Words That Can Kill

(originally published in Veterinary Forum: January, 2001)

All veterinarians enjoy the warm fuzzy feeling that envelopes client, practitioner, and animal when we utter a heartfelt, “What a wonderful animal Java is!” The idea that our pronouncement might inspire Java’s owner to go the extra mile for her animal makes us feel even better. Unfortunately, though, we often forget that other words can be the kiss of death in veterinary practice.

Consider this veterinary scenario. Ms. Brown brings her beloved poodle, Elie, to Dr. Smith’s for a routine examination. When Dr. Smith attempts to open Elie’s mouth, the dog snaps at the veterinarian. Dr. Smith leaps back and shouts accusingly, “That dog’s dominance aggressive!” Via those few words, Dr. Smith could commit verbal homicide. Not only that, his words could kill any one or all of the relationships essential to the successful resolution of every veterinary problem:

  • the relationship between the veterinarian and the animal
  • the one between the veterinarian and the client
  • the one between the client and the animal

Rather than delve into the exact cause of Elie’s display, suffice it to say that the phrase “dominance aggression” refers to a particular behavior displayed by an animal under a particular set of circumstances, not to the animal itself. As far as why veterinarians-or anyone-wound so label an animal, this most likely this results from a desire to justify the angry outburst rather than communicate any useful information. Most people find it more ethically acceptable to react angrily to an animal they perceive as aggressive rather than one they perceive as frightened or in pain. However as poet Emily Dickinson noted, words aren’t dead once they’re said; that’s when they begin to live. And Dr. Smith must now live with the consequences of his words for these three relationships.

Because Dr. Smith presented himself to Elie’s owner as an authority on animal health and welfare, he could feel obligated to support his emotion- rather than knowledge-based pronouncement of Elie as a dominance aggressive dog (whatever that may mean to him). He may even write “Dominance aggressive!” or “Watch!” in Elie’s record, thereby altering every staff member’s relationship with the dog from that day, too.

Specifically, rather than greeting Elie confidently and cheerfully, he and his technician now enter the examination room mentally prepared to do whatever they must to muzzle the dog and get him in a death grip. Tense, jerky movements replace the calming, fluid motion of an examination that occurs when animal and clinician trust each other. Dr. Smith’s usual upbeat, informative commentary gives way to short, terse remarks lest he miss some sign of impending canine aggression. Because of his negative feelings about Elie, the veterinarian also may cut corners in his examination or opt to ignore rather than treat a problem.

Numerous human-animal bond studies assure us that Elie will immediately detect these changes in Dr. Smith and any staff members, and this will increase his feelings of vulnerability. The more vulnerable he feels, the more he struggles to get away. The more he struggles, the more convinced Dr. Smith becomes that the dog wants to hurt him, the more the relationship between the two of them deteriorates.

Meanwhile, Dr. Smith’s labeling of her dog as aggressive, creates a horrible dilemma Ms. Brown: Should she believe the veterinarian or trust her own belief that Elie would never harm anyone unless he felt frightened or in pain? If she sides with her pet, that may irreparably undermine her relationship with Dr. Smith. If he so misjudges her pet’s behavior, how can she trust his assessment of her pet’s physical problems? And if he doesn’t like her dog, how could she ever leave her pet in his clinic for treatment? However, if she dismisses his words, he may think she’s in denial or even stupid, neither of which bode well for their relationship, either.

On the other hand, suppose Ms. Brown accepts Dr. Smith’s statement about her pet. In that case, she must face the fact that she shares her home with an aggressive dog. Suddenly, images of her grandchildren’s joyful romps with the dog turn from idyllic to scenes of carnage. “I can’t risk that,” she tells herself. “I must have Dr. Smith euthanize Elie immediately.” Or perhaps she perceives her dog’s behavior as an attempt to embarrass her in front of Dr. Smith. That makes her so angry she drags Elie out of the clinic, practically throws him into the car, and ignores him when they get home. When the dog tries to sit beside her on the couch as usual, she snarls, “Get away from me, you ungrateful beast!” Elie looks at her in confusion, then retreats to the corner to chew on his paw.

Ideally, veterinarians know enough about behavior and the bond that when such examination-related episodes arise, they think rather than react. However, sometimes our mouths get in the way of our brains and the words come out before we think about their consequences. If that happens, don’t panic and don’t blunder on. Instead, use the outburst to initiate a meaningful dialog with the owner. When Dr. Smith follows his outburst with, “Whoa, Elie really took me by surprise there! Has he ever snapped at anyone before?” he acknowledges that he may have over-reacted, but also expresses his genuine desire to discover the cause of the dog’s response. Once he does this, he can begin determining whether medical, behavioral factors or a combination of the two contributed to Elie’s display, and address these issues in a meaningful way. Not only does his confident response calm the owner and ensure her of his willingness to help both her and her animal, it calms the dog, too.

The old maxim reminds us that those who act in haste repent in leisure. However, when emotion leads us to make inflammatory statements in an instant, we can immediately begin to correct the error and turn a negative experience into a positive one for ourselves, our clients, and our patients.