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Lessons from dog camp

This August, the nearly 20,000 square feet of OSU’s James E. Oldfield Animal Teaching Facility was filled with conversations, commands, laughter and the occasional bark or yip — the signature sounds of the organized chaos known to children and their family dogs as Do As I Do (DAID) camp. For two weeks, eight child-dog pairs worked with undergraduate volunteers to train their dogs to recognize voice commands, touch paw targets, jump through hula hoops, stand on platforms and circle cones.

But DAID camp is more than a crash course in dog agility training. It’s part of a study run by a team that includes Shelby Wanser (who uses they/them pronouns), a 28-year-old who earned their OSU master’s degree in animal science this September with a thesis based on this research. (Shelby also graduated from the Oregon State Honors College in 2016 with an HBS in Animal and Rangeland Sciences; their honors thesis, entitled Attachment and Sociability in Therapy Dogs, examined how therapy dogs interact in animal-assisted therapy sessions with both patients and their handlers.)

While the larger study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, has a number of goals, Wanser’s thesis investigates the development of attachment bonds between youth with disabilities and their household dogs. This area of inquiry is unique in that, while much existing research focuses on bonds between adults with disabilities and their dogs, less focuses on children and dogs, and none has examined the dog’s attachment toward the child.

Since the study started in summer 2017, Wanser has coordinated, directed and instructed all six sessions of DAID camp. When camp is in session, Wanser needs to be everywhere at once.

“They always had an answer for every obstacle that came up, either with the kids or the dogs,” said Holly Duvall, a former volunteer who is now pursuing a doctorate in veterinary medicine at OSU. “Doing this for two and half years, I thought I had creative solutions — but Shelby — they really know how to relate to the dog.”

DAID camp is very far from Wanser’s first rodeo. Their previous work runs the gamut from training piglets for a Minecraft commercial to serving as a surrogate parent for two litters of wolf pups. They can trace their history of training animals back to the third grade, when they put a yardstick over two five-gallon paint jugs in their Eugene backyard and started teaching Sam, the dog they had long begged their parents to get, how to jump over it.

Shelby demonstrating training like the kind taught in DAID (Photo by Hannah O’Leary)

Wanser was just 11 when they entered Sam in a dog agility competition, the first in a series that would ultimately take them to nationals.

“She was very much a perfectionist,” Wanser said fondly of Sam. “As am I.”

As a kid, what struck Wanser about animals was how open their communication was and how, “through their body language they told their exact intentions.”

Wanser has come to believe that being around animals mitigated their own feelings of being different as a child: “In hindsight, my strong connection with animals from a young age was probably related to growing up as an only child of two moms, and not knowing anyone else who had same gender parents. And also now knowing that I am queer and agender and not really being able to articulate that at the time. I felt different, but I didn’t feel different when interacting with animals. I just was completely myself, completely present, not thinking about anything else other than that interaction in the moment and how much joy that interaction brought me.”

Wanser’s long-term goal is to offer animal-assisted psychotherapy for adolescents, and says the “incredible lessons” they’ve learned from training animals are the same ones they believe the children at DAID camp go home with: “patience, consistency, empathy, trust, encouragement and having a positive attitude.”

As it turns out, Wanser’s study is the first to show that a bond between a child and a dog is “bidirectional,” meaning that not only can a child develop attachment to a family dog, the dog can develop attachment toward the child. By way of illustration, Wanser described how, at the beginning of camp, a young female dog would stand by the door after a parent’s departure, anxiously waiting for the parent to come back. By the last day of camp, that same dog was looking eagerly to the child, asking with her body, “What are we gonna do now?”

Gretchen Schrafft earned her MFA in creative writing from OSU in 2016. She is a teacher and writer, and lives in Denver.

Originally published in Oregon Stater.

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