Friday, August 28, 2009

Asses and Alligators

Author's note: this is a story from several years ago. I will preface this by saying that the Rottweilers herein represented are not what I would consider representative of a well-bred member of their breed. Rotties were originally working dogs, and well-bred, good-tempered and physically sound examples can certainly be found - but in my neck of the woods, there has in the past been, and to some degree still is, an unfortunate abundance of questionably-bred orthopedic disasters of foul and unstable temperament. These animals are NOT what the breed is intended to be, although fortunately their numbers are declining in favor of more judiciously-bred animals that are truer to the breed's intended characteristics.

So Friday morning I started the day out with the biggest ass of month. Always a good way to begin, I find... everyone else seems so reasonable by contrast.

First thing that morning, in comes a man who, I will faithfully report, is rather good-looking, in a media-pretty sort of way; he is, however, not nearly as good-looking as he appears to believe he is, based on his superior demeanor. But perhaps I'm being unfair; maybe he just wants the rest of us to admire how well-tanned he's managed to get the underside of his nose, and is demonstrating this by keeping it pointed up in the air at all times. At any rate, apart from his unnaturally-even tanning-bed tan, he is very buff, which he shows off by wearing sweatshirts with the sleeves torn off - which I will say makes him look like he's pretending to be a high school jock, in defiance of his actual age. This makes me think "pretty-boy", by which I mean a (thankfully uncommon) member of the male gender who believes he is God's gift to everything in the known Universe. Such people tend to walk as if they expect the air to part before them in deference to their magnificence. This is a class of men I tend to dislike, so I automatically try to compensate by being extra pleasant and cutting a big margin for some benefit of the doubt.

This client is dragging - quite literally - his puppy in on a leash. The dog is petrified; on entering the clinic he immediately sits down on his haunches, frozen in terror, and has locked all legs, absolutely rigid with panic. Rather than coax, encourage or support the dog in any way so that he can learn to move forward and cope with his fears, he guy just pulls on the leash and skids the dog along the floor. This in itself isn't the worst thing I can think of - but it does mean two things: One, that the puppy - a 40# Rottweiler mix - has not been taught to walk on a leash. And Two, that the owner has little concern for the dog's state of mind. This is a 16 week old pup, so he should both trust the owner and know how to walk on a leash by now... and if he doesn't, dragging him around by the leash is not the way to teach him either thing.

The guy hoiks him onto the table for his last set of puppy shots. The pup cowers on the table, head ducked and limbs trembling, clearly afraid of me but just as clearly uncertain of the owner, from whom he appears to be unsure of his welcome. I try to reassure the puppy, petting and talking nice, as I mention (quite mildly) to the man that he might consider puppy classes for this dog; he's clearly afraid, and puppy classes will increase his confidence and make the rest of his life much easier and less frightening for him.

"Nope," says the owner decisively. "This dog just stays home. I'm not doing any classes with him. I did that with my last dog and he died."

My eyebrows go up sharply. "He died in puppy class?" I ask in some astonishment. Having been through three puppy classes with two different instructors, I cannot imagine any scenario where a dog might die in puppy class. Puppies are generally not physically or psychologically capable of killing each other, even if an instructor or owner would allow it, and because of the nature of the class - i.e., it's likely to be full of PUPPIES - the rooms are, quite naturally, puppy-proofed.

"No, he didn't die in puppy class, but I put $1400 of training into him and then he was out tied in my yard and some kids came into the yard and shot him," he says.

"I'm awfully sorry to hear that," I say, "but that didn't have anything to do with the classes. I'm not suggesting training that extensive in this case - just a basic class to help his confidence and give him the basics."

"Thanks for you interest, but this dog is just going to stay home," the owner repeats, dismissively. I look at the puppy, who is now leaning toward me, not the owner, for comfort.

"This is a nice puppy, but he's scared," I try again, thinking that concern for the dog's well-being may sway the owner. "Because of his breed, he may be at risk for fear-biting. If he does that he could be destroyed. Puppy classes might help us avoid that."

"If he bites anyone, I'll kill him myself," the owner says. "We're not doing any training. People pay too much attention to their dogs anyway."


I feel my eyes go slitty and hard. I hesitate for a moment, ire surging - what the hell else do we HAVE dogs for, if not to either use them for work or have them as companions - or both? In either scenario, you have to PAY ATTENTION TO THEM. Completely apart from which - but possibly more importantly - dogs are social animals. They REQUIRE interaction, and in the absence of other dogs they must get this from their owners. How cruel is it to deliberately choose to get an animal that requires attention, and then refuse to give it? This dog could have had another home, where someone might love him and bother to teach him some basic skills - but this man bought him, thus eliminating all the other options for the puppy, and then refuses to provide him the care he deserves. I suddenly wonder if the dog's lack of confidence is more due to his treatment at home than his inborn temperament.

This all flashes through my head in an instant. I give the owner a narrow look, but he is busy brushing imaginary lint off of his leather bomber jacket, now draped over his arm - although if this man is a pilot I'll eat my mouse pad. He's a narcissistic prettyboy, one of my least favorite kinds of people. I open my mouth to ask him why he even has this dog - and then I stop. There is no point. The man has no room in his world for anything but himself and his mirror, and any accoutrements that might up his image. I vaccinate the dog - all I can really do to help him is to prevent any miserable painful viral diseases from getting on board, and I am way too near to stabbing this jerk with a trochar (perhaps THAT would puncture his self-importance, but he might go flying around the room like a deflating balloon, and I really don't want to have to clean up after THAT). I try not to entertain any unflattering speculations about any - erm - personal deficiencies his preening might be compensating for, vaccinate the dog (with an apologetic head rub - I did try, little one) and get this GOMER out of my clinic.

Well, I admit I went back to the treatment area and vented a bit. I called him a gomer so many times that I finally had to explain to the bewildered nurses that it's a medical abbreviation of sorts - it stands for Get Out of My Emergency Room. They thought that was sort of funny, and it did restore my good humor to a degree. I had several good clients after that, including a favorite cat-owner, so about 10:00 I was in a pretty good mood. Which was when JB came back and told me there was someone outside wanting 4 vaccines, to be given in the car. There are two Rotts and two Rott mixes. And two of the four were "Caution" dogs, which means that at some time (perhaps many times) they have indicated a willingness to bite, and may or may not have been successful in this attempt.

Oh joy.

JB tells me the owner assures her that she will hold the dogs. Dr. P's eyebrows are practically airborne with skepticism. Fortunately the owner has brought her husband as well, so we have backup. Based on the jaundiced expression with which Dr. P greets this assertion, I gather he is not especially optimistic regarding the success of this plan.

While I am drawing up vaccine, Dr. P (who is prepping for a surgery and thus exempt from Caution Dog duty) says, "Tell them we have a sniper stationed on the roof of the clinic. If any of the dogs bite, the sniper will shoot... the owner."

I snerk a bit about that, gather my vaccines, and mentally gird up my loins for another round in the Vet-vs.-Vicious-Dog Smackdown Championships.

Outside I find that the owners have brought two vehicles with 2 dogs each in them. This is a dang good idea, since all four dogs are enormous. We start with the Rotts, both large, robust and seriously overweight bitches. They get the first one out, who begins growling at me the minute her feet hit the pavement. The two owners manage to twist and shove until I am presented with a large expanse of black hide as my target. I get the vaccine in, they wrestle the dog back into the car, and it's on to round two. The second bitch is wagging her tail happily as the owners squeeze her into position, but the minute I approach, needle drawn and at the ready, she gives a twist of astonishing agility (in view of her impressive girth) and lunges, snapping, at my face. I - no fool - have positioned myself so that a quick skip back is right in my repertoire, and I dodge neatly out of the way while the owners smack the dog and yell at her. She shows every evidence of contrition until I make my second pass, when she lunges upward in their restraining grip like a breaching whale, whipping her head from side to side and gnashing her teeth like a shark in a feeding frenzy. Spit is flying from her jaws and her formidable teeth are snicking shut with loud, sinister clicks.

"Maybe we should get a muzzle; you're going to get bitten," I tell the owners, backing off.

"No we won't; just do it," grunts the husband, corralling the dog again and hauling her head into his grip. His wife holds the collar in a death grip. I make a third pass and the bitch gives a mighty heave and twist, fast and lethal as a hunting alligator, and there is a sudden flurry and scuffle.

"What the fuck is WRONG with you?!?" the owner yells, clouting the dog across the head (now I know he's mad - he's just said "fuck" in front of a doctor). Suddenly there is human blood on the scene, and guess what? It isn't mine. Well, I did warn them, and they refused the muzzle, so my liability is covered. It only took 2 seconds, but the bitch's razoring teeth have nicked both owners. Now the man is mad. He sits on the SUV's tailgate, hauls the dog's front end into his lap, and gets a headlock on her. The wife grabs the rolls of fat in what is normally the scruff, and I make a quick squat-and-stab move, getting the vaccine on board and popping up like a Jack-in-the-box to get out of the way as the dog makes another nearly-successful gator-lunge at me - this time avoiding further bloodshed, fortunately. Ironically, this dog does NOT have a caution on her chart. And this is the very worst kind of Rottweiler, the kind that wags happily and smiles at you, but will lunge at you in deadly earnest at the slightest provocation - without even the warning of a lifted lip or a growl, and will keep at it over and over, despite the owner's correction. There's something creepily reptilian about this, despite the fact that the dog physically resembles a small, fat and extremely ill-tempered black bear.

After that the other two dogs - one of which was another caution dog - are sweetness and light. Both are males, both are trim, both are mixes, and both are vaccinated in a matter of seconds.

I go inside with A Look on my face.

"Uh oh... what happened?" asks JB.

"Well, two people got bitten, but neither of them was me," I tell her. "You might want to put a caution on Maggie's chart," I add. "She's the one who did the biting."

I stroll on back to Treatment to dispose of my syringes. "How'd it go?" asks Dr. P (now scrubbed in and about to enter surgery).

"Could've used that sniper," I reply. Dr. P (who has himself been bitten without provocation by at least one Rottie) bursts out laughing. But since I am not covered in blood, he goes off chuckling into surgery.

Y'know, when I went to vet school, they didn't say anything about wanting us to have skills that would make us eligible for guest spots on "The Crocodile Hunter". But maybe they should have.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Amazing Dr. B

Back in the day, I groomed racehorses for a living. This was an excellent job in many ways, not least of which being that I got paid decent money to be in fabulous shape. But I also learned my way around a wheelbarrow and developed a useful deftness at setting wraps on the highly valuable legs of my charges. I got so I could pitch manure accurately from the back of a stall into a wheelbarrow parked in the stall door, balance 7 bales of hay on a barrow and hop it over the sill of a barn door without dumping bales all over the shed row, pick out all four feet speedily and well without having to move from the left side of the horse, and any number of other useful things, such as how not to accidentally flip a rearing horse, how to carry two full five-gallon buckets of water rapidly down the barn aisle without spilling any, and (less usefully) how to comb pretty patterns into your horse's rump hair so she looks spiffy going to the post.

One of the useful things about being pretty handy with a pitchfork was that, during vet school, I made extra money mucking out the horse barns at the hospital. This was a different proposition in some ways than racehorse grooming - for one thing, there were a lot more stalls, and for another, there was no grooming involved. Moreover, mucking out happened in the afternoon and evening, rather than before the crack of dawn, and usually the horses were still in the stalls, rather than out breezing at the track. The pace was slower in that sense - I didn't have to get the stall mucked, the buckets hung, the next horse brushed and tacked, and the next stall started by the time the first horse came back from the track, steaming and blowing and needing a fast bath and a good cool-down. On the other hand, there were a lot more stalls to get through. Moreover, instead of pitching the stalls out into a wheelbarrow stationed in the doorway to the stall, the straw and manure had to be pitched over the top of the wall into a dumpster that was wheeled down the shed rows as we moved from stall to stall. It took a little while to develop speed and accuracy with this technique, but before long I found the rhythm of it.

This job lasted only during my junior year; in senior year there was really no time for that, as I often had rotations in the evening, or at night, or extremely early in the morning. However, I learned a little about the rhythm of medicine in the barn; we worked, of necessity, around senior vet students and clinicians doing treatments and taking in late cases. I, at least, got a sense of the clinicians; which ones were even-tempered, which were more fiery, which ones were so deeply intimidating that they scared the living crap out of the students.

Even though I tracked small animal - meaning I took the majority of my senior-year rotations in small animal medicine and surgery - I did do some equine rotations. This was always fun; equine ambulatory was like an all-day field trip, going from farm to farm, taking X-rays, stitching things up, drawing blood, treating colics, checking on delicate foals. I also did an equine anesthesia rotation (scary and exciting, but sometimes very sad), and an equine medicine rotation. This was run by Dr. B.

Dr. B amazed me at the very start of junior year. I was walking down the hall one day, minding my own business, and he happened to be ambling toward me down the hall. Dr. B looks like an old farm boy: Tall, loose-limbed but sturdy, grey hair buzzed down in a short crew cut, and possessed of twinkly grey eyes surrounded by lines earned through laughing and squinting into the sun, set in a square, good-natured face. All his visible skin was burned to a deep ruddy bronze, from the back of his neck to his broad, capable hands. He was of indeterminate age, but I assumed he was somewhere in his 50's at the time, and he looked - and was - entirely amiable. But on that day, his customary pleasant schoolboy grin was replaced for a moment with a frown of concentration. Seeing me (for the first time in my memory) from the end of the hall, he narrowed his eyes for a moment and then called me by name, startling me to a standstill.

"Did I get that right?" he asked.

"Well, yes," I said, wondering how. He merely smiled at me and continued on his way. It turns out that Dr. B took the trouble, every year, of memorising the faces and names of every member of each incoming junior class. He did this by means of our vet school student directory, which had microscopic thumbnail photos - in black and white - and our names and contact information, in case someone at the school (another student or a faculty member) should need to reach us. How he managed this without actually going blind from staring at the small, grainy pictures, I'm not exactly sure. Moreover, the pictures were taken on the first day of orientation Freshman year, and not changed throughout vet school to reflect different hairstyles, the acquisition of glasses or contact lenses, addition or subtraction of facial hair, or any other changes. In my own case, this gave me pause; a friend of mine pointed out - with more glee than strictly necessary, I assure you - that, me having worn a dark blue tank top that day, and having my long dark hair hanging over my shoulders covering up the shoulder straps of said tank top, it appeared in my photo that I might in fact be naked.

Oh, goody. JUST the impression I was hoping to make. Not.

At any rate, when I went on barn rotations in senior year, Dr. B turned out not to just be amazing at remembering faces and names. He was a good clinician, and a good teacher. He put students on the spot, sure; but he did it without criticizing or scaring them, and used the pressure to encourage learning and diligence. His manner around horses was always calm, direct and matter-of fact; I never saw him lose his temper with even the most fractious horse. This is a knack that not everyone has, and it's one I admired. He was also a cut-to-the-chase sort of person, making decisions and directing treatment with a minimum of fuss, and disinclined to take three steps where one step would do the job properly. To which end I one day saw him scoop up and carry, preacher's curl-style, a foal that had to weigh a hundred and fifty pounds or more. The foal's mobility was a problem, and rather than go twiddle about with a gurney - which foals are disinclined to view trustfully - he just scooped the horse up and carried him, without any evident strain, to a stall. No muss, no fuss. This was startling enough in its own right, but for some reason he'd removed both his clinic jacket and his shirt, doubtless due to inundation with some unsavory secretion. Dr. B had what we used to call a farmer's tan - one that ended at the limits of what would be covered by a T-shirt. That was no surprise, but it turned out that Dr. B's natural skin color was as fair and white as milk, a startling contrast to his otherwise red-brown hue. He looked like he'd been painted. While I was distracted by the blinding whiteness thus exposed, two (female) students behind me, likewise arrested, stopped and stared.

"Whoa, check out the arms on Dr. B," one of them said with marked approbation.

"Oh, yeah," said the other, and they giggled like schoolgirls with a crush on the football captain. I couldn't help thinking that it was a good thing Dr. B was out of earshot; he struck me as the type to be embarrassed by that kind of thing, and he was such a good-natured sort that you'd hate to see that happen, even if it was meant in a complimentary way. On the other hand, there was no faulting their observations. Dr. B was in shocking good form for a man half his age. Or his presumed age, since he had one of those kind of weather-beaten faces that seems always to be the same age, no matter what his actual years.

The other students regained their decorum completely by the time Dr. B returned (with a fresh clinic coat on), and we turned to our next case. This turned out to be a horse that needed to be hospitalised in the vet school's barn.

"Okay, we need to set up a stall," Dr. B told us, "which means you'll have to go get some straw - "

"I'll get it," I volunteered, well-acquainted as I was with the inner workings of the barn. Dr. B looked at me in surprise. "I know where the straw and the wheelbarrows are," I added by way of explanation.

"How do you know that?" he asked me.

"I used to muck out in the afternoons," I said.

"Oh, right," Dr. B said, his expression clearing. Then he frowned. "Now that you mention it, I remember seeing you at it. I wonder why I didn't recognize you from that?"

"Probably because I haven't got shit all over me," I said without thinking.

The entire rotation goggled at me. Dr. B's eyes popped open wide for a second. Suddenly he started laughing, but I couldn't help but notice that he was suddenly turning a dark beet red. Kind of like I am now, remembering it.

"Er... sorry," I added, abashed. Dr. B kept laughing for a long time as he walked back to the treatment area, but in a way that made me think I'd really rather embarrassed him. Not enough to keep him from finding it funny, mind you, but enough to make him lose his composure completely. I felt rather bad about that - it was impossible not to respect Dr. B for his skills and intelligence, nor to like him for his air of being an innocent, good-hearted farm boy, earnest and diligent and kind. He never tried to make anyone feel stupid, and if you were unprepared, you were more inclined to feel that you'd disappointed someone you wanted to please than you were to feel judged or scolded. It was a useful knack for a teacher to have, and probably made nearly every student work three times harder so as not to disappoint him. I would never in a million years have intentionally distressed Dr. B - so I can only hope that he's forgotten that incident entirely.

Wish I had.