Lost and Found
Two potential owners, one dog, and no microchip. Here's what happened when our veterinary practice got stuck between a Good Samaritan and the owner who wanted her dog back.
Near the holidays, our practice is usually the beneficiary of some great Christmas cheer—clients sending homemade treats and cards thanking us for our special attention to their valued family members. Last December, we got something else.
In our community of just under 10,000 people, we help provide some assistance to both the city and the county. The city has no animal control department and our county dog control is usually a day or two away. As a result, the practice I manage has grown accustomed to filling the need from time to time. I've answered my door more than a few times in the middle of the night to find a police officer with a stray dog in the patrol car. We've held strays on our own dime for days and weeks, hoping for a reunion that doesn't always come.
Kyle Palmer, CVT
Despite our help, we've come under fire from the county for cutting them out of a potential revenue stream. I'm against the idea of making money on lost pets. I'd rather focus on customer service, and I know good clients make the occasional mistake. The pet is my priority, and I'm not willing to gamble and play dog roulette to send them to the shelter when that may reduce—even slightly—the possibility of their successful return. After years of seeing how rarely people look for their lost pets, we exponentially expanded our microchipping program by practically giving them away.
This last December, a longtime client called to let us know that one of her dogs had escaped and was on the run. For most of the day, the lost notice was little more than a scrap among the collage of others that are posted in our reception area. Around 2 p.m., however, a woman entered the clinic with a pet that matched the lost dog's description. She said she'd found the dog and asked to have it scanned for a microchip.
Whose dog is it anyway?
Our team members took the dog to the back area to scan the pet and ask if anyone recognized him. It was then that they put together the fact that the dog had been reported lost earlier. Our assistant manager told the woman we did recognize the dog, and he was missing. This is where we usually thank the finders for their efforts and assure them that they did a good thing picking up the dog and bringing him in. It's usually a very happy ending. Not this time.
The woman demanded that we give the dog back to her—he was still in the custody of our team—and told us she couldn't believe anyone would allow an un-neutered male to run loose. We assured her that the dog belonged to a longtime client and that she would appreciate his return. Then the woman tore into us, accusing our practice of performing substandard veterinary care, as the dog was not only un-neutered but was covered with fleas—like we really have control over either of those things.
If you've ever been in a similar situation, you know it takes practice to manage your frustration when clients ignore the recommendations you offer. Our practice owner has taught me to look beyond an owner's failure to meet a certain standard of care and continue to advocate for the pet at whatever level is possible. We practice in a rural area, so we see a variety of pet-owner philosophies. In the end, they are all welcome as our clients, and we hope to help them see the benefits of better care, regardless of how quickly that happens. I believe that veterinary care is a partnership between the veterinarian and the family. We can't afford to exclude those pet owners who have not yet reached the ultimate standard of care. And even if we could, it's not in me to turn our back to the pets that belong to those families. Our team members simply must understand that philosophy to have a successful career at our practice.
So when the client questioned our practice's level of care, I got involved. It was my day off, but the team had called me for direction. Though I consider it to be a legal gray area in our state, I told team members to stall the woman while we contacted the owner to confirm that it was her dog. I called the clinic a few minutes later to find that the dog owner wasn't eager to interrupt her day by coming to claim him—a critical step to be sure we had the right dog. I'll admit, I was surprised and a little upset. I told our assistant manager to make it clear that we'd inched out on a limb to help her, and she needed to do her part and get to our clinic immediately.
Whenever a client demonstrates behavior we don't understand, there's almost always a reason we don't know about. Their personal life issues are often behind their behavior, and we're not here to judge them. Our goal is to provide high-quality service, regardless of whether they deserve it on a given day. In this case, the pet owner relented and agreed to visit the practice, but she was 30 minutes away. So the waiting began.
The dog rescuer wasn't moved by the fact that the dog's owner was on the way. She had her young daughter in tow and explained her child was heartbroken that she couldn't have the dog back—and we were terrible people for discussing the pet's ownership in front of her. Apparently the child had bonded to the dog in just a few hours. Further, she felt that the owner shouldn't get the dog back because the owner didn't share the same standard of care. We didn't budge. I told the team to apologize and explain that we simply couldn't fail to hold the dog until we could confirm ownership. The dog rescuer left our building but sat in her car in our parking area until the owner arrived.
When the dog rescuer and the dog owner met face to face, the rescuer lectured our client on the dog's condition. It could have been an explosive confrontation, but it wasn't. The client bit her lip and took it. After the dog rescuer said everything she wanted to say, she finally left only after threatening to ruin our reputation in the community by telling everyone about the bad customer service she received at your practice. Before our client left, she made an appointment to have her dog neutered and microchipped the next day.
I spend a lot of time reminding our team members that every pet owner is our client—some are current clients, some are former clients, and some are future clients. We never know when circumstances will bring a person to our practice, so we continue to provide high-quality service and hope they all eventually make that choice. For that reason, it's difficult to navigate these situations. Right up to the line of abuse, pet ownership must take priority. Short of that line, I can't intervene—in judgment—to try and change that. If abuse is present, that's a different story, and it opens avenues to pursue in those cases. Being unaltered and having fleas, however, isn't abuse by my definition—though it may be for some. It's simply a condition that needs treatment.
In the cases where we can't determine ownership, then custody weighs heavily. In this case, the person who found the dog made my decisions easy. She was uncooperative and rude to our team. While we were professional during our face-to-face interactions, she responded by treating our team members roughly. She was unhappy when we made decisions for the pet that may have inconvenienced her—waiting at our practice, facing the loss of the dog, and so on. We've faced similar situations where the rescuer was friendly and demonstrated an interest in reuniting the pet with its family. In those cases, I've been inclined to let them hold onto the pet while we try to contact the owner.
A plea for prevention
If the pet had been microchipped, we would have been able to skip the confirmation step of this difficult process. We also lost some time while we attempted to call the owner—and even more while we waited for her to arrive to let us know that it was her dog. Believe it or not, we've had dogs found in the exact area where one was lost, matching an exact description, only to find it was not the correct dog. Microchips take out all of those variables. That's why we changed our strategy from microchipping around 20 dogs a year for a $40 fee to about 300 a year with a $20 fee. We're more willing to keep an animal in our custody for longer when a chip is present and the owner's information is available.
This case also reminded us of an important lesson about judgment. We must guard ourselves against the idea that we can control the decisions pet owners make. Of course we want to make strong, persuasive recommendations, but the client still has the final word. If we only serve those clients who follow all of our recommendations, I worry that we run the risk of taking pet ownership away from middle- and lower-class families.
Our practice philosophy is simply to welcome every dog, cat, and horse to our practice with open arms. We've always believed in the plan A, plan B, and plan C approach. We make our best recommendations, but we also understand that finances, life priorities, and general philosophy affect every client's decisions. It's our goal to continue to find ways to advocate for the pet while living within those constraints. We model that philosophy to our team members, and they either share our vision or move on to another practice. In my career, I've personally seen how often plan B or C works just as well as plan A. And my goal is to keep our connection to a large portion of pet owners.
Kyle Palmer, CVT, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and practice manager at Silver Creek Animal Clinic, a mixed practice in Silverton, Ore.