As a Biology major I always found myself drifting towards the seemingly more ‘academic’ Molecular Biology modules… It was only when I began my year abroad at Lund University in Sweden that I realised it was finally time to be more adventurous with my choices.
It perfectly fit this goal when I heard there was an option to do a research project instead of a university module and still gain the same number of credits. I wrote to a huge number of companies in Molecular Biology, Biotechnology and a bunch of other potential future career options… but I also found myself writing to academics in Animal Behaviour modules and begging them to take me on, despite my limited experience. I was so excited to get a reply back almost straight away, asking me if I’d be interested in training dogs…(“dogs weighing up to 50kg” as he put it, instantly conjuring confused thoughts of me attempting to carry heavy dogs around).
I grew up with no pets, and with no friends with dogs, so the thought of working with them was really quite random, however after months of seeing cute puppy videos and memes on my Facebook news feed I was hopeful that I’d get along with dogs well. So, it was with some apprehension that I arrived on my first day, only to be greeted by a professor and a massive golden retriever. After some awkward head pats I was entrusted with Kevin, the golden retriever, and we went off for our first walk.
My first day was “getting to know the dogs” which basically involved taking three different dogs for walks, playing games with them and picking up their poop (and as I was happy to find out I definitely wouldn’t be carrying the dogs…) It was probably the best first day of work anyone could hope for, well, minus the poop.
The aim of my project was to see if dogs can be trained to detect infrared (heat) radiation. Dogs have a wet and cold nose-tip, which isn’t necessary for any known function, so it seems logical that a possible function could be to use this coldness to detect radiating heat. This could have been useful in the past for activities such as hunting predators, however the function could have been lost as domestic dogs no longer need it. To encourage the use of this sense in dogs, a period of “re-training” would be necessary. This was where my job began, I was using positive reinforcement to help the dog realise it should always pick the warm side, when presented with a choice between a warm and
cold panel. I rewarded the dog with food every time it picked the warm side on its own, with the hope being that the dog would start to go to the warm side independently. This would demonstrate that the dog could detect which side was radiating heat.
It really was an amazing experience taking nine weeks off lectures to play with dogs, and by the end of the project I felt like I’d made real progress with the project aims.
So, after a fun, and at times stressful experience, here are my top take home messages:
1) Picking up sloppy dog poop seems daunting at first, but after the sixth time doing it that day you really get used to it.
2) Dogs will go completely crazy for meatballs. Seriously, do not bring hot meatballs into a room unless you’re ready to reward the dog.
3) Coming into work every day to be greeted by happy, jumpy dogs is probably the most uplifting feeling possible.
4) This is especially helped by 2). In the dogs’ eyes I was The Lady Who Gives The Meatballs
which caused some VERY excited dogs.
5) Even your dream job is pretty hard work. Working with dogs sounds easy, but actually
maintaining the motivation and attention of dogs throughout the day is exhausting, and
involves a huge amount of energy (and treats).
I also really saw the importance of studying different areas of Biology in order to become a well-rounded researcher. I think the skills I learned in improvisation, dedication and patience will be really useful when I go back to my usual lab work. Overall, it was probably the best nine weeks of my university life, and I would jump at the opportunity to work with dogs again!
On top of all that, I had the opportunity to go to the zoo a few times to look at the nose
skin of various animals. So, my childhood dream of playing with monkeys and
lemurs even came true!