Channeling the Dog Whisperer: Madame Cujo Goes to the Vet
My dog Shelby (affectionately known as Madame Cujo) has more than her fair share of unlovable traits. In addition to her fear-aggression issues, she’s also a barfer. I don’t do barf. As soon as someone in the house announces that they feel nauseous, I give them a bucket and tell them to not dare puke on the carpet. I can deal with poop, pee, bugs, and rodents, but I draw the line at barf.
It was bad enough that Shelby has always barfed about once a month since we’ve had her, but when she started barfing once a day, I knew that I had to take her to the veterinary office.
Before criticizing me for not taking her to the vet before now, you need to understand two things about Shelby. One, she is extremely aggressive toward strangers, and doubly so if those strangers happen to be at the local veterinary hospital. She is still pissed, it seems, from her puppy shots over a year and a half ago, and uses every opportunity to show her displeasure about this matter toward the veterinary staff. The last time she was at the vet’s (for vomiting, of course), she came this close to biting the vet and had to be muzzled. Visions of lawsuits danced in my head.
The other thing that you need to know about Shelby is that she eats EVERYTHING: leaves, sticks, rocks, Legos, yarn, dust bunnies (her favorite), paper, plastic, clumps of mud, spiders, beetles, pest control glue boards, tissues, tampons, and anything that the kids have dropped on the floor or she finds in the yard. Unfortunately for her, she has an extremely sensitive stomach, so she pretty much immediately throws up whatever she’s just eaten. (Yeah. She’s a prize.)
When I had her spayed, we had to orchestrate her arrival at the veterinary hospital 1) so that the fewest number of people were in the waiting room, 2) so that she could be sedated as soon as we arrived, and 3) so that her surgery could be performed right away before the sedation wore off. You can see how she is not the type of dog whom you can simply put in the car and take to the vet. It takes planning, patience, and nerves of steel, traits which I do not possess in any appreciable quantity. Add to that my paralyzing anxiety over the experience and All That Can Go Wrong, and you’ll understand my reluctance to take her there if I didn’t have to.
I made an appointment with my favorite vet, the only one who’s been able to see any sort of endearing quality in Shelby. It’s funny how so many people are quick to condemn you if you have an unlovable dog, as if it’s somehow your fault, yet they’re also equally quick to condemn you if you were to surrender said unlovable dog to a shelter. But I digress.
Dr. B. is a kind and compassionate vet, truly the sort of doctor that you envision as being the ideal practitioner: compassionate and kind toward her animal patients, respectful and friendly toward their human owners, with the added bonus of being extremely experienced and knowledgeable. She will spend as much time with you as you need so that you clearly understand what is going on with your pet as well as the proposed course of treatment. She is one in a million. That’s why I tolerate her one bad quality: she is always, always, always running behind in her appointments.
Knowing that Madame Cujo would be worked into an absolute lather if forced to spend more than 5 minutes in the waiting room, I called ahead to see if Dr. B. was running behind. It was 11:45. Our appointment was for 12:15 and I live 5 minutes away. I was told that Dr. B. was currently with a patient and there was one more for her to see before us. The woman at the vet’s office suggested that if I left home at 12:30, we should be able to prevent an excessive wait for Shelby.
We arrived at 12:35. The waiting room wasn’t too crowded. Good sign. There were some cats on the one side, so I took Shelby to the waiting room on the other side of the entrance. There was a small wall which I hoped would shield her view from people coming and going (it didn’t). She was on a leash and muzzled (don’t judge me – it was at the vet’s suggestion and I don’t want anyone to get bit).
As soon as we walked in, Shelby was already in full-blown psychotic behavior: growling at the staff behind the counter, barking (yes, apparently a schnauzer can still bark while muzzled), and lunging. She remembered this place and wasn’t going to go inside peacefully. I could tell that it was going to be a very long day.
The vet’s office is constructed with concrete walls and concrete floors so it’s easy to clean, but when you have a shrill, barking, psychotic schnauzer in there, it feels as if your ears are going to bleed from the noise. The concrete serves as an amplifier. Needless to say, Shelby and I are not exactly popular when we go to the vet’s and this time was no different. People were tsk-tsking and staring disapprovingly at me and my crazy unlovable dog. I could feel my face burning from the embarrassment. I wanted to die.
Here’s where the Dog Whisperer comes in. Two things I learned from watching his show are that you need to get control of the situation with a difficult dog before it escalates into something completely unmanageable, and only calm, submissive behavior should be rewarded. Shelby was already nervous but I knew that it could get much worse. I needed to regain control NOW.
As if Cesar Millan himself were giving me instructions, I had a plan. I stood up in front of her to block her view of the people in the room. I gave a quick tug on the leash to get her attention. Once she looked at my face, I commanded, “sit!” Surprisingly, she sat. She was still worried about the people in the room, though, and tried to look around my legs. “Ack!” I jerked the leash slightly again and disrupted her concern. She looked at me directly in the face and remained seated. After a moment or two, her posture began to relax, all the while keeping her eyes on my face. Amazing! I told her she was a good girl and pet her.
A man and a large, lumbering dog walked in and she started to go ballistic again. Take charge, Lisa. Be the "Pahck LEA-der"! I did the same thing: stood up, blocked her view, gained her attention, told her to sit, and praised her when she relaxed. It worked!
I had to repeat this procedure probably 80 or 90 times during the (no lie) 45 minutes that we waited but Shelby never reached that psychotic state that she’d been in when we first arrived.
When we were finally called into the exam room, I expected that Shelby would lunge and growl at the vet tech who escorted us into the room, but she didn’t. One obstacle down. Still, I knew she’d be a handful when the vet arrived.
I considered what I was going to do so that I would have a plan in place. I decided to do what worked in the waiting room. When Dr. B. came in, I immediately stood up in front of Shelby, tugged the leash, and had her sit. I instructed Dr. B to please ignore Shelby and talk with me first before examining her. When Dr. B., who is very aware of Shelby’s issues, saw her sitting perfectly and not even barking, she said, “I am so proud of you! In fact, I’ve never been more proud of any of my patients than I am of you right now.”
Dr. B. kept her distance while we discussed Shelby’s barfing problem. Because I wanted to make the most of this visit and not subject Shelby to unnecessary painful tests, I kept careful records of her diet, when she threw up, what it looked like, and whether it involved retching or no retching (Shelby had recently started vomiting without retching, also called regurgitation.) Dr. B. and I had a relaxed discussion and developed a plan for Shelby’s treatment. Shelby, unbelievably, lay down by my feet, fully relaxed, while we talked. I pet her to reward her calmness.
We needed x-rays and blood work. Dr. B. tried to coax Shelby to follow her on the leash but Shelby started to panic and tried to pull away. Clearly that wasn’t go to work, so Dr. B., in her most pet-friendly, sing-song voice, talked to Shelby while gently picking her up. Shelby struggled a bit, but Dr. B. was able to take her out of the exam room and into the back for her tests. Oh my gosh. My dog is almost behaving normally!
Dr. B. brought her back in the room after the blood draw and the x-rays. Shelby was very happy to see me and nearly leapt out of Dr. B’s arms. Dr. B. told me that I could take her muzzle off since the touching part was over. Dogs with fear aggression cannot bear to be touched by strangers. I expected that Shelby would start barking and growling, but she didn’t. A miracle! I think I need to send flowers to Cesar Millan. Or maybe a Mercedes.
Shelby will always be difficult and she will likely never be friendly toward strangers, but I proved to myself that I can manage her. Who knows? After a lifetime of this type of training, maybe she will learn to manage herself too.
Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a margarita with my name on it.
UPDATE: Dr. B. just called. Shelby's lab work was "perfect". No signs of pancreatitis or the half dozen other big-deal reasons why she might be getting sick. That leaves parasites and food allergies. She told me to continue with the wormer (I'll finish up the second round of doses on Christmas Day - what a Christmas present!) and then if she gets sick at all after that, we'll try the hypoallergic prescription dog food.
Finally something about Shelby that is perfect - her blood work!