In rural western Colorado, dogs face a variety of foes: cactus spines in their paws, grass seeds in their ears, and the occasional parasite for good measure. So my Australian shepherd mutt and I often visit our local veterinarian. My dog, no surprise, hates this. I, on the other hand, almost look forward to it.

Dr. Norman Vincent works out of a low-slung, weatherbeaten house. Instead of a private exam room, he has a single room for his table, his reception desk, and his waiting area. So as his patients and their owners wait their turns, we get to witness both the comedy and the tragedy of his work. One moment, he's vaccinating a pickup truck full of puppies, passed in bucket-brigade style by a posse of kids. Next, he's shaking his head over a declining golden retriever and its weeping owner.

Doc Vincent has big hands and a no-nonsense manner, which he leavens with exaggerated country etiquette. He addresses each of us humans as "young lady," or "young man," no matter how advanced our age. "And how are we today?" he asks, as he hustles the next tabby or corgi or black Lab onto his table. As the animals and their owners leave, various ailments in tow, the waiting bipeds cluck with sympathy and advice.

I could say something sentimental here about small-town life, something reassuring about the persistence of neighborliness. And it would be true in many ways. But I've lived in a small town long enough to know that loneliness often lurks at the ends of dirt roads and on the quiet lots at the edge of town. Despite the cheerful potlucks, our differences still divide us: Disagreements over the brand of our politics, the form of our religion and the make of our car are as deep, or deeper, than the rest of the country's. Personal resentments can endure for years, and stereotypes can carry the weight of the Gospels.

Maybe that's why I like my time at the vet. In Doc Vincent's office, politics and prejudices are temporarily forgotten. A fifth-generation rancher gets the same gruff treatment as a couple of young women with pierced lips and a California license plate. And no matter where we come from or who we are, we're all vulnerable as we stand at the examining table, trying to do right by the animals we care for. We're all in it, if not quite together, then at least at the same time.

Not long ago, Doc Vincent led an elderly collie out of surgery, and we humans goggled at the dog's bloodied neck and bandaged legs. When the owner, an unkempt middle-aged man, saw his dog, his face crumpled. Doc Vincent turned to his ever-present audience. "This dog got attacked by a couple of pit bulls," he said, "and I'm afraid this young man is just as bad off." He fetched a folding chair, and without a word, set it up next to his table. The man sat down, buried his head in the dog's ruff, and cried. Doc Vincent, unfazed, turned again to his waiting patients. "Young lady?" he asked. "How are we today?"