The power of puppy breath
Close your eyes and take a moment to remember what the air smelled like the last time you stood on a mountain: crisp, clean,
light as a first snow, unfettered, uncluttered, free. You might actually call that smell triumphant.
That smell must be part of the allure of mountain climbing—to go where few have left a footprint, to see as far as the eye
can see, to smell the air at the peak of a continent, and to know that few other people have taken a breath there.
Now I want you to get down on your knees—figuratively—on the floor of the high temple of veterinary medicine: the exam room.
Kneel down in that exam room, take a breath, and remember the smell of sweet-and-sour puppy breath. (That's the best way I
know to describe it.) Or, if you prefer, imagine that earthy smell you inhale when you burrow your nose into the fur of an
8-week-old kitten. Or think about that grass-and-sweat smell of a horse. Or better yet, a horse's odor mixed with wood shavings—I
In the hustle of a busy day, trying to balance appointments, surgery, and medical records on the fly, with squabbles to resolve
and the fear of leaner times in the air, it's as easy to forget the smell of puppy breath, kitten fur, and horse sweat as
it is to forget the smell of a mountaintop.
I'd like to share with you one important secret I've learned since I put the white smock back on and laid the stethoscope
around my neck and went back to the high temple. The secret is this: The way to the mountaintop is to get down on your knees
and smell puppy breath.
The perfect dog
To encourage you in your climb, I offer you this simple story. It has no dramatic finish, no heroic rescue, no sleuthing CSI-type
medical discovery. As fulfilling as those things are—and our professional lives are full of them—they are not the way to the
The woman with the perfect dog was in the parking lot of North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, where I practice
as an associate veterinarian. It was a few months ago when I was walking into the clinic from the parking lot.
I stopped and petted her dog, a beautiful golden retriever. "What a beautiful dog you have," I said. "She has beautiful eyes,
and I can tell she loves you." I had no idea that that dog would be my first appointment of the day.
The owner's name was Cathy, and the golden retriever, Lily, was 7 years old. She had a mass on her spine just in front of
the base of her tail.
When I met Cathy in the exam room, I said, "I bet you were worried sick this was a deadly cancer." She simply nodded her head
in agreement. I could see the fear in her eyes.
I explained that I was going to look at the mass, but not until I'd done a full exam from the tip of the nose to the tip of
the tail. I didn't want to overlook anything else. With no abnormal findings on the physical exam, I zeroed in on the mass.
With my technician helping, I showed Cathy how to tell whether the growth was a cause for concern. Cathy put on her reading
glasses and got down on the floor with us as I checked off the boxes: regular margin, not ulcerated, freely movable, no adjacent
lymph node involvement. I also told her to examine the mass herself. She ran her hands over and around it.
I told Cathy it was most likely a lipoma or a fatty tumor, then turned to Lily and said, "You've got a wonderful mom. Looks
like you two are going to be together for a long, long time." Cathy bonded with me right there in that instant.
Pet owners want to learn. Pet owners want you to express empathy, to take away the worry. They want more than anything else
to know how much you care—before they care how much you know. Cathy was happy that I liked her dog; I complimented her on
the care she was giving Lily. I told her she was doing a perfect job.
I was doing what no one on the Internet can do and what too many veterinarians don't do. Those veterinarians are worried about
difficult times, they're distracted, and they're disengaged. They're not where I was—down on the floor of the high temple
smelling dog breath. They don't take the time to acknowledge how much people love their pets and tell people what a great
job they're doing with their care. I perked up for every client I saw after Cathy. I stepped up to the exam room door, raised
my head, dropped my shoulders, and said to myself, "This is the most important pet and client I will see today."
This is what I was born and raised to do. I suture lacerations, I alleviate pain, and I do it all for the animals and their
people. I'm working for smiling faces and climbing my mountain—and enjoying the fresh air and puppy breath—for another day.
Dr. Marty Becker is a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member, writer, speaker, and resident veterinarian for Good Morning America.
*This article was adapted from an evening session sponsored by Elanco at CVC San Diego in 2010. Missed it? Dr. Becker will
be presenting at CVC Washington, D.C., in May.