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Being an advocate for your dog- the power of saying NO

Today, I had a brutal reminder about how my own discomfort needs to be put aside when it comes to my dog.

I had the brutal reminder that even well meaning, qualified professionals make hasty decisions.

I had the brutal reminder that dogs are dogs. They don’t speak English. They communicate with body language. And when that fails, with their teeth.

Background: Just after lockdown, I picked up my new puppy Toto, a Belgian Malinois. Like many covid puppies, Toto had very little exposure to people outside his breeders family, and new people worried him.

Totodile: A bitey boi

This didn’t worry me too much- but the it is something I actively worked on. Toto is going to be a large, powerful dog, and the breed is naturally aloof. I need to him to not be worried about new people. I don’t need (or expect) him to be happy to meet someone new (let’s face it- he’s not a Labrador), but I do need him to be neutral around people.

My socialisation looked like:

  • Lots of impartial exposure. Trips to increasingly busy places in his crate in the car, where he could watch the world go by while chewing on his bone, and receiving treats.

  • Giving him the choice to approach people in his own time. I don’t want him being ‘bribed’ to say hello to someone- that is; to slink up, take a treat and scurry away again.

  • Working around different people to learn that other humans in our presence just aren’t a big deal.

This afternoon I took Toto for his 3rd vaccination at the vets. And to be honest, it was very close to being a disaster.

We walked in, I checked in at the counter and I popped him on the scales (13.8kg at 13 weeks 😱). Unbeknown to me, a well meaning vet nurse approached us with a treat while we were doing this. Unfortunately, the scale was in the corner of the room, I was standing on one side (facing the wall), so when they approached us, they effectively boxed Toto in. His options were hugely limited by the fact that he couldn’t go anywhere, and they gave him a bit of a fright as he was concentrating on me while I was trying to get a weight. He tried to run, but was on leash, so ducked behind me and growled.

I realised what had happened, and asked the nurse to give him some space, and we could try again in the middle of the room.

A few mistakes I made here.

  • I should have been more aware of my surroundings, and caught the nurse before they approached.

  • Toto didn’t need to say hi to the nurse. They tried to pat him after giving him a treat, and he shot backwards like a bullet. I should have asked them to drop the treat on the floor if he chose to approach, and if he asked for attention, then they could pat him.

We then went to sit down. Another error- I sat in the back corner, thinking it would to give us space to watch the room.

Uh oh, I had boxed us in again. I dropped my wallet, spilling coins everywhere. While I was trying to pick these up, another well meaning nurse approached us (once again, blocking us in a corner)and I was only alerted by Toto’s growling.

  • I shouldn’t have chosen to sit there. A better choice would have been along a long wall, so we would have the option to move.

  • I should have been paying attention to my surroundings and my puppy.

  • If I had been, I would have seen the nurse and asked them not to approach, but I would drop the leash and they would be welcome to see if he wanted to say hi.

The vet then called us in. I hadn’t met this vet before, so I played tug with Toto while they went through the usual run down.

  • Looking back now, I wish I had chosen to just let him explore the exam room while we talked. Instead, his focus was solely on me, and he didn’t get the opportunity to take his surroundings in.

Then came time for the examination.

I asked Toto if he wanted to go ‘upsies’ (his cue for being picked up). He hesitated. I picked him up anyway.

  • Massive mistake. I just took away all of his options, after he very clearly told me he needed a bit more time.

The vet approached and put his hands on him. The inevitable happened- Toto growled, tried to spin and lunge at the vet. Very scary. Not a reaction I ever want to see from a puppy, let alone a Malinois. I was gutted.

  • This is the vets first interaction with Toto. He was on the table, I was still holding him and the vet approached him from the back.We should have given him time to realise he was on the table, and turn around to approach the vet. Last vet visit, that worked really well.

At this point, the vet wanted to continue with the physical examination. He managed to listen to his heart while I was feeding him from the front, before I can to my senses and asked him to stop.

  • I should have put him back on the ground , given him a minute to think things through, and then tried again.

  • But I didn’t. Why? I didn’t want to waste the vets time, it was late in the afternoon. I was embarrassed of Toto’s behaviour. And I thought he would get through it ok.

Onto the vaccinations- the vet wanted to muzzle Toto. I very firmly put my foot down here (finally) and explained if he wasn’t comfortable, I would be more than happy to come back another time, and I promised that I would have a good hold on him. As promised, he was fine to inject. I lightly scruffed him (which we have trained for with co-operative care) so all the vet had to do was stick the needle in. With a handful of possyum in his face, he didn’t even notice. Had he objected to being held at that point, I would have called it quits.

  • This could have played out very differently. Had we muzzled him, I would have turned a semi disastrous visit into something that would have potentially caused long lasting effects.

  • I have absolutely no qualms with muzzles- in fact, I am a huge fan. But not in this scenario. Muzzles are brilliant tools that enable us to handle dogs safely.This scenario wasn't urgent. If he had a broken leg and needed to be examined? Absolutely, muzzle up. This was just a routine visit and vaccination, it was not urgent. My preferred method is to muzzle train my dogs, so that if they need to wear them, their first experience isn't scary and stressful.

  • I have built up a relationship with Toto that if he says no, I need to respect that (within reason). To put a muzzle on him at 13 weeks to physically hold his mouth shut while a stranger scruffs him pokes him with a needle would have created and reinforced the idea that vets are terrifying, and you need to resort to extreme measures to get your feelings across.

So, we have the injections. I pop him down on the floor with a small treat scatter, and after that he happily trots over to the vet to sniff his pants.

This is what I should have done to start with!

This brings me to the conclusion, and why I decided to write this short essay.

Who was at fault here?

I place absolutely no blame on the vet, or their staff. The blame here lies squarely on my shoulders. I needed to be a better owner this afternoon, and I fell regrettably short.

What the staff did would have been fine for 90% of puppies, and wouldn’t have escalated into such a big issue. Could they have paid a bit more attention to what they were doing? Sure. But I should have advocated for Toto sooner. It should not have been up to them to recognise the subtle signs that he was uncomfortable.

Why did I write this?

Because I want you to be a better owner than what I was this afternoon. I felt pressured by the vet to put a muzzle on. I’m a dog trainer- if I felt pressured, what would it be like for the average owner?

It can be incredibly difficult to say no to a professional- but at the end of the day, sometimes you need to (politely). YOU know your dog best. Advocate for them. Recognise potential problems, and work on them. Ask for help, if needed.

Hopefully this leaves you with some food for thought. Feel free to ask any questions- I would love to offer any wisdom I can.!

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