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Troubled dogs often need careful handling


Benji is much more comfortable with his new haircut

Benji is much more comfortable with his new haircut

Benji is much more comfortable with his new haircut

Benji is a thirteen year old Lhasa Apso who has been through troubles in his life.

He was the much loved pet of a lady called May, but when he was five years old, she passed away suddenly. Benji was with her, on his own, when she died, which must have been traumatic for him. He was adopted afterwards by May's daughter, Therese, and he still lives with her: she adores him.

He's a friendly little dog from a distance, but poor Benji gets frightened when people get too close to him, and he sometimes reacts by being aggressive. Over the years, this has meant that people who need to help him have been unable to do so: dog groomers and vets have been fearful that he'll bite them, and indeed, he has done so on some occasions in the past.

I met Benji for the first time recently: his fur coat had grown long and dense over the COVID19 lockdown period, and it was now so thick that a serious clipping job was needed. The problem was that Benji refused to get anyone near him. He may accept minor brushing and combing, but at this stage, he needed to stay still for over half an hour, and he just didn't want to do that.

This type of situation is a common challenge for vets: we know that many animals are aggressive out of fear, but we need to handle them without putting human health at risk. It can be hard to do that without making them even more fearful. That's where the science of sedation comes in.

Vets are able to use safe and effective sedatives that can be easily reversed afterwards: they are ideal for a situation like this. They need to be used with care, as they do carry some risks.

On this occasion, I had an extra problem: I had to get close enough to Benji to inject him without being bitten. Every time I reached out my hand towards him, he growled and snapped. This was not going to be easy.

Traditionally, vets have always had a radical method of dealing with dangerous dogs: a tool called a "dog catcher". This is a long metal pole with a thick wire noose at the end. The noose is placed over the aggressive dog's head, and then it can be tightened so that it fits like a collar. I need to stress that it is not tightened like a hangman's noose: it is only used to hold the dog still, and it does not restrict their breathing at all. It functions a bit like a normal collar and leash, except that the "leash" bit is a rigid metal pole. This means that once the loop is around the dog's neck, the dog can be safely held at arm's length. It's then possible to grab the dog's leg and to give an injection without the dog rushing to bite you: their head can be safely held at a short distance away while the injection is given.

The only problem with the dog catcher is that dogs don't like it, and some dogs are adept at avoiding putting their head through that wire noose. They dip and dive and swerve their head to avoid being caught. That's what Benji did: I reckoned he must have been caught with the dog catcher before, and he didn't want it to happen again.

So in Benji's case, we used a different technique, which could be called "the blanket swoop". My nurse through a blanket on top of him, then used both hands to firmly hug him through the blanket, safely protected from his teeth by the thick fabric. At the same time, I crept up behind him, and gave him a quick, quiet injection into his rear end. Benji was just trying to work out what on earth was going on, then it was all over. My nurse whipped the blanket off again, and Benji emerged blinking, unaware that he was soon going to feel drowsy.

Fifteen minutes later, he was sleeping deeply. We were able to place him on a deep, comfy blanket on a table, and set to work with some electric clippers. His coat was up to six inches deep, a combination of coarse outer guard hairs and fine, fluffy, inner insulating hairs. Ideally, he might have been combed out and then trimmed, but this would have taken hours. Instead, we made the practical choice just to clip his coat short, to a depth of around two centimetres. This would ensure that he remained comfortable in the summer heat, and it would mean that he wouldn't need to be groomed again for another six months or so.

The whole procedure of visit to vet, sedation and grooming is emotionally traumatic for Benji, for his owner, and indeed for his vet, so the less often it's needed, the better.

The job was finished in half an hour: Benji would not win a dog show with his new hair cut, but it was practical, and it was reasonably symmetrical. I trimmed his nails while he was sedated: as an older dog, he doesn't go for as many walks as he used to, so his nails tend to grow too long.

Once we were done, I gave him the "antidote" to the sedation. This is a simple injection which completely reverses the sedative. Within twenty minutes, Benji was nearly as wide awake as he had been when he had arrived. He was able to walk back out to his owner with a spring in his step.

He slept well that night, and by the morning, he was completely back to himself, looking for his usual breakfast.

Benji is a little character: I know he doesn't like me (or any vet) but I think that the two of us, at least, have grudging respect for one another.

Online Editors