Stephen J. Birchard DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS

Friday, September 20, 2013

STEVE! I Got a Bitch in the Truck!

His name was Ray. He was a middle-aged dog breeder; show dog handler, and boarding kennel owner.  He was a regular customer of the practice I worked in right out of veterinary school.  He was a big, tall, gruff man.  He was hard of hearing so he shouted all the time and you had to shout back. He was honest and direct and he expected the same from everyone else. His dogs were boxers; the females were “bitches” and the males were “studs”. Typical lingo in the dog-breeding world.

He always let himself in the back door of the practice. It was a courtesy granted him by the owner of the practice since he’d been a client for so many years. He never had an appointment; he didn’t need one. It was like he was a member of the staff. He came in the mornings before appointments started, usually on Mondays. He would come in the door and very loudly proclaim to my boss: “Doc, I got a bitch in the truck! I need you to look at her!” Then he would go back to the pick-up and fetch the dog.

He called me Steve, and at first he wasn’t so sure what to think of this “wet behind the ears” new graduate. My boss told him I had potential, but he had to find out for himself. He asked me to help hold a boxer while “Doc” did a rectal exam. Of course the dog started to squirm, and Ray yelled at me: “What’s the matter son, can’t restrain an animal? Didn’t they teach you that in vet school?” I was humiliated but held my tongue, and held the dog tighter. I found out later he was testing me. I guess I passed the test since I took his criticism in stride. The honest truth was, Ray knew more about dogs than I did and he and I both knew it. He intimidated me but I didn’t let him see it because I thought he wouldn’t respect me.

Ray had just enough veterinary knowledge to have a pretty good idea what the diagnosis and treatment was going to be when he brought a dog in. But, he didn’t always get the terminology quite right. If one of his dogs was lame in the rear leg, it had a rupture of the “crucial” ligament. If a puppy had a lump around the umbilicus, it had a “Biblical” hernia. I didn’t dare correct his mistakes. Ray didn’t know pathophysiology or pharmacology, but he knew dogs.
Gradually he started to trust me and let me treat his treasured boxers. He once asked me to remove a small skin mass from the head of one of his dogs. He wouldn’t let me give anything other than a local anesthetic, not even a sedative. He said: “Steve, if I tell her to stay, she won’t move a muscle.” I took the mass off with her sitting up and she didn’t budge.

We got to be friends and I developed a tremendous amount of respect for him. He even referred clients to me for veterinary care and I referred people to him for boarding.  After I moved on to Ohio State he occasionally called me for advice about his dogs. Underneath that crusty exterior was a heart of gold.  He loved his boxers more than anything. He taught me so much about dogs, things I never learned in vet school.  He also taught me about the world of dog breeding and show handling.  It's a tough way to scratch out a living, I can tell you that. He was an amazing man and I will never forget him.

My friend Ray is gone now.  I spoke with his daughter Pat today; she is 71 years young and told me that Ray passed away 7 years ago. The boxers have passed on, and the boarding kennel is closed. But Ray’s legacy and his spirit live on, and I can still hear that booming voice:

“STEVE! I got a bitch in the truck!”

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