9th April 2020

Culture / James Greenwood

An Ode to Dogs by James Greenwood

38 13 mins 1

JJames Greenwood is a vet, potter and television presenter. He has practised as a vet since 2007 while also appearing on BBC 2’s The Great Pottery Throwdown and the hit CBBC series The Pets Factor. You don’t have to own a dog for this piece to move you. You don’t even have to like dogs. This is a story of passion, a perfect example of working for the love of it.

My name is James Greenwood and I have a confession – I am quite literally and unapologetically addicted to dogs.

The big ones, short ones, waggy ones, fluffy ones, soggy ones, calm ones and the downright manic ones – they all have a place in my heart. Perhaps that is why I chose to live near a beach – the ideal resort to immerse oneself in a little slice of doggy paradise.  There is one guarantee: where there is sand, you will always find dogs. Every breed, every size, every colour.

I am also a practising veterinary surgeon and despite the downsides (I cannot even comprehend the number of anal glands I must have expressed over the past twelve years) I still have to pinch myself that I get to spend every working day in the wonderful company of dogs.

Becoming a vet was my ultimate childhood ambition. Whilst other kids would spend their Saturday mornings playing football, I was cleaning kennels at our local vet practice. It was my destiny and ‘like a dog with a bone’, I was determined to fulfil my dream. I think on some level veterinary science chose me, not the other way around.  My paternal grandparents were farmers and my maternal great grandfather was a human pathologist. So perhaps it was an inevitable amalgamation of the two that I should study veterinary medicine.

I love my job.  No two days are ever the same and there is absolutely nothing else I would rather be doing.  There are incredible highs.  Performing emergency surgery to remove a stone from a greedy Labrador’s gut, for example, or repairing a torn limb on an overzealous Greyhound – all this in a day’s work.

But with these highs must come the lows.  Whilst I hate to be the one to break it to the nation, the halcyon ‘Herriot’ days are now most definitely a thing of the past.  For those working within the industry, there is a new side effect to modern veterinary medicine that is rarely spoken about in public. Our profession is in the midst of a mental health crisis.

From the undergraduate students all the way to business leaders, many vets are really struggling to cope.  The most recent survey suggests that disillusionment is rife, and many are choosing to abandon the veterinary career path altogether.

The reasons for this are still largely unknown – long hours, high client (and employer) expectation and access to abusive substances are all likely contributors – but thankfully (and finally) work is being done by our governing bodies and other veterinary organisations to try and better understand this epidemic.

Personally, it was 2-3 years into veterinary practice that I found the hardest.  I was no longer able to excuse myself as ‘the new graduate’. I felt like I shouldn’t have to keep asking for help -despite needing it- and new clinical challenges would appear on a daily basis. I had learnt all the knowledge I needed from the veterinary degree but putting that knowledge into practice was a whole different ball game.

One major struggle came with the realisation of how my relationship with animals had changed. The veterinary course follows an intensely academic syllabus and it forces its students -possibly with some necessity- to learn about animals from a purely scientific approach.  Each animal that stood before me had become a problem-solving exercise, a ‘clinical conundrum’. And yet, what drew me to veterinary through my childhood was my simple adoration of the natural world. I was in desperate need to take back control of my own human-animal bond and restore my childhood dream. And so, I decided it was finally the right time to commit to having my own dog.

 

It was at this very moment that we decided to get a puppy, an eleven week old Labrador puppy, to be precise. However, at just six weeks old he had suffered a severe head injury at the wrath of an adult male dog. He had a fractured jaw; a fractured skull and he had lost his right eye. He was no oil painting but when my partner and I went to meet him we immediately fell in love. Named then as Sunny, he was the last one of his litter to find a home (for obvious reasons). We renamed him Oliver.

We conquered the recall training pretty quickly but other than that, throughout his early years Oliver was quite a force to be reckoned with.  He was a typical bouncy, adorable, unruly male Labrador.  We have story upon story of his adventures as a young dog.  He was my first dog (and our first dog together) so of course, it was a learning curve.  And I have no shame in admitting we made a few mistakes, as all first time dog owners do, but we got there in the end. As a young, recently qualified vet having Oliver offered me some much needed common ground to share with my clients.

I felt a sense of ‘veterinary validation’.  I could relate to their own concerns and I felt I could connect on a deeper level over our shared experiences as dog owners. 

Fast forward a few years and this ‘shared experience’ was about to reach a whole new level.  One morning, I received a phone call at 6.05 am from a lady saying she had found a dog by the side of the road.  I can remember it so vividly now but at the time I had no idea that this day would change my life forever.

My first thought was ‘it can’t be Oliver, impossible’ presuming he was downstairs.  We lived in the countryside and rarely locked our doors at night, more to our detriment, as Oliver had somehow managed to open the back door and taken himself out for an early morning stroll.  My blood ran cold as the penny dropped – he had been hit by a car.

The wave of guilt, shock, terror and despair at what we were about to find as we quickly pulled on some clothes and ran outside was beyond comprehension.

And then we saw him.  Lying in the grass verge with his leg outstretched looking so desperately helpless. Thankfully though he was alive and breathing.  I knelt next to him to assess the damage to his right foreleg, the same side he had lost his eye.  He had been hit on his blind side and I could immediately feel a fracture.

After a cursory clinical examination, I lifted him into the boot of my car and headed straight to the practice I was working at. I was on autopilot and somehow managing to hold it together.

As I stumbled through the doors with Oliver in my arms, the nursing team were on him like a flash – a cannula was placed into his unbroken leg and a drip attached, a mask delivered oxygen to help treat the shock, another nurse was drawing up pain relief whilst a fourth was adjusting the settings on the X-ray machine in preparation.

I have seen countless pet owners break down in tears. Consoling them is all part of my day job. But today, I broke. The tears just flowed, the guilt was overwhelming and I felt utterly heartbroken that I had found myself in this situation.

All the worst thoughts at that point went through my head and I felt I had totally failed as a dog owner and as a veterinarian.

With my face as red as a beetroot, eyes streaming with tears – our head nurse calmly turned to me and said everything I needed to hear, “James, we treat animals, not machines. Accidents will always happen.” It is true when they say that veterinary nurses are the glue holding our entire profession together. I was (and still am) truly grateful to all my colleagues that day. Oliver was referred for surgery to an orthopaedic specialist and had a plate fixed across his radius, after which he went on to make a full recovery.

It is only with the benefit of hindsight that I can look back on that day.  I would not wish it upon anyone, and I certainly would never want to re-live those moments – but if any good can come from it, on reflection, I would say it is how much I learnt in such a short space of time.

I had been catapulted from being a vet straight into the shoes of an owner. I had gained more understanding about the term ‘empathy’ that morning whilst driving my own dog to the vets than I had in five years of vet school training and five years of clinical practice.

From the moment we decided to introduce Oliver into our lives my approach to veterinary work changed altogether.  I don’t necessarily think having him made me a ‘better vet’ – after all, a paediatrician doesn’t need to have children to know how to save a child’s life.  No, not better. But I definitely felt more fulfilled and driven to further pursue my veterinary career. That day gave me a much greater appreciation of my purpose as a vet which maybe I didn’t have prior to.

There are countless examples of where Oliver has transformed my life personally and professionally and from the conversations I have in my consulting room, I know dog owners reading this will have their own same reflective tales and joyful anecdotes from spending time with their own dogs.  We are all truly blessed to have dogs in our lives.

So for all the dogs that get into scrapes, for all their owners and to anyone that has ever cried in front of a vet – just know that we vets and vet nurses are here for you when you need us.  We’re all in this together and we know what you’re going through.  Because it’s more than a job.  We’re all dog lovers and it’s all for the love of dogs.

James Greenwood

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Dr James Greenwood is a vet, potter and television presenter. He studied at Bristol University and has practised as a vet since 2007 while also appearing on BBC 2’s The Great Pottery Throwdown and the hit CBBC series ‘The Pets Factor’.

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