Do you ever wonder who the heck volunteers their dog to be the first patient a vet student takes a scalpel to? The answer: nobody.

As a first year vet student at the University of Pennsylvania (back in 1991), I was distressed to learn that when we’d finally get our chance to spay our first dog (in our third years) it would be a lab-raised beagle dog.

Said beagle would have three surgeries performed on it while under anesthesia: a spay or neuter, a fracture repair (after cutting the bone in half with a saw tool), and an eye removal (enucleation) or whatever the professor was into on that day. The beagle would be euthanized before recovering from anesthesia.

As you can imagine, no way was the student body happy about this. But this was the way it had always been, we were told. Dogs were bred and raised for this express purpose. They were born for science. Get used to it.

So the students got together to look for alternatives. With so many dogs in need of spaying and neutering out in the real world we expected the humane services community to come readily to our aid. We were wrong.

Turns out, no one wanted us to touch their strays. We were lowly students in need of tools to practice on—not yet vets and certainly not individuals likely to be looking out for the best interests of the dog we’d surgify (my word).

To be fair it was not the humane services administrations that opposed us. It was the more radical animal advocates community (read: PeTA, et al) that felt our use of shelter dogs amounted to cruelty. (So would you rather we learned on doomed beagles? Or how about our first paying clients` pets?)

Frustrated at every turn, we carefully organized support for our cause within our faculty and administration and finally (two years later) found an enlightened soul in the humane services community who paved the way for our plan.

By my third year we were spaying and neutering dogs who would be eventually adopted. They were bused over to us from the pound, installed in kennels isolated from any patients (fashioned from old cow stanchions in our ancient quadrangle building), and kept for the week as we prepared for their surgeries in teams of three.

Two unintended consequences of the program marked it as a resounding success: 1-The dogs were walked on a leash, socialized and lavished with love for five full days. They were instantly more adoptable after their brush with an inexperienced knife. And…2-They usually ended up adopted before they left the building—by us. In so many cases we fell so madly in love with our charges we couldn’t bear to see them go.

It’s amazing for me to think how shortsighted we’ve been as a profession that we (for so long!) accepted that students practice on soon-to-be-dead dogs rather than on society’s neediest ones. Every year brings more enlightened policies and procedures into our profession—such as the shelter medicine program we now have at my alma mater.

But it still stinks to think that only fifteen years ago we were killing dogs for our learning pleasure instead of deriving pleasure from our learning with our beloved shelter dogs. I only hope the future yields to the kind of progressive thinking that made our spay and neuter program possible.