It’s 7:30am on a summer Saturday morning down in Margate, New Jersey; a vibrant jersey shore town nestled between Atlantic City and Ocean City. I have been tossing and turning in my bed for the last hour, trying to take advantage of the weekend away from the veterinary hospital and sleep a little later beyond my usual 6am wakeup. Ducky, my 5 year old yellow labrador retriever, sees this movement as an invitation to approach alongside my bed in an attempt to get a closer look at me to see if I’m awake yet. I pretend to “fake sleep” a bit longer. Alas, Ducky catches on, and begins to nuzzle his head underneath my left arm as if to say he’s ready to start the day. At this time, he knows he’s got me up. I sit up in my bed and rub my eyes, do a quick scan over my phone notifications, and head downstairs to what I know Ducky is more interested in doing than watching me sleep. I step out onto the porch and take in the morning scene. It’s warm, the sun is peeking out from behind a few clouds, and a salty ocean breeze smacks me in the face like waves crashing on the beach. A perfect morning.
We begin our morning stroll down the sidewalk to find our neighbor performing his weekly weekend routine of washing down his car with the hose. He pauses for a brief minute to say good morning to Ducky and give some pets, which of course Ducky happily obliges. His wife Debbie is Ducky’s biggest fan, and although she’s not outside this morning, we’ll be sure to stop by again later in the day to say hello. After their white miniature poodle passed away a few years back, Ducky has been a great outlet for Debbie.. Whenever she needs some love and affection, Ducky is always there and ready.
After a few minutes, we continue our walk down our block. It’s a pretty busy morning, with many families enjoying the beautiful morning on their porches, coffee in hand. With each passing house, everyone waves hello to us. Ducky stops walking and wags his tail a bit faster, as if he’s tempting the greeters to either invite him up on their porch for pets or meet him on the sidewalk for belly rubs. Most can’t resist, and this morning was no different. A family with two small children, a 3 year old and a 6 year old, make their way off the porch and onto the sidewalk to greet Ducky. The younger one is a bit nervous around dogs, but his older sibling is there to show him how it’s done. The younger one slowly reaches his hand out to pet Ducky on his back. After a few gentle strokes, the young boy is elated - as demonstrated by his ear to ear smile. Ducky continues to stand still, enjoying all the love and attention he’s getting. Ducky is very good with kids, and it’s become a goal of mine to have Ducky help young kids become more comfortable around dogs. Ducky is the perfect dog for this task - a gentle, calm, and loveable labrador who does not jump, bark, or push people around. We are 15 minutes into our walk, and we’ve only made it halfway down our street. Nobody can deny that Ducky is living up to the title he’s so graciously elected for himself, the Mayor of Margate City.
Ducky entered my life during my first year of veterinary school. At Purdue, there’s a teaching dog program called the Canine Educators. The Canine Educators are a group of 25 dogs that are used to help PVM students learn during the academic year. The dogs come from breeders, rescue groups, and sometimes local shelters. They spend 9 months in the program and at the end of the academic year, they are then adopted out to members of the PVM Family. Usually, the primary adopters are veterinary students who worked closely with the Canine Educators.
Ducky was my group's dog, so I had the pleasure of working with him all year long. Ducky was such a great teaching dog. He was sweet, calm, and easy to work with. He listened very well, so as long as there were treats ready as a reward! I spent many hours outside of the classroom getting to know Ducky, including long walks around campus, playing fetch, and working on commands/tricks. He was also a great study buddy, often snuggling up next to me on the loveseat in the common room to put his head on my leg to sleep while I worked on my laptop. A move I would later deem a classic for Ducky.
We developed an extremely tight bond, and it was evident that Ducky and I were best buds. He was one of the best parts about my first year of veterinary school, and made the transition to living in a new place away from close friends and family a little easier. At the end of the year, I was given the first opportunity to adopt Ducky. Of course, I took it.
Prior to Ducky, it had been 7 years since our last pet in the family. Our second family dog Sadie, an energetic and sweet Cairn Terrier/Westie Mix, had abruptly passed away during my sophomore year of high school. At that time, I had been shadowing at a local veterinary hospital for 1 year. I was still new to the field, and was still trying to figure out if veterinary medicine was the field for me. Some of the most important things I learned in that first year were key physical exam findings that may indicate a medical emergency. When I left home for the day the morning of Sadie’s passing, she was her usual self. When I arrived home, her belly was large and she would not get up. The first thing I did was check her gum color….pale. Crap. We rushed her to our vet where she was diagnosed with a ruptured splenic tumor. We euthanized her that day. As devastating and emotional as the entire situation was, her life became my motivation to continue on in veterinary medicine. It was the day that I had decided to become a veterinarian.
While my medical and technical knowledge continued to grow as I transitioned from shadowing to veterinary assistant during the summer into my senior year of high school, there was one thing that I felt was lagging in my learning: my empathy. My ability to understand the importance of the human-animal bond and the role that it plays in health care was lacking. How could I become a great veterinarian without an understanding of the responsibilities, rewards, and demands pet ownership requires? How could I empathize with a pet parent who is nervous about an anesthetic event and surgery without sharing some of those experiences myself? Or appreciate and cherish those daily summer walks on the beach? Sure, I can rely on my experiences in the arts and “act” through it (and I use the term act here in the most real and most honest sense: the act of creating genuine realities through imagination, discoveries within, and sensory choices), but to genuinely and truly understand the power of the human-animal bond requires one to have that bond with an animal as well. It was during my senior year of undergraduate school at Penn State did I fully understand this, and it soon became a priority of mine to adopt a dog while in veterinary school.
Transitioning to Practice
Fast forward to Summer 2021, I started practice as a small animal veterinarian equipped with 4 years of solo pet ownership under my belt and a breadth of pet ownership experience to go with it. I’ve experienced the nervousness and stress that comes with a pet going under anesthesia (and the added stress of that procedure being a major surgery - a total hip replacement), the numerous instances of playing the game “what did my dog eat in the yard or off the sidewalk today,” and the vomiting or diarrhea that sometimes coincides with it. While those moments are stressful, they’ve provided me with an emotional understanding and ability to empathize with a pet parent during an appointment. This experience has proven invaluable, and will continue to prove invaluable as I continue growing and learning more in practice.
While I have only been practicing for just about a year, I can honestly say that one of my favorite parts about my day is listening to all the wonderful memories and stories pet parents share with me about their pets. Oftentimes pet parents will glowingly discuss an activity they did with their pet recently - fetch at the beach, cuddle time while watching a movie, playing in the snow, and so much more. These stories demonstrate to me the power of the Human-Animal Bond. They give me a tangible understanding and feeling of fulfillment for the work that I do and the care that I provide. The Human-Animal Bond is My Why. It’s why I became a veterinarian, and it’s why I LOVE what I do. Even on the hardest, busiest, and most draining days, the human animal bond motivates me to push through and come back brighter the next day.
Through veterinary medicine, I aim to protect and strengthen the human animal bond by providing high-quality pet care through practicing compassionately and collaboratively with a mutual understanding of our favorite family member's needs. - Dr. Matt Schiffman