(Not So) Expert Advice

Upon the advice from our rescue, A Positive Promise, we made an appointment for Kingston to see the vet on Friday. We wanted to get him up to date on the rest of his vaccines, double check some questionable swelling around his suture site, and discuss with them the options for anti-anxiety medications. Although I hadn’t yet been able to visit the new vet, Foster Dad had taken Kingston there for all of his pre- and post-surgical appointments, and had had positive things to say about the experience and the staff with whom they had interacted.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same when I went along on Friday night. The facility is a 24/7 emergency clinic, so maybe you can blame it on the fact that we were being treated by the overnight staff for the first time, or else were perhaps at the end of someone’s long day, but it was one frustration after another. We were rudely talked down to by the technicians (“I’ve never heard of medicating a dog for anxiety! Why can’t you just train him?” and “If he’s just a foster, the rescue group is not going to want to pay for any unnecessary vaccines like kennel cough or lymes.”)and doctor in more than one instance. Never one to be confrontational, most of their comments I could easily brush off, but the final blow came when the doctor came in to examine Kingston. She knew his history of abuse, as well as his lack of familiarity with veterinary offices until his traumatic and painful recent experiences. Instead of coming in slowly or quietly or even just normally, she came loudly into the room, cloaked in a heavy jacket, and hovered overtop of Kingston. Obviously uncomfortable, he still did not aggress toward her, but simply retreated into the corner near Jonathan and me, and emitted a low growl. Once he stopped growling, J reached over to pet him and to give him some reassurance. The doctor immediately started to belittle Jonathan, telling him in no uncertain terms that the dog needed to be punished for growling, or else we were reinforcing the behavior. UGH! I hope I don’t need to explain to our readers why her position was so wrong archaic, what with all of the new things we know about positive reinforcement and canine behavior. However, just in case, check out this infographic from the ingenious Grisha Stewart.


Certainly we would never want to reward Kingston, or any fearful dog, for being aggressive. However, once he had stopped growling, he had made a great choice in choosing to retreat from whatever was scaring him. Animals have two options when faced with a stressful situation; fight or flight. By choosing to leave the situation, he was making a choice that was blatantly NOT aggressive. Why should he be punished for such a behavior?

Throughout the appointment she continued to speak to us as though we knew nothing about animal behavior, training, or health (hello, I have an Animal Sciences degree thank-you-very-much, as well as a more thorough education in companion animal nutrition than you would have been required to take in veterinary school!)

Thankfully the doctor did eventually pull out some treats (hello, couldn’t this have been one of her first steps?!) and Kingston warmed up to her after a little while, but Jonathan and I were still so rattled. How disconcerting is it when the people we trust to be the ‘experts,’ are really lacking in the knowledge and understanding departments… and even worse, are completely oblivious to the fact that there might be other opinions out there?! I understand that a veterinarian’s job is never easy. Their days are filled with lots of sadness and despair, and I empathize that their occupation is not always a rewarding one. However, it was still so disappointing to feel as though this doctor was taking her frustrations out on us. Have you ever experienced a similar issue? If so, how did you react? What is your advice for us if we are ever again faced with a similar situation?

Poor, sad widdle pibble

Poor, sad widdle pibble

30 thoughts on “(Not So) Expert Advice

  1. I just read another blog post on something very similar – on Notes from a Dog Walker blog (http://notesfromadogwalker.com/2012/08/08/step-by-step-at-the-vet/). I am one of those people who expect good customer service (something that has seemed to all but disappear in most industries now days) – and reward it when I get it. We are SO lucky that our vet is amazing and follows the pooches’ cue when they can. I don’t know if the clinic has a general manager or a lead vet (other than the one you saw), but I would definitely write a letter/email detailing why you were so displeased – they definitely need to know that it is NOT okay. Jessica posted her letter in the post above if you need a starting point!

    I’m so sorry you guys had to deal with this, but thanks for sticking up for Kingston – he is so lucky (and deserving!) of a foster family like you guys. Good luck!!

  2. we have had such terrible experiences with vets in the past *sigh*. All of our rescues have been dog or people aggressive (we like to take on the tough cases, the “project dogs” so to speak). The worst experience I had with a vet though was not actually a vet, but a tech, who suggested we begin alpha roll our 10 week old puppy who was anxious from birth. I was appalled. I couldn’t believe that people of science would know so little about the science of learning theory. I don’t expect my vets to know everything about training, but if they’re giving out advice, I would expect it to be good advice, at the very least. I hear all the time people who have been told by their vet to rub their dog’s nose in their poo and other such nonsense. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to require vets to take a learning theory 101 class or something in vet school since so many people do come to their vet for training advice.

  3. The scary thing is it wasn’t until I got into reading pet blogs that I would even think to question the vets. I always assumed that they would all be clued up animal lovers, and I am not great at confrontation! I recently had a dressing down at the vets by a nurse, for when I took back my fear aggressive (much improved but constant work in progress) dog from her and the first thing I did was put on his muzzle. She made a snid comment about how they hadn’t needed it and I felt like a failure. He then reacted to a bouncy puppy coming through the door at the same time, half of me was pleased I knew this was a high stress situation for my dog and part of me felt like a failure as he had been fine with her!!

  4. My hubby, Boomer and I had a bad experience with a vet once and we immediately stopped going to that clinic. He told us that Boomer, at the time 6 months old, was acting too aggressive and that he should be put on meds. What’s odd is that Boomer has never in his life been aggressive and never did anything to the vet, he was just over excited that someone new was paying attention to him!

  5. The first vet we took Sadie to told me I had an aggressive breed of dog. Sadie was terrified, forced to put a muzzle on and hid behind my legs the entire time. We immediately switched vets and the first time we went to the new vet, the tech came out & taught me how to instruct strangers to approach my fearful dog, the vet was gentle & insisted upon skipping parts of the exam until Sadie felt more comfortable. Now the vet is one of Sadie’s favorite places but it wouldn’t have been that way without the high level of genuine caring & service we got.

  6. Ugh, that is my worst vet nightmare realized. Thankfully we have an incredibly compassionate vet who looks to make our Balton’s vet visits as painless as possible, but he had been seen by a vet before coming to us that offered him a terrible experience…which ultimately played a big factor in his getting returned…because the vet said he was so aggressive. Guess their loss is my gain?

    I think Dr. Yin’s book on low stress handling (referenced in the Notes from a Dog Walker post above) should be a requirement for all veterinary programs. If this is a partner vet of the rescue, you might want to make the rescue aware of the experience, should another foster with a fearful dog (or not fearful – vets are stressful and if they are exercising poor handling methods they can create fear!). Punishing a dog for showing fear language takes away their warning system, and that is such dangerous information for a veterinarian to be spouting off to patients.

    Although Kingston doesn’t seem like a reactive dog, we like to call ahead of time when we are bringing Balton into the vet, to make them aware he is fear reactive and ask that we get an early appointment, and provide them with as much info ahead of time that we can to figure out how to make the experience easier. We wait in the car until a room is ready for us, then head right in with our best treats and I start counter-conditioning the heck out of that vet visit. Vet rolls in, click and treat to no end. Letting vet staff know your dog is fearful ahead of time allows them to brace themselves for it, and a good vet staff will plan accordingly too. If our vet provided the experience you had, we would be out searching for another one immediately.

    It concerns me that people without your level of skill and knowledge are likely getting bad info from a vet with no real knowledge in animal behavior, which is very likely carrying over into their daily interactions with their dogs. You did right by Kingston, and it’s really great that you were there with him to see how wrong this vet was.

    • Thank you for the awesome advice and support! It’s nice to know we weren’t overreacting. I wasn’t expecting his reaction, but I think that next time we will be able to go in much more prepared. Thank you!

  7. We rescued a Great Dane mix, Cyrus, when he was a year old. When we got him home, we realized he’s REALLY reactive to other dogs on leash. We were terrified this 130 lb. dog was dog aggressive, so we immediately hired a trainer who helped us train him with positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, he’s very stubborn and so we we decided to take him to a very well-respected behaviorist who happened to be one of the vets in our vet office. We paid $500 for him to tell us that Cyrus is hopeless, dog-aggressive and will never be able to be around other dogs.
    Two months later, we rescued a dog off the street with the intention of fostering him and finding him a forever home. Not only did Cyrus get along really well with this new dog, they became best friends. Their personalities are worlds apart, so the foster helps Cyrus keep his calm when he starts getting worked up. Needless to say, we foster failed, and Cyrus and Bill get along perfectly to this day.
    We continue to foster and Cyrus and Bill are gracious hosts when we bring new dogs into our home. I want so badly to show that behaviorist how wrong he was about Cyrus. All he needed was a friend to help him learn! I used to blindly trust our vets, but after this experience, I know that sometimes I actually do know what’s better for my dog…

    • Oh my goodness! What an amazing story! Thank you for sharing, and for what you’ve done for your pups. If you read back through our blog, our former foster (fail) Georgia was dog-reactive. We were also told that she would never be safe around other dogs. However, she now lives peacefully and happily with our other two dogs, and is good around new dogs with slow introductions and careful management. I am a big believer in the fact that most dogs with behavior issues have a basis in fear, and once you show them that the fear is unnecessary, they will come around. Thank you again!

  8. Unfortunately, this problem isn’t exclusive to veterinary medicine. As a (fairly) young adult it’s hard for me to maintain my confidence when confronted by someone with so many letters behind his or her name, even when I KNOW I’m right. I’ve seen horrible consequences in human medicine from family members allowing themselves to be patronized and going with the flow, ignoring their gut feeling that something is terribly wrong. You really shouldn’t have to be on guard with caretakers, especially highly educated, very well paid caretakers, but sometimes it can mean the difference between life and death. I always try to remind myself that I am the one who cares the most about our dogs, so it’s my responsibility to stay (or become) informed and advocate like hell for them. I have to fight immunizations for our guy, Max, soon. He has a history of mast cell cancer and the risks outweigh the benefits in his case, but I’m expecting some push back… Good for you for posting this. So many people are so intimidated by medical professionals when, in a perfect world, healthcare would be more of a conversation than a mandate.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. In the past few years I have had more than my fair share of medical issues, and even more unfortunately, an unimaginable amount of negative experiences with healthcare professionals. I know how hard their jobs are, but I still don’t think that should be an excuse when they are in the healthCARE profession. Thanks for the support, as always, Jess. And thank you for standing up for what is best for your pups, even when you know it isn’t always easy or popular.

  9. I’m a bit pushy, but I think when the vet first walked in I would’ve pleasantly said something like, “Hi Dr. ____. We’re foster mom and foster dad. Pleased to meet you. This is our foster dog Kingston. He can sometimes take a few minutes to warm up to new people so if we could chat about his progress before you examine him it would be great. Kingston loves his treats and will warm up even quicker if you give him one.”

  10. They didn’t think a rescue would want to pay for a lyme vaccine in PA? The cost of treatment is more than the vaccine! I had a vet other than our regular one do my dog’s shots during grad school, a week after her wellness exam. When I declined to allow my dog to go under anesthesia for a dental cleaning, she actually wrote a note to my parents to be included on the check out paper. Seriously?? I’m sorry, her regular vet did not think she needed the cleaning and my incontinent hypothyroid arthritic allergy plagued 12-year-old dog with hip dysplasia and who I suspected had a touch of dementia was looking at bigger problems than the potential for a bacterial infection on her teeth. Rimadyl and glucosamine were keeping her happy at that time, and as I predicted, dental problems were not the problem that made her unhappy in the end.

  11. I would have asked what the term ‘Just a foster” means. I would hope that there are not tiers of dedication based on an animals family status. We are really blessed with a vet practice that is a partner in the life of our dogs. They cheer each of Melvin’s successes and they share in heartbreak when we’ve faced it. They accept that my dogs are not other-dog-friendly, no judgments. Clearly, not all vets are this way. Sorry you had to go through this but thankfully for Kingston, it was YOU there with him and not someone who would have allowed ‘professional mistreatment’.

  12. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard of vets giving out behavior advice based in dominance and, like you said, prehistoric ideologies. The thing to remember is that these doctors, while they might know a ton about medical issues (the stuff they studied in school!) they have generally not studied animal behavior in depth. It’s like getting advice about your dental needs from a general practitioner, not a dentist. On the surface it might feel like you should listen to them, especially if you don’t know any better, but it can actually be a pretty bad idea to do so. Good job for knowing when to tune out the doc!

  13. This is everything I hope to never be! Coming from the vet student side, I can definitely see where these veterinarians come from as even some of my classmates aren’t the type of people I had expected vet students to be.. the amount of closed minded individuals who do things their way, with brute force, and a lack of “animal sense” is astounding. I guess that is what makes it so rewarding when you actually find a good vet!

  14. How awful! I feel upset just thinking about being in that situation. I have felt like that too many times. It has been with both vets and trainers though. I don’t understand why anyone, no matter his or her job or expertise, decides it is okay to belittle or talk down to another human being. Being kind and polite would be so much more effective. I agree with Emily. I would absolutely not go back to that vet and advise the rescue to not utilize them anymore. I would also do what you have already done and share your poor experience. Hopefully you will save someone else that may not be as educated as you about animals from thinking she is right. It saddens me to think that the average joe puts his trust in a vet knowing the best course of action for his dog without researching on his own. Please don’t let that lady upset you. You did nothing wrong in the slightest. Please give Kingston a pat for me. I hope he has forgotten all about that awful lady! I hope your week goes better for you all!

  15. Aside from this just being unpleasant, it’s scary, too. How many people have been given this bad advice and assumed because the vet told them to do x for their dogs behavior then they must be right and unknowingly could be creating or worsening behavioral issues? And what are the odds that dog will one day find himself in need or rescuing because his owner has now caused, upon the seemingly good advice of his vet, issues he can no longer deal with. Like you said, vets do have a very tough job, but as a person of authority, they should be at the top of their game and not handing put bad advice!

    I think at the very least you should discuss all of this with your rescue. Maybe it was just an isolated event…but maybe it wasnt. You certainly don’t want to be sending other dogs in the rescues care there and risk further bad advice that the foster might not realize is bad. And keep sharing this because you are raising awareness about a serious issue!

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