By Terry Spencer, DVM
My son and I just re-watched The Wizard of Oz. And I admit, I still cry when Toto is in danger. But these days, I view those scenes through a different lens. When I was younger, I always felt disgust toward the cranky old neighbor who complained about a loose and menacing ankle-biter. Now I just think, really? What was Dorothy thinking not putting that little terrier on a leash? It isn’t Toto’s fault that Dorothy is an irresponsible pet owner. Why does Toto have to pay for her lapse? Perhaps I need a trip to the Wizard to ask for some tolerance.
Dogs don’t come with owner’s manuals. It is as difficult to raise a well-adjusted dog as it is to raise a well-adjusted child. The difference is the window of opportunity for socializing and training a dog isn’t as wide. Most of the opportunity lies between 6 weeks and 2 years of age before the dog goes through puberty. After that, you can still teach an old dog new tricks, but it is much easier if the dog already knows the basics. I urge early puppy socialization experiences. Research shows that children who attend Head Start or preschool do better as adults compared to those children who don’t get early socialization experiences. The same is true for puppies. Just think of how differently the fictional movie dog Old Yeller behaves compared to the one known as Marley. Both are yellow Labrador Retrievers. But, I would bet Old Yeller attended preschool everyday as a puppy. Marley skipped too many classes.
In my practice, I like to “start” puppies. It is fun to see them every three to four weeks for their wellness care visits. They grow quickly, and I like to hold them and smell their “puppy breath” as I work to keep them healthy with basic vaccinations, dewormings, and other preventive care. But I also take each opportunity to remind new puppy owners about socializing this new addition to their family. During those first sixteen weeks of life, I want puppies to experience everything they need to be comfortable with as mature dogs. I ask pet owners to go through a checklist of experiences: has the puppy experienced riding in the car; seen people in uniforms; had its ears, feet, mouth, tail, toes, touched daily; been left alone; been around other dogs and cats; heard loud noises; worn a collar and a leash; received a bath and grooming, waited for a food bowl; had a food bowl taken away while still eating; played with children; had its nails clipped; etc? And after sixteen weeks it is time for spaying or neutering and completing basic obedience classes. To me, all of this makes for a well-socialized pet and a responsible pet owner.
What does all of this have to do with veterinary medicine? I think it is one of the most important things I do. I believe in “holistic” veterinary medicine where I care for the health of the whole dog. This includes both behavioral and physical health. And I want pets that enter a home to bond to that home and stay homed for life. I have failed if a dog ends up given away, turned over to a shelter, or forgotten in the back yard.
You see, I have worked for many years in animal shelters. Most of the dogs surrendered to shelters are un-neutered, poorly trained animals less than three years old. The fate for most of these impounded dogs is euthanasia. I cannot tolerate that. So when I went to the Wizard and asked for more tolerance, this is what I received: a veterinary degree. The Wizard was wise.
Dr. Spencer practices at Bayonet Point Animal Clinic in Port Richey