E277: Dr. Jennifer Summerfield - Vet Medicine Today

In this episode I chat with Jennifer Summerfield, DVM, about what it's like to be a general practice vet right now and how you can do your best for your dog despite long appointment wait times. We also chat about her upcoming webinar on emergencies on the go and her class on behavior disorders! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Dr. Jennifer Summerfield here with me. Dr. Jen has a webinar coming up on how to handle veterinary emergencies on the road, and then in December is running her class at FDSA on how to tell if dog behavior is normal or abnormal. More on that in a minute.

Hi Jen, and welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Hello. I am very excited to be here.

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to have you. To start us out, do you want to just remind listeners who you are, and share a little bit about your current pets and what you're working on with them?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Sure. I am a veterinarian in full-time general practice, but I have a pretty heavy emphasis on behavior problems in my practice. That's an area of special interest for me, so I do spend a lot of my time seeing dogs with significant behavior issues. Today that's actually all I did. I was out on the road seeing a day of house call behavior consults, which was pretty cool. I get to do a lot of that as part of my job. But I also do general practitioner veterinarian stuff in the clinic as well. I'm also a professional dog trainer, so I have taught puppy kindergarten classes and basic obedience classes for pet dog owners, as well as doing some coaching for people getting started in dog sports in my area, mostly agility and obedience and rally, things like that.

As far as my current pets, I'm down to two dogs in my household. I lost my youngest dog a couple of months ago now, I guess, to a nasal tumor, which was really a bummer. The two dogs I have now, my oldest is Remy, who is 14-and-a-half years old, so he is not doing a whole lot of dog sports at the moment. He's retired. He doesn't hear really anymore, he doesn't see super-well, but he's very happy. He putters around the house and he is mostly working on holding down the couch these days. He's very good at that. He really likes his dinner still. So he's a little old man puttering around.

My other dog is Gatsby. He'll be 9 years old in November, and he has done mostly agility. The last couple of years we haven't done a lot with Covid, and work has been kind of crazy with Covid, so I'm hoping that we're actually going to be able to get back into doing some agility trials maybe this winter. He doesn't crate terribly well in buildings with other dogs, so we try to keep most of our competition in the cold weather, where he can crate out of the car. So we're looking at maybe getting to go to some trials again come November or December.

He has his Agility Excellent titles, jumpers and standard, I believe, if I remember correctly. He actually has some MACH points, which astounded me when that happened. He's the one that I'm competing with at the moment, so nothing super-heavy-duty.

And then I have also a cat named Bernadette and a Ball Python named Lizzy who don't do any competition stuff either, but they are both good companions.

Melissa Breau: You don't want to do agility with the Ball Python?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: She's not that fast, which is the problem. I've talked to her about it and she was like, "Oh, I don't know about that." She mostly likes to just lay in the sun.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I would mostly like to lay in the sun if that was option in my life too. I know you mentioned it in there, but as a working vet, I'm sure you know better than any of us how hard it can be right now to get an appointment or to get a pet seen quickly for anything other than the most extreme emergency. Can you share a little bit about what the current state of the vet world looks like?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: That's a great question. I'm glad you asked, because it's good to have a chance to get some information about that out to dog owners as much as we can. Probably everybody who has a dog and who's trying to get in to see the vet any time in the last year or two is aware that the situation is not great on our side. Things are just crazy, crazy, crazy busy.

Where we are, I don't think our area has been hit quite as hard as some of the others. I think it varies a little bit regionally. But even here, for example, our local E.R. that's open typically nights and weekends for people, when general practitioners in the area are not, was closed to intake overnight Saturday and Sunday night over the holiday weekend because they didn't have adequate staffing. So people in our area would have had to drive to wherever the next closest place is that was open and hope that they're taking patients, and maybe they are and maybe they're not. That's how it's been.

As far as speaking to my local area, I can tell you it can still be very hard for people to get an appointment around here. There are still a lot of clinics who aren't taking new patients at all, so if you're not already an established client, they just say, "We can't even schedule you out several weeks or whatever. We're just not taking new clients." And if you can find somebody who can see you, you may need to schedule several weeks out, if it's something that's not super-urgent.

If it is something that's super-urgent, it's a little hit or miss. Trying to get in for same day urgent care can be really hard also. That may or may not happen, depending on what your practice is able to do. At our clinic, certainly we try our very, very best to get people in, whether they're our clients or not our clients, if it sounds like it's something that really needs seen. But it's hard, because the problem is that no matter how much we want to help and we're like, "Yes, that sounds like it should be seen, and we want to see you," there's only so much time in the day, and there's only so many veterinarians and staff members available at every clinic to provide care, and there does come a point where we can't. There's no space and we can't. So it's very hard.

I am in a few Facebook groups for veterinarians, which has been enlightening with all this, too, because it's interesting to see what colleagues are saying about what's happening where they are. And it does very much seem to be a nationwide problem. I know lots of people were saying over the holiday weekend about the status of emergency clinics in their area.

In a lot of places we're seeing major, big-name emergency hospitals and referral centers that are closed to intake for twelve hours at a time or whatever, because they're so overrun with cases that they can't take anymore and/or they're so understaffed they can't take care of their hospitalized patients and see patients coming in. And it takes a really long time if you need to get in to see a specialist or something like that right now. Be prepared that that's going to be several weeks or so, most likely.

So yeah, it's been something. This is not been something I have seen. I've been practicing about ten years and I have never seen it like this.

Melissa Breau: What's contributing to that? What led to this crunch?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: That's the $64,000 question. That's the saying. I think the AVMA is trying to look into that because it's not totally clear. We think that probably what happened, it looks like, is a lot of people adopted pets during Covid, especially there in the beginning in 2020, when so many people were working from home or furloughed or whatever. There was this big influx of people getting new puppies or adopting new pets, so a lot of new animals came flooding into the existing system, where we still have the same number of clinics and veterinarians and staff that we had before. We think that's been a lot of it.

We also have a really significant problem with turnover in our field, which has been a problem for a while, but it hasn't been crazy like this, for whatever reason. So it's probably both. But the percentage rate we have every year of both veterinarians and veterinary staff of people who leave — not just leaving the clinic that they're at to find another job, but who leave clinical practice or leave the field altogether — is quite high. It's twice what it is for human medical doctors and a lot higher than it is for a lot of other comparable professions. That seems to be part of the problem also. The fact that things have been so crazy has exacerbated that, because people are getting burned out and wanting out at higher rates than before, which is hard.

So it seems to be both. We're overrun with animals that need to be seen, but also it's a staffing issue. Sometimes that's why some of the E.R.'s have to close to intake. Sometimes it is the volume of cases, but sometimes it's more that they have one doctor and one technician, and they're like, "We have sixteen hospitalized patients. We have two humans at this. We can't do it."

So partly it's a staffing issue, at times where they just can't get enough technicians, or they can't get enough doctors, or both, to be able to take care of hospitalized patients and also see cases coming in. That has a lot to do probably with quality of life in the profession and the fact that it doesn't pay very well, and that's been a problem for a long time. But I think maybe the whole Covid situation has exacerbated that. It's a vicious cycle at this point, so we're hanging in there as best we can.

Melissa Breau: Are there any solutions on the horizon or anything that suggests things are going to get better, or should we all be trying to adapt?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Unfortunately, I would say the short answer to that is no. I would not expect to see any dramatic solutions on the horizon for that. That's definitely a big topic of conversation in a lot of the vet groups that I'm in, and certainly the AVMA is looking at it, but it's not really the type of thing that lends itself to a quick fix so much.

We know that the pet population is what it is, and short of that same number of people all deciding to get rid of their pets all at once, which isn't an outcome probably that we want either, that's not probably going to reverse itself. And I would say we have some deep-seated problems in the profession that really need to get addressed in terms of the pay and the hours and the quality of life for people in the field. It's a hard job. Every job, I'm sure, is hard in its own ways, but this one can be awfully stressful at times, and I don't know that there are quick fixes for that either. I don't know. Certainly some of the vet schools and things have been trying to expand class sizes to the extent that they can to try and help with getting some more veterinarians graduated and out there. But of course it'll be four years before anybody entering vet school is graduating anyway, and a bunch of new grads in the system doesn't necessarily lighten the load all that much because it takes time for people straight out of school to get up to speed to the point that they can really jump in there and be as helpful in dealing with cases as somebody who's been out for a few years. That's just part of how it goes.

I would say people are trying, hopefully, at the national level, to see what else we can do about this, but I don't see any quick fixes on the horizon. I don't see any reason to think that this is going to be dramatically different in a few months' time or even a year's time.

I will say it seems like it's at least a little bit better in my area, in that the last few months or so we've had days occasionally where we weren't actually double- and triple-booked all day, and we were like, "Wow, what happened? That's so weird." We've had a few days here and there where it's like, "We have 20 minutes we can sit down and eat lunch. Oh my God." That hadn't happened in, like, two years. But it does seem like at least there are days now that feel a little bit more like the normal level of busy that we used to have back before 2020, and not so much like the crazy perfect storm of everything that we've all just been swimming and trying to keep our heads above water since then.

So hopefully, I think, maybe it's settling out a little bit. But I think probably what's going to happen is it's going to settle out somewhere between how absolutely crazy it was at the peak of the pandemic, but worse than what it used to be when it was just a normal level of busy, and that's probably about where we're going to sit for the foreseeable future. That's definitely something to be aware of if you have pets, that that's the state of things in the veterinary field right now. So definitely make appointments way ahead of time for things that you know are going to need to be seen, and be prepared that you may have to be creative trying to get your pets in to be seen somewhere if it's something urgent, unfortunately.

Melissa Breau: It seems like one of the little things that people can do is, maybe for themselves, look at a situation, and if it's not actually an important thing, like you said, schedule it really far out or whatever. Do you have any tips on how listeners can determine if something is serious enough that they should try and scramble for one of those emergency appointments, or if it's something that maybe should be seen but isn't a rush, and they can wait on it or just deal with it at home?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, totally. I think that is a good point. I think the more that people can be comfortable making that call as best they can, which is hard because they're not professionals. They're pet owners. That's supposed to be what we're here for, but we're overrun, so it's hard.

But for sure I know particularly E.R.'s, a lot of the E.R. vets in the Facebook groups and things I'm on, have said the one thing they really wish is that we could get pet owners to be more comfortable or more willing, with things like ear infections or skin issues or things like that, to keep those things out of the E.R. I know it's super-frustrating if you're like, "My dog's got an ear infection and my vet can't see them for a week or two weeks," or whatever. Yeah, that sucks. I agree. It really does.

But at the same time, taking the skin dog or the ear infection dog into the E.R. is really compounding problems that the E.R. is having when that's something that's definitely not life threatening, definitely not critical, when we have animals that are dying in the parking lot waiting to be triaged because there's not enough people triaging them. If you can, if it's something that's not an actual life-threatening emergency, better to really try hard to keep that out of the E.R.

But as far as things, I can definitely try to break down what I can. Obviously, every case is different, so it's hard to give hard and fast rules that are going to apply to every possible situation. But we can definitely talk in general terms about stuff that needs to go to the E.R., versus stuff that should be seen by your regular vet but isn't an emergency, versus stuff that maybe you can just manage at home.

In terms of things that should go to the E.R., usually my rules of thumb for that are if your animal is acting really lethargic, not eating, if they're having repeated episodes of vomiting, or if they're acting really painful, especially if those things seem like they came on pretty suddenly and they're pretty dramatic, those would be things that probably should go to the E.R. because it might turn out to be something not super-serious or life threatening, but it could be, based on those symptoms. So better safe than sorry.

Things like maybe not eating as much as normal, or, well, we vomited once or twice, but otherwise we're acting fine, those things you may be okay to watch and wait, see if you can get a regular appointment with your vet sometime in the next day or two. I know sometimes that's easier said than done, but you can at least try. Call in and see what they say. But if we're talking about not eating anything at all, even their very favorite treats that they always eat, if they've had multiple episodes of vomiting in a 24-hour period, or if they're acting really super-down-and-out lethargic, then they probably should go to the E.R.

Things that need a vet appointment but would be not an emergency generally would be things like skin problems, itching, hair loss, redness, all the allergy stuff that we tend to see this time of year, ear infections, wounds that are not actively pouring blood but may need antibiotics, maybe stitches, things like that, limping, diarrhea, urinary issues, those kinds of things. For the most part, those are things that would be okay to wait and see your regular vet, even if it may be a day or two or sometimes longer, unfortunately, before you can get an appointment.

With things like that, if your vet can't see you right away, it never hurts to ask them if there's something you could get or do for them in the meantime. A lot of times, if you are a regular client of theirs and they've seen the animal relatively recently, even if it wasn't for that problem, they may be able to at least get you something that you could have in the meantime. They could get you some kind of pain medication for a few days, if your dog's limping, or maybe if it's having a UTI problem, they might let you just run in a urine sample or something and let them look at it and get you some antibiotics, if it's a urinary tract infection.

You can ask them at least if there are any options to get your animal some relief while you're waiting for the appointment, and a lot of times your vet may be able to work with you a little bit there. We certainly don't want your animal to be uncomfortable or painful or driving themselves crazy with itching for days and days either. We're also frustrated that we can't see them that day if we want to. So sometimes there are solutions there that you can come up with if you ask.

But that's for sure where having a good relationship with a regular vet that you see frequently is going to help a ton, because pretty much guaranteed if you're calling a clinic that you've never been, they're not going to be able to do anything like that for you because they've never seen your animal. They don't know you. You're going to get a lot more leeway with stuff like that if you already have an existing relationship with your vet and they know your animal.

As far as things that you could manage at home, that's always a tough one because unless it's something that's really minor, it's always best to at least have your vet take a look at what's going on to see if what you think is going on is actually what's going on and whether anything needs done.

One thing I would say is that if your dog has any kind of a recurring problem, like if you know your dog gets ear infections, or you know your dog has skin allergies that flare up sometimes, or your dog has some kind of orthopedic issue and sometimes they're lame because of that, you could certainly ask your vet if they would be comfortable giving you some meds to keep on hand at home for as needed use for those issues, like, "We know my dog gets ear infections every few months. Would it be possible for me to just keep some ear drops on hand at home, so that if he gets one, I don't have to come in and take up an appointment slot," and all that.

Obviously, in a perfect world, it would be really nice to have it seen every time and make sure there's not something new going on. Right now, we're all just in triage mode. So that's certainly something you could ask about. That is going to be up to your vet and what their comfort level is, and a lot of it is probably going to have to do with the specifics of the case. There might be cases where they'd be okay with that and cases where they wouldn't, so they may say yes or they may not. But it doesn't hurt to ask, because that's at least a possible option that may help you try to keep from having to take your animal into the vet for something that it's had before and is a recurrence of the same problem. So that's a thought.

There definitely are some things, like mild lameness issues or diarrhea or things like that, that may resolve on their own at home within a few days without any intervention at all. So as hard as it is right now to get in at a lot of places, I would probably still encourage you to go ahead and call and try to make an appointment when you first notice the issue, because it's very likely that you may need to wait a few days before they can get you in anyhow. That way, at least you're on the books. If it gets better on its own before then, and two or three days later you're like, "Oh, never mind, it's fixed," then you can always call and cancel it. But it's better to go ahead and have the appointment on the books than it is to go, "Oh, now it's been going on for three or four days and it's worse, and now I really do need an appointment," but it's going to be a little while before they can get you in. So probably calling for the appointment sooner rather than later, and then waiting to see what happens, is going to be better. Just do remember to call and cancel if you're not going to come, because as swamped as we all are right now, it's really helpful to know if somebody is not going to come to their appointment, so we can offer it to somebody else.

The other thing I would say just on that topic is if you do end up needing to take your animal into an emergency hospital, be prepared for a long wait, potentially. It's going to depend on the specifics of what's going on at that clinic at that time, but I can tell you that in a lot of places, having to wait six to eight hours or so is not uncommon currently at veterinary E.R.'s. So just be aware going in, bring a book, very likely you're going to have quite a long wait. They will get you in as quickly as they can, but that's just the reality of it. There may very well be one doctor in there dealing with all the things that are coming in. So be polite to the front desk staff, bring a book, be prepared to wait.

Also best to call ahead and make sure that they can see you, since again there are some clinics who are having to close to intake for periods of time because either they're completely full and they have no more cages, or they don't have enough doctors or staff to be able to see more patients, or for whatever the reason. There are times when you may have to drive a few hours to get to the closest emergency center that's actually open and seeing patients, if your local one is swamped and not taking patients at that moment. So again, just be prepared for that possibility. Be aware of maybe where not only the closest emergency clinic is to you, but maybe the next closest and the next closest as well, just in case you have to go down the list.

And do keep in mind also that emergency clinics operate on a triage system, just like human E.R.'s do, so the most serious problems are going to be seen first. Usually we try to remind people that if you have to wait, that's actually a good thing, because it means that your pet is not as sick as the ones that they're currently working on. It's not as sick as the hit by a car that just got rushed in, and that kind of thing. So if you're having to wait, it's frustrating, but at least it means your pet is stable and not as bad off as the ones in line ahead of you. So try to be patient, read your book, please be nice to your vet staff. They're under a tremendous amount of stress right now, and that will help everything go as smoothly as it can go in these crazy days of Covid.

Melissa Breau: Oh, man.

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Sorry. It's very good questions.

Melissa Breau: No, nothing to be sorry for. You're just dealing with a lot these days.

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah, it's a whole thing.

Melissa Breau: Thinking through that a little bit more, and the piece of dealing with what we can deal with at home, safely and reasonably, are there supplies people should keep on hand, or take along when they're traveling, so that they have those things available in case a more minor emergency pops up, or even a more extreme emergency, but so they can start to do something while they're waiting?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: I would say good things to have on hand, certainly if you're traveling with your dog but also at home, just for whatever, would be good to have stuff on hand to be able to do a bland diet if you need to. At home, if you have some plain chicken breast, boiled chicken, rice, that kind of thing is usually what we tell people to give, if your dog has an upset stomach for some reason. If you're traveling, you may be able to take canned chicken and readymade rice or something like that with you that keeps for a long time. That's good to have on hand for your basic diarrhea or your mild vomiting kind of stuff that you're like, "This doesn't seem terrible, but it's not great. Let's see if we do the bland diet and it gets better."

I would say having some type of wrap or bandage material like gauze or vet wrap, that kind of thing, just in case you have some sort of injury that you would need to wrap temporarily until you can get in to see the vet. Good to have something like Neosporin, some kind of topical antibiotic, for minor wounds. Benadryl is good to have on hand in case of bee stings or minor allergy-type issues. Never hurts to have a muzzle, in case you have a dog that is injured and painful for some reason that you're having to pick up or try to handle their injured body part and they may not like that, which is totally reasonable. So having that on hand is good.

A quick-start powder, probably good to have that stuff that you put on if you're trimming toenails and you get the nail too short, just because that way, if your dog breaks a toenail or something like that, or you could even use it on little minor wounds in other places in a pinch, like ears or faces or things like that. I would say nail trimmers. Good to have, again, in case of some kind of nail issue that needs to be trimmed back. Thermometer and lube, so that you can take their temperature if you need to.

If you have a long-haired dog, I would say probably good to have scissors or clippers on hand, just in case something gets stuck in their hair, whether they roll in gum or whether they have a poop situation that you have to fix under their tail. Been there, done that, because I have Shelties. Never fails that that happens while you're at the agility trial, like, "Oh no."

And of course if you know that your dog has any chronic or recurring issues, especially if they tend to be related to travel, if we're talking about travel stuff, like stress diarrhea or motion sickness or things like that, then you could certainly ask your vet again about having meds on hand for that particular problem that you could give if needed, if they're comfortable with that.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. That's sort of the topic of the webinar a little bit. Can you share a little more just on what the webinar will be about, what you'll cover?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Definitely. It is good timing, I would say, for this webinar, just with the current state of veterinary medicine being what it is. The webinar is targeted specifically to people who are traveling with their dogs for weekend trips, and things like that, and may encounter minor medical issues or emergencies when they're out of town and may not have access to their regular vet, or maybe not any vet at all, super-close by.

The reason that we did that originally, or thought that would be a good topic, is that dog sports people take weekend trips all the time. Lots and lots of us that go out of town for the weekend for agility or rally or conformation or nosework or whatever trials you're doing, or seminars, things like that. So that was our starting point for putting together this webinar. It was just thinking about what kinds of things would be useful for you to know if you're staying at a motel somewhere out of town with your dog for an agility trial or something similar and they get sick or they get hurt. What do you do? How can you be prepared for that?

But, honestly, a whole lot of the information that I'm going to go over in that webinar is going to be useful to anybody who would like to know more about deciding whether your dog needs to see the vet or not for this problem, or how can you manage basic first aid stuff on your own, either until you can get to the vet or, if it's pretty minor, instead of going to the vet, just depending. What kind of stuff to pack in your dog's travel kit if you're going out of town. We do also talk about emergency first aid procedures like CPR and what to do if your dog is choking, which obviously we hope that you'll never need, but definitely some peace of mind in knowing that at least you have some idea of what to do if something ever did happen.

So I would say that even though it's targeted and geared a little bit towards traveling with your dog, a lot of it is going to be pretty applicable to anybody who just would like to know more about that stuff, even if you're not traveling.

Melissa Breau: I also mentioned your class coming up in the intro. You've got your class, Normal or Not: Common Behavioral Disorders, back on the schedule for December, so I want to talk about that a little bit. If somebody has a dog who does some odd things, let's say, what are some indications that it might be more than just a quirk and might mean that there's actually an underlying behavioral disorder?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: That's a really good question, because lots of dogs have quirks or do weird things. Again, I have Shelties, so I get it. Just like us — a lot of us may have our own little quirks and things too, and that doesn't necessarily mean there's anything wrong with us. It's just the way it is.

So just the fact that this thing that my dog does isn't necessarily "normal" or common doesn't necessarily mean that it's a problem. A lot of how we look at that comes down to, is this something that the dog just does occasionally or is it happening a whole lot? Does it seem like they're enjoying it? Do they seem happy when they're doing it, or do they seem like they don't know how to stop? What does their body language look like? Are they relaxed and having a good time, or do they seem like they're upset? We also look at is it causing problems for the other pets or the humans in the household or not. So those are some of the things that we think about.

Obviously, some of that can be pretty subjective, and a lot of it is going to depend on the specifics of the situation. But at least those types of questions give us a starting point when we're trying to look at a particular behavior case and say, "This thing my dog does — is this concerning, or is it probably not a big deal?"

Melissa Breau: Do all actual behavior disorders require intervention? How can you tell what might actually benefit from a treatment?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Honestly, the main thing we look at is whether the behavior we're talking about is causing a problem or not for the dog or for anybody else. Is it interfering with the dog's ability to function normally and do normal things, or is it impacting their quality of life?

For example, if you have a dog who, let's say, chases his tail sometimes when he gets excited. Not super uncommon. We definitely see that sometimes. If it's pretty occasional and he just does it when he's real excited, that may be a funny little quirk. That's like, yeah, he does that. He chases his tail and grabs it when he gets excited. No big deal. May not need any treatment at all.

But if that escalates to the point where he's doing it all the time, like, he doesn't want to play, I can't get his attention to chase his ball, or he doesn't want to get petted as much, or he doesn't want to sniff things on his walk because he's too busy chasing his tail, if he can't do normal dog things, or if he can't settle very easily because he's too busy doing the thing that you're worried about, then that's more of a behavioral disorder that we would say needs treatment at that point because the dog probably isn't very happy like that. They probably would prefer to be doing other things with their time if they could, if they understood how to do that. And there's a good chance, with something like that, that the humans in the household are not very happy either. So we're trying to help both of those things.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk us through an example, or what kind of disorders you maybe see most often?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: I can definitely give you a recent example of that kind of issue that we were just talking about. I had a client that I've done a few remote sessions with. I forget where she is, actually, I think somewhere out west maybe, but she has a little Sheltie named Piper, and her dog's very cute. She originally got in touch with me because she was like, "I have this Sheltie and she gets all freaked out about a lot of things around the house." Of course, your first impression is "Yeah." She's like, "She barks and spins." "Yeah." Anybody out there with a Sheltie is like, "Yeah, they do that. That's a thing with the breed." And it is.

But here's the thing. Talking to this person, she's really nice, she's a really savvy owner, she does a great job with this dog. I was like, "Tell me about what some of the triggers are for this behavior when it happens." She's like, "Oh God, where to start? There's getting ice from the ice machine, feeding the fish, loading the dishwasher, closing the dishwasher, standing up off the couch to walk into a different room, going down the stairs …" She just kept going. It was everything. It's every single thing in life that they do around the house, this poor dog has a meltdown about, so it's almost constant.

Another thing I'll ask a lot of times in cases like that is, "If you had to ballpark it, how often is this happening? Are we talking she has a meltdown maybe two or three times a day or more than that? She was like, "Oh God, if I had to count, maybe twenty, maybe twenty-five. It's constant." And she has a really hard time calming down, apparently. She said after she gets upset about something, she may just trot in circles around the dining room table for thirty minutes before she's able to settle. It's really extreme.

So that's a good example of how we can absolutely see variations of that behavior that fall under the heading of, "Oh yeah, it's a Sheltie. They do that, and it's just a quirky thing that they do." But there are levels, and something like what this poor lady is dealing with with her dog is really much more extreme than the typical "That's just quirky Sheltie behavior." That's a case where absolutely some intervention is warranted there in terms of behavior mod and probably medication and things like that. So those are all some things that we talked about and looped her vet in about medication options and that kind of stuff.

Some of the interventions, just as an example for that particular dog that we talked about, were she is on medication, which is helping her quite a bit at this point. We also talked about increasing the level of mental enrichment and exercise that she's getting each day and finding things that are lower arousal for her. This particular dog does really well with scatter feeding in the yard and things like that. That seems to help her a lot. And she's been working on teaching her a stationing behavior on a platform that she can do while she's doing things that bother her, while she's feeding the fish or loading the dishwasher or getting ice out of the icemaker, any of those things. So that's the approach that we often take with cases like that.

That's an example of behavior that could be just quirky or not. But a lot of it comes down to the intensity of it and how frequent it is, how extreme it is. Is it bothering the dog? Is it bothering the humans? In this case, it seemed like yes and yes, pretty clearly. I don't think this dog was having a great quality of life, and certainly her people were not having a great quality of life either. So those are the types of things that we often look at to help us decide, "Is this just a thing your dog does, or is this an actual problem that we should try to see if we can improve."

I think the second part of what you had asked me about was what things that I see most frequently. Is that right?

Melissa Breau: Yeah.

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: I would say the things that I tend to see most often, probably I would say the most common things would be things like leash reactivity, either to people or dogs or both, definitely really common. I see a lot of fear aggression towards visitors, strangers in the house. Those are probably, if I had to guess, the two most common things that I see. But we also get a fair amount of separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, dogs who are scared of storms and things like that, housemate dog aggression, inter-directed aggression. Compulsive behavior disorders are a little less common than a lot of the others, so I don't see them as much, but sometimes every now and then we see those too.

Melissa Breau: Can you share a little more about the class overall? What you'll cover, how it works, since it's not your traditional skills training class?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Yeah. It is definitely not the typical, most common format for classes that people are probably used to through FDSA, because it's not really a skills training class. It's meant to be more of an informational class.

The format is going to be mostly written lecture, and I think we have multiple short written lectures every week. I don't think there's one for every single day, but it's probably pretty close. There are not that many days that we don't have any lecture, but they're not super, super long. And there are some video examples in there in places to illustrate things that we're talking about.

The students in the class will have written homework assignments every week that are basically designed to help you think about how the class material may relate to your dogs or to dogs that you've known or worked with. So what do we do with this information? How do we apply it? What does it tell us maybe about our own dogs, or this client dog that you worked with once, or whatever?

The way that the outline breaks down is that the first week we talk about normal versus abnormal behavior, so differences between training issues and actual pathological behavior problems and why that matters. We talk a little bit about fear and aggression and what makes those normal or not, depending on things like the context and intensity and all that.

Week two, we talk about medical issues and behavior, so things like chronic pain, GI issues, hormonal issues, all that good stuff, and how that can impact behavior or contribute to behavior problems.

Week three, we talk broadly about treatment for behavior problems, so things like operant conditioning, classical conditioning, how does it work? How do we execute a behavior mod plan effectively? How does management play into things? Why is it important? All that kind of stuff.

In week four, we talk about specific behavior issues, so we go through and talk specifically about fear aggression, conflict-related aggression, predatory behavior, separation anxiety, different things, a different topic each day to delve into those in a little more detail.

Week five, we talk about meds. How do they work? What kind of options are available? How do we decide which med for which dog?

And then, during week six, we talk about things like prognostic factors, realistic goals, depending on the type of problem your dog has and how severe it is and all that kind of stuff. We talk about rehoming and euthanasia, which is always a hard topic, but something that I think is worth discussing in this context. And we do talk a little also about whether dogs with significant behavioral issues can still compete in dog sports, because obviously that's a topic that's going to be pretty near and dear to a lot of FDSA students' hearts. So we talk about that. Is it safe? Is it fair to the dog? How do we decide? Because obviously that's something that's going to be very much on a case by case basis. So we do talk about that as well.

The way that the format works is we don't have Gold spots because it's not really designed to be like, "I'm taking this class with this dog who has this problem, and we're going to try to solve it in the six weeks." That's not really what it's about. So we have Silver and Bronze levels, and the Silver students will have a homework thread similar to what Gold students do in other classes, where they're going to respond to all the written homework assignments, and we can have discussions there about the class material and how it might relate to their particular situation.

So it's not a class where I'm going to be solving the problem that you're having with your dog. But I'm certainly happy to help you talk through any thoughts that you're having about your dog, as a result of the class material that we're talking about, and how you might be able to apply that. I can help you come up with some of your own thoughts about how you might be able to help your dog, if that makes sense. It's not the type of class where I'm going to give you directions and say, "Here is a training plan and here is what you need to do." It's more, "Let's think about this and think about the problem that your dog is having."

It's okay if your dog is not having a problem also and you just want to take the class. That's also fine. But it's meant to be we talk about the class material and how it might apply to dogs in your life, whether it's your dog, or a dog you've known, or a dog you've worked with, or something like that. It's usually a really good class. I've run it a couple of times now and had really good students, really good discussion in there. So I'm hoping it'll be another fun round like it has been the first couple of times.

Melissa Breau: I want to round things out today with a last general question. If we were to take all the stuff we've been talking about today and maybe drill it down into a key takeaway or one piece of information you really want people to understand or walk away with, what would that be?

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: I would say probably from today's discussion, the biggest take home would be to be patient with your veterinarian and their office staff during this difficult time. I promise we are all doing our best and everybody is stressed. It's not just you, for sure. It's hard for all of us right now. But I am also very happy to answer questions about any of the stuff we've talked about today in both the webinar or the upcoming class that we're doing. So hopefully I will get to see some of your listeners there.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, hopefully. Thank you so much, Dr. Jen, for being a vet, for dealing with all this, and for coming on the podcast.

Dr. Jennifer Summerfield: Thanks for having me. It's been fun.

Melissa Breau: It is fun. We'll be back next week with Julie Daniels to talk about her recent work with Control Unleashed and the upcoming one-day conference on Dogs with Big Feelings.

If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com. The track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training! 


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

E278: Julie Daniels: Learning More About Control U...
E276: Watersports with Erin Lynes & Sara Brueske

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