Reaching Out, Making Connections

by Ada Norris

April 15, 2013

Read an excerpt from a recent blog written by Ada Norris, a veterinary student at Cornell University, about her experiences volunteering for the HSVMA-RAVS clinic at White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona.

Day 5

Momomo and Hatchi
Whiteriver community member, Momomo, waits with her animal family member, Hatchi, for a wellness appointment.
Michael Freifeld

One of our interesting cases for today wasn’t surgical or medical, and didn’t involve any diagnostic tests or expert physical palpation. A girl, her dad, and a Blue Merle Heeler cross. The dog presented with a history of losing an entire litter of puppies over the winter, and a more recent history of nipping at several kids.

Sitting on the stairs outside the front door for hours, she was the last appointment of the day. Dad was a pretty tough guy of few words with a half smirk and kind eyes. Momomo was a tough little girl who couldn’t stand still. Hatchi was our patient – a scared, tentative, and adorable one-year-old intact female Heeler cross. Over the next hour we learned a lot. Emily Aston, a second year vet student from Cornell, came over at the beginning of the appointment and gave the family a big bag of sample food, opening up the conversation about good nutrition and why their dog possibly lost her puppies. Emily went for it; she looked dad in the eye, opened a conversation, and offered up a couple things she thought might be true. Without judgment, she shared the thought that the relationship between dogs and people is a mutual one, and they owe us something and we owe them something and we can't expect one without the other. For our part, we might give them protection from the cold, enough food to eat, companionship, and structure. For their part, they need to respect the rules of the group, whether it's barking at strangers, not barking at strangers, playing gently with cats or children, or being a friend and companion. Not biting strange children would be part of that; older kids not kicking the dog is another. Emily left and I was sitting with Hatchi, giving her some love and measuring vital signs.

While my partner was recording our findings and drawing up de-wormer and distemper vaccines, Momomo opened one of the little bags of dog food and started offering kibble to Hatchi. She liked the kibble. A lot. She warmed up to me and let me handle her without flinching, and was visibly enjoying the treat game. I gave my stethoscope to Momomo who listened to her dog's heart with big eyes. And then we talked about how smart Heeler dogs are, and how nipping groups of people actually is something that might be their best approximation of work they have been bred to do. I asked her if we could think about giving her some work to do – starting with a few commands. For a few minutes Momomo and I started to capture a "sit" with a treat. I wished I had two more hours and a clicker because "M" was a natural; soaking up everything that was going on, even as she kept a protective aloof distance. She was gentle with the dog, and was clearly excited to have the job of offering her a treat right at the moment that we gave the two vaccine injections. Her timing was impeccable.

At the end of the appointment, dad and I talked about not giving up on the dog, giving her positive stimulation, and spaying her next time we come to town. He nodded with a non-committal "uh-huh." But I chose to interpret the uh-huh in its whole context. He put up with us going on and on for – seriously, waiting time included – many hours. He came to our clinic and sat on those stairs waiting for us, and then waited easily another long hour as we earnestly went through our exam and paperwork. He listened to Emily talk about the mutual benefit of the human animal bond. If he didn't care about this dog he wouldn't be here. I just asked him what he thought about Hatchi and if she could adapt to living peaceably in his family. Back and forth we agreed she was a good dog, I pointed out what good condition she was in even given what she'd been through. He agreed. We talked about how life on the "rez" can be rough for dogs – for everyone – and it mattered that he had helped her get this far. She didn't have any signs of systemic disease or viruses, no external parasites, and given a little time the dog let me pick her up and poke her all over, and sit and take treats gently from an 8 year old. We talked about feeding dog food instead of scraps. And for him to stage a few encounters between the dog and random kids so that the dog wouldn't feel like she was left in charge. We talked about making sure the older kids didn't taunt her. And we talked about how good his daughter is with the dog, and how to encourage that. I asked if we could take a picture of them and he agreed. I walked them a ways from the clinic and said we'd love to write up a little story about Momomo and Hatchi if that was okay with him. It was his turn to get a little wide-eyed. With a sideways look at his kid and their dog, he sort of smiled, looking a little proud. Nodding, "uh-huh."

Read Ada's full blog»

Ada Norris is a student at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, class of 2016.