Friday, April 29, 2011

Future Female Ph.D.s

Back in December I applied for a mini STEM Grant from the National Girls Collaborative Project for HAWS Education Department. STEM stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and the goal of NGCP is to link organizations that offer STEM programs so that they can share resources and help develop gender equality in STEM -- in other words get girls interested in science and math!

Our grant was for a program to be run during spring break and was based on one of the Kids N Critter Day Camps we offer during the summer called Gone to the Dogs. The program was tweaked a bit so that it would conform better to the STEM requirements. Our collaborative partner was the Boys and Girls Clubs running out of Hadfield Elementary in Waukesha, WI. We were told that the grant had been awarded at the end of February, and the camp ran this past week.

Eleven girls between the ages of 9 and 11 spent Monday through Thursday at HAWS. They spent 3 mornings in HAWS vet clinic watching surgery, learning about veterinary medicine, listening to heartbeats through a stethoscope, and observing our vets and vet techs with the animals. Dr. Meyer told them that if they were interested in becoming veterinarians they needed to pay attention in science and math and should volunteer in shelters once they're old enough so that they get animal handling experience.

The girls learned about the importance of socialization in puppies and then got to play with the litter of dachshund puppies we happened to have this week. They learned about positive reinforcement, and were able to practice training some of the dogs.

I also had them put together an experiment based on the pointing studies that many researchers who are interested in canine cognition have already published. (Click here to watch a video on work being done in Germany.) The girls designed the study with a little coaching by me, and decided to compare whether dogs that had an owner or dogs that lived in a shelter would be better at following a point. They then actually implemented the study.

I'll be the first to admit that the implementation of this study won't adhere to the strict criteria that science requires. The girls were really rooting for the dogs and hated to see them fail and sometimes gave them a lot of leeway on whether they were successful or not. It was also difficult for them to keep quiet during the testing and that caused the dogs to become distracted. But the whole point of their time at HAWS wasn't to become perfect scientists. The point was to show them that science can be fun, and I know we succeeded in that.

Below is a video of the experiment with the girls talking about what they did.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Smells!

This year's annual spring seminar hosted by HAWS was a huge success, and Sunday's topic was one of the most interesting presentations we've ever had. While it's well known that dogs have a phenominal sense of smell, it's not something that most people do as a fun activity with their dogs.

Up until now there really hasn't been much for the dog owner who wants to train their dog to use their nose, but doesn't really want to get into obedience, search and rescue or tracking. That's all starting to change. Dog trainers are starting to understand that because dogs have such a natural tendency to use their nose to explore their world, we can use this as a way to help dogs tire out mentally and as a bonding activity between owner and dog. A sport called K9 Nose Work recently developed and has started to become popular.

Steve and Jennifer White were HAWS featured speakers last weekend. Steve has a background in training dogs for law enforcement K-9 units, and Jennifer has decades of experience training a variety of species and working in behavior modification of canine behavior problems.

Our introduction to scent taught us that scent isn't stationary -- it moves according to the environment it's in and can be affected by surface type, temperature and wind. A good dog handler understands this, and should learn how to evaluate the environment in order for the dog to be the most successful.

A good handler also learns to trust the dog -- because after all humans have only 5 mllion scent receptors in our noses, while dogs have between 125 and 300 million -- depending on the breed.

The highlight of Sunday was the demo. I was very proud of my dog Mystic who found the scent tucked away in a film canister and placed on an upside down chair after minimal training.

Dixie wasn't quite as successful -- her extensive training as a hunting dog most likely made her dismiss the scent of almond extract as being irrelevant. Her nose has been trained to find birds, not nuts. But she sure had fun playing with Steve!

Star of the day was Bryn -- a schipperke with a nose that kicked in. Here's video of her enthusiastic report that she had successfully located the almond extract.

Thanks to Steve and Jennifer White for the video, and stills taken from the video. And for showing those of us in attendance on Sunday a whole new world as smelled through our dog's noses.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Critter Club

For years HAWS has had to disappoint animal-loving kids by turning them down as volunteers. Our policy is that teens between the ages of 13 and 15 need to volunteer with a parent, and can only volunteer without parental supervision once they reach 16. This means that teenagers who don't have a willing parent, or kids under the age of 13 don't have an opportunity to contribute their time to the animals at HAWS.

This policy is difficult for many kids and their parents to understand. It's not that we don't like children -- we do, really! It's just that interacting with animals at a shelter is very different than interacting with the family pet. Here at HAWS we get a range of personalities in our adoptable animals -- everything from easy going and extroverted, to shy and intolerant of certain interactions by strangers. It takes a certain degree of maturity, responsibility and common sense to ensure safety around some of our animals. And while there are some adults that don't have these qualities -- they are much more likely to be lacking in children.

We've started a new program called Critter Club on a trial basis. For the next two months 15 kids between the ages of 11 and 13 will be allowed to volunteer under the direct supervision of HAWS staff. It won't all be about cuddling with fuzzy creatures, however. The kids will be cleaning cages, washing dishes, restocking poop bags in our out-door waste stations, and cleaning windows. Once their work is done they'll be allowed to take out cats and some of the other animals and do some socialization.

The other component to Critter Club is educational. Last night they went through the same training that our regular volunteer cat cuddlers go through. Next week we'll be doing trials on some scent games with adoptable dogs that we plan on using at HAWS Annual Walkathon in May. And in May they'll have an opportunity to watch our veterinary staff at work doing surgery in our SNIP Clinic. If this program is successful we'll be offering it to a limited number of kids each semester during the school year. Watch out for updates, and I'll let you know!