to go to the vet for things other than appointments where she would just go and get treats.  I realized the first time I went to do this that I had an uphill battle with this one.  The vet is sandwiched between landscaping and construction companies, and at any point in the day there are a wide variety of sounds that are deeply unsettling to her.  Clearly treating her even for just getting to the parking lot was going to be the way to go and it would go very slowly from there. 

The second thing comes with respect to the waiting times in the lobby.  Although we do a lot of mat work where Abby has a mat we throw down and she knows she can relax there, that only goes so far in stressful situations.  In light of the delays of our vet, I spoke with the office staff about taking a proactive approach to this wait time.  I could not rely on them to adequately communicate any delays the office experienced, and even if they had communicated those delays I had limited ways to deal with this.  I decided that if I had any hope of helping Abby not to become distressed waiting for her appointment, I needed to check in without her present.  Sometimes this is realistic if my husband comes to an appointment with us, and one person remains in the car while the other person goes in.  But sometimes he can't be at every appointment and I am by myself.  I typically try to avoid leaving my dog in the car even for something as quick as this.  So I spoke with someone in the office about being able to call from the parking lot and check in for our appointment.  If the staff had her exam room ready I would head right in.  If not they could either wave to me from the window or call me back on my cell phone when her exam room was ready and I would head right in.  I tried this approach on a couple of occasions and it worked fairly well depending on who was on staff that day.  That is until my husband tried to bring our girl for a vaccine. 

Now admittedly, Abby is sometimes vaccine reactive.  Not only is she missing fur where her Rabies vaccine was administered, but she once got violently ill after receiving her Lepto and Lyme vaccines.  Now we break these vaccines up, and we also administer a Benadryl injection before she receives these vaccines.  After massive confusion regarding checking in from the parking lot, and waiting to be seen for the injection, my poor husband and Abby had to wait a long time for the vaccine, and wait to check out.  It was that appointment that hubby said he was done with this vet. 

The more I thought about the requests we've made of our current vet, the more I realized that I wasn't asking for a lot.  I was asking for my vet to become a partner with me in making sure that my dog's anxiety over her visit was lessened.  Can you imagine if you were a parent with a child who was afraid of the dentist, and your dentist insisted on strapping down your child in a chair each time they went in?  No parent would tolerate that, and no owner should allow their veterinarian to contribute to their pet's fears. 

Your vet and their staff should be approachable.  They should not only value the relationship they have with you, but the relationship that they build with your pet.  Not only should these offices be willing to work with you on some of these requests, they should encourage you and empower you to do these things if for no other reason than selfishly wanting these appointments go smoothly and quickly for them. 

It is quite apparent that the current staff is not on board with some of these requests, and unfortunately our ability to be patient and work through some of these growing pains is rather limited given how much Abby's fears paralyze her when they occur.  Given some of these problems and limitations, we have chosen to seek out another veterinarian.  Although we asked for some recommendations from people, read feedback on Yelp and even emailed users privately to ask questions, inevitably we had a recommendation that we just couldn't pass up. 

One of Abby's favorite things about going to the first veterinarian was the staff.  Unfortunately during her time there the majority of them left.  However, her favorite Vet Tech is working at a hospital that is about half an hour from the house.  At first I was concerned with it being out of the way, but then I realized that closer and convenient for me doesn't always mean that it is the best choice for Abby.  I called and spoke with the Office Manager, who gave me a tour of the facility, and I was so impressed by her warmth.  She answered all of the questions I had, was excited to help us give Abby a fresh start, and truly made an effort to let me know that if we went there they would want to get to know our pet.  During the tour of the hospital I could see that the setup was great.  The exam rooms had a window on the door so you could see out before leaving to make sure the coast was clear and you wouldn't be faced with a dog immediately upon exiting.  The waiting area was huge and had a center divider that allowed for some privacy while you were waiting in case you need separation. 

We brought Abby for the first time on Saturday and she was so excited to be able to sniff the entire place, and even more excited to see her old friend.  We are really excited for this next chapter in Abby's care, and we truly feel that we have found people who not only understand our commitment to our pet, but want to work with us to make sure that we can make her appointments as stress-free as possible.  

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Great Expectations

Why do we get dogs?  Whether it is for companionship, to save an animal from a situation, or because we've always grown up with them and our lives feel somewhat empty without them, dogs play a major role in our lives.  Each dog leaves a paw print in our hearts, and whether intentional or not we sometimes think about things we'd do differently or change with respect to such things as socialization or training.  It isn't that your dog is bad, but your dog can make you realize strengths and weaknesses that you didn't know you had, and consequently may make you change the way you think about the role your dog will play in your life.  Maybe you realize that you're more of a couch potato and your dog requires more exercise than you first thought.  Perhaps you realize that living in an apartment isn't conducive to your dogs size or need for mental and physical stimulation. 

Lately I see a wide variety of people getting dogs to fit a lifestyle.  Some people want dogs they can show, or dogs that will do agility.  Whatever the reason, people have certain expectations of how a dog will adapt to their lifestyle.  But what if your dog doesn't, or more importantly can't, adapt? 

The idea of this hit home a few months ago when I met someone who had a beautiful Tervuren Shepherd.  The dog truly was show quality, and the owner intended to show this dog.  The dog for all its credit started off on a good path, until a rogue teeter in the agility class slammed on the ground and triggered a high level of anxiety in the dog.  The dog wanted no part of any classroom situation.  Shaking and panting were the norm, and often times the dog simply wouldn't enter a new space that was designed for her to work.  And while the owner worked on the anxiety and the things that made her nervous, she certainly lamented the fact that her dog would never be a show dog.  For as beautiful as she was, her current problems with anxiety made it impossible for her to work towards showing. 

Most recently I bumped into someone who adopted a rescue from the South a little more than a year ago.  They previously had a wonderful Golden Retriever who had gotten on in years and inevitably needed to be put down.  Their most recent dog is a rescue, and is a sweet boy.  A few weeks after they got him, they started to notice that he didn't like to walk outside.  If he was with other dogs, it was as if he had enough of a distraction where he didn't notice he was outside, and he was able to walk on sidewalks or in the neighborhood.  But he largely felt more comfortable walking in the woods, and certainly preferred a night walk.  Our neighbors tried everything to try to encourage him to walk outside.  Each time I would speak with the wife about how the dog was doing she would say how he was progressing or regressing, and inevitably in speaking about this problem say, "I got a dog so I could walk."  After nearly a year of working on this largely on their own with some direction from a trainer, they decided to consult with the behaviorist that we see.  Their dog was no longer able to be distracted by walking with other dogs.  If they stopped to speak with people, after merely a few moments the dog would take off bolting towards home.  Our behaviorist suggested a very light dosage of Prozac while giving them things to work on, with the hope that Prozac would be enough to enable the dog to relax and be receptive to the training. 

I haven't seen these people in awhile, but had an opportunity to bump into the wife who was rather upset by the events of July 4th.  The fireworks that had been set off in our neighborhood had completely negated any forward progress the dog had been making, and now he only wanted to be outside to go to the bathroom and that was it.  On several occasions she expressed that she felt so frustrated by the situation, particularly because she wasn't able to enjoy time outside with her dog as she had hoped.  She kept saying that she wanted for him to be happy outside, not realizing that he was at his happiest when he was inside. 

At the very least we have ideas of things we want to work on with our dogs.  It would be nice if they didn't jump on guests that came over the house, or we'd like to be able to have our dogs not counter surf.  Whatever it is, we know what we'd like to see.  Many things are attainable.  But what if you can't change or shape a fear that the dog has?  What if our desires and their abilities can't match up?  If their dog is not able to offer any progression beyond the point they're at now, would that be OK? 

I think about Abby and some of the fears and reactivity that she has.  There are times that I wish I had taped her training classes, if for no other reason than to serve as a reminder of how far she has come.  But most importantly I think it would be interesting to look at the moment when I felt like her training had progressed.  When Abby first started training classes, to say it was a disaster would be an understatement.  Abby might work on something for 5 minutes if you were lucky, and she spent the rest of the time trying to engage other dogs in play, or being completely unfocused on me.  Group classes were a blessing and a curse all at once in my mind.  It was nice to see how other people worked with their dogs and see their progress measured.  But there was a part of me that often looked at how some dogs latched onto concepts so easily and I wondered why Abby couldn't do that.  Week after week we would go to class and Abby would spend a majority of time not listening or not focusing on me.  One week I even left in tears over my inability to engage my dog.  In addition to this, her ability to truly relax while we worked on her separation and crate anxiety was rather limited.  The idea of a snail's pace comes to mind as it took weeks for her belly to full touch the ground, or her chin to drop, or her back leg to kick out.  All I could think was that surely this should go faster. 

Then I noticed something one week.  Although our girl wasn't able to offer me much in class, she would give me so much more outside of class if I did small mini sessions in the week.  We would work in small quantities on the things we learned in class from the prior week and then show up armed with her new tool set.  Now I will tell you that there wasn't an immediate change.  Certainly Abby went through the same habits of disengaging and being the puppy that looked everywhere but me.  But when I started to feel like this was OK because I knew she would work outside of class, her training took off.  When I let go of the expectations that I had about her - how she should act/react, how fast her training should go, whether she was keeping up with the other dogs in class - then and only then did she begin to excel.  What used to be 5 minutes of engaged learning grew to be 10, 15, etc.  Now our girl knows when we're proud of her work and she celebrates with giving us hugs and kisses in class.  It is completely different than the early days. 

I think about these people who I've encountered recently who set such high goals of what their dogs will give them and do for them.  So often we welcome dogs into a strange world with the idea that no matter what the expectation is, the dog will adapt.  So often we think the things that make us happy will make them happy.  After all what dog wouldn't want to go outside?  Sure there are loud scary noises and strange people walking around.  Wouldn't you just want to go outside, too? 

So when I think about the things that Abby has taught me in the brief time we've had her, it is this:  to be accepting and trust my pet to learn on her terms and at her pace.  To provide her with a safe environments where she can learn at her pace.  And no matter what, to communicate to myself and to my dog that if she will only be able to give me the behavior that she does currently because of her anxieties and fears, that I will love her and accept her for them.  But most importantly she has taught me about the true meaning of unconditional love.