Saturday, March 31, 2012

Navel gazing with a dog zombie

I am at the end of something. I am a senior in veterinary school, a short-timer, with seven weeks left. It feels just like the end of high school or the end of college: I know this place inside and out, I know my relationships with everyone, I know what I am good at and what I am bad at. I know which faculty member was my nemesis during my first few years, and which one became my nemesis in clinics, and my heart rate no longer speeds up when I encounter either (but put me in a room with both of them together and all bets are off). I know which resident everyone has a crush on. I know who is a “drop everything and go to that talk” captivating speaker. I know where to find the free food (even if I forget about Radiology Food Day every Wednesday morning). I know who to ask for under the table care of my animals and who will charge me. When I think about what it will be like to start my new life, I am filled with panic: everyone will be different. I will have to learn who is a friend and who is not, who shares my interests and who will look at me as though I am an alien.

My teachers, of course, love to ask us as we near the end of this program where we see ourselves in five years. Five years from now, I imagine I’ll be a senior again. I have a lot more that I want to learn before I settle down at a job. I set out to learn some stuff about how dog brains works and what makes a dog a dog, and I didn’t learn that at vet school, but I did learn the right words to use in describing what I am interested in. “I'm interested in dog brains but I want to find a way to study them without cutting open dog heads” became “I'm interested in behavioral neuroendocrinology in dogs, particularly the HPA axis.” “I'm interested in stress in shelter dogs” became “I have studied stress in dogs using cortisol levels as a marker, and am interested in exploring mechanisms of stress by looking at canine genetics.” “Dear god doesn't anyone else out there want to learn more about the Belyaev foxes?" became “I know where domesticated foxes are studied in this country and it sure would be nice to end up in a program there.”

So there will be more learning. In five years I hope I'll finally have completed my quest to assemble some base of information and skills that I originally set out to learn, and have had so much trouble finding all in one place. It seems likely this will involve completing a PhD program. Afterwards, I hope I will feel ready to be employed again; “going back to school” can only last you so long as a career. I expect I will at that point be asked again, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” So where do I see myself ten years from now, when I've been working for a few years, when I have gotten a good bite taken out of the process of building a career?

I could work at a shelter, organizing programs to enrich and train shelter dogs, doing research on how to get dogs into homes faster and how to keep them from coming in to a shelter in the first place. I know someone who has this job. I am jealous of her.

I could teach at a university, one with an animal sciences program or a vet school. I love teaching enough that I could imagine any number of jobs of this sort that would tickle my interest, but the dream job here would be starting a Master’s degree program in companion animal behavior. There's a need for programs like this, and damn would I love to set one up.

The very best job, though, would be one entirely devoted to outreach about how to manage dogs and cats. I’d find ways to get the information into many more of the crevices of society where it has so far failed to permeate: training dogs is a good thing. Extra litterboxes for cats are a good thing. Spaying and neutering are good things. Be a responsible pet owner and all will go well for you. Finding ways of making these things easier for people, like organizing training classes for low-income families, would be an essential part of such a job. I want to immerse myself in changing the world. I want to be able to die saying that I made a significant difference in the number of animals surrendered to animal shelters throughout the country. Does an organization ready to pay me to do this exist? Maybe, maybe not, and at any rate I’m up for starting my own.

Our teachers also like to ask us how we intend to earn enough money to pay off our staggering student loans. I do owe less on my student loans than on my house, but it is decidedly comparable, and could easily have gone the other way. I'm taking a leap of faith here. If I need to get a less interesting job in order to pay the bills, I will. But in the current climate of increasing frustration with corporations, I wonder to myself if companies will end up donating more and more money to organizations for social change in order to buy public goodwill. I know what I want to do, and I'm going to try to figure out how to get someone to give me money to do it.

I live in the future more than most people do. I always look forward, never content with where I am now, always wondering what the next thing is and how I can get there faster. In these last seven weeks of veterinary school, as I scramble to stuff information into holes in my knowledge base as fast as I encounter them, I'm also trying to pause to savor the here. Vet school has made me rant, it has made me cry, it has made me curl up in my bed and never want to come out again. It has changed me at a very deep level. I see the world in an entirely different way now than I did before. And it is almost over. I hope that what comes next is equally revelatory.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Humpity humpity

I am staying in a rented room near the aquarium where I’m doing an externship this week, and my hostess’ dog likes to hump me. I’m trying to suss out all the intricacies of his reasoning.

Humping is generally seen as a dominance behavior in dogs: one dog does it to another dog to assert his dominance. (If he is mistaken, a fight might break out.) This dog is probably trying to assert his dominance over me. But my hostess tells me he has never tried to hump any other guests. Why not? (Maybe he felt secure in his relationship with them and didn’t have to try to prove himself. He’s a big dog and it’s possible they were scared of him.)

But she adds that he does try to hump her neighbor, a little old lady. So if he likes to hump people that he feels insecure about, why her? And, alarmingly, does he think I am as much of a pushover as a little old lady?

Dogs are weird. It’s always a little frustrating when I can’t quite suss one out: “why did I spend so much money on vet school if I still don’t know everything?”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Rewarding penguins

Perched on a sunny rock in the middle of the penguin exhibit, I watched as the penguin trainer next to me quietly vibrated with happiness. She was overjoyed because a shy young penguin, who had never liked her much despite bonding well with some of the male trainers, had climbed into her lap. Being an animal trainer, of course, she wasn’t going to let the opportunity slide to reinforce this behavior so it would occur more often in the future. She was gently rubbing the penguin on his chest. This startled me: dog trainers insist that the best reward is food. Why was she using physical contact, something that is considered insufficient reward in most other species?

The answer lies just in the practicality of feeding these birds. Unlike sea lions, who go through several buckets packed with fish a day, the little African penguins this trainer works with may eat as few as two herring a day. That’s just two chances to reinforce behavior. I asked why they didn’t cut the fish up into tiny little pieces instead of offering them whole, but watching feeding time made that more clear: feeding a penguin is a careful dance of getting the food down their throat (they often refuse, and what was the favorite kind of fish yesterday may have fallen competely out of favor today) and keeping the trainer’s fingers from getting munched in the process. All the penguin trainers had nets of scars on their hands from interactions with these birds, and were very blasé about being bitten; I was bitten three times in the calves during my short six hours with the birds. (Once was my fault for getting too close to a chick when her mom was nearby, but I can’t quite see how I could have avoided the other two times.) Throwing little pieces of fish is impractical, not to mention difficult in a flock of 27 birds.

So the trainers gradually condition the penguins to like being petted, so they can feel that they are being preened as another bird would do it. Where food is considered a “primary reinforcer” (something the animal requires to live), preening is a “secondary reinforcer” (something the animal has been conditioned to like). In the penguin trainer community, however, there is debate about whether preening could actually be considered a primary reinforcer, as arguably keeping oneself clean of parasites is essential for life.

Either way, an hour spent on a rock surrounded by 27 penguins is an hour well spent.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Learning from marine mammal trainers

I’m in the middle of two weeks out of state shadowing sea lion trainers. (I am planning a detailed post on what that’s been like.) Back home with my dogs this weekend, I find myself enthusiastically applying some new approaches to their training.

  • Plan each session ahead of time. The plan can be very brief: in Jenny’s case, “while I’m in the kitchen making dinner, I’m going to work on her recall from the living room and highly reward it,” or “when I go from the living room into the kitchen for a snack I’m going to work on her ’stay’ command.” But think about it ahead of time and know what your plan is rather than leaving yourself to think “here I am in the kitchen with some good doggy snacks to hand; what shall I do with them?”
  • Know what you hope to accomplish from each session. “When I practice these stays, I want to be able to get out of sight for less than a second without her breaking her stay.”
  • Keep working with your animals even if they are old and already well-trained. Your relationship with them will benefit from it! Jack loves training, and I have been focusing on Jenny and ignoring him.
  • Be patient. Progress can take time. Don’t push it.
The sea lion group I worked with this past week was a well-rehearsed team. They worked animals singly or in pairs, depending on how they were housed, but often had five trainers working a session. Teamwork like that isn’t the norm in the dog training world, of course, because we don’t hire large staffs to train our dogs! But I could still take some lessions away.