Sunday, February 28, 2016

Archie at the Dog Show

We first-year vet students are starting to crack under the pressure. We have so much material to review and learn in the next two weeks but we are all mentally exhausted. We needed a break!

About 15 miles up the freeway there was a big, four-day dog show that included conformation, agility, obedience, and rally. I knew it would also have a decent complement of vendors. So I convinced four of my fellow students to go on Saturday morning. Three of us brought dogs.

I decided this was the perfect time to see what Archie was going to do in that kind of scene. It would give me a feel for additional training that he might need.

Because he's still working on leash behavior, I thought that he should wear a harness instead of a collar. I found Harry's red harness from his Dogz Rule! flyball days and decided to use that. It was a good choice, and maybe it transmitted some good juju to my puppy.

I learned that Archie is the most chill, happy little fox terrier to grace this planet.

He didn't freak out over the chaos of the conformation arena, with the stench of cigarette smoke, baby powder, and dog pee underlain by a whiff of desperation. He didn't lunge at other dogs or jump on people.

No jumping unless they invited him to do so. Every single vendor selling food thought he was the cutest thing ever and started stuffing him with treat samples. He was into that. He was also perfectly happy to greet anybody willing to greet him (he's never met a stranger, as they say) with tail wags and kisses if they let him.

In the agility arena, he didn't stare into other dog's crates or try to grab treat bags from chairs. When we sat in the bleachers to watch some runs, he sat in my lap watching every single dog with great concentration and absorption. He didn't bark or whine or get wound up at the fast ones, but he never took his eyes off the dogs in the ring. Timers buzzing, teeters slapping the ground, judges calling points--none of this seemed to faze him. There were dogs all around us but he had eyes only for the ones in the rings.

I ran into two agility friends of my friend Anne, and, after greeting him, they immediately started asking Archie for sits and downs for treats. He was happy to comply with that as well--on a cold concrete floor surrounded by dogs and people. Amazing. You can always rely on dog people for some solid people-puppy interactions.

Archie is a delight and a challenge by equal turns. And I think we can call his first dog show a success.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


While there are dozens of amazing insults and insights that I endure every day, as do we all, none of them rise to the level of blog-worthy. While I am training a new puppy, and he is of course the most amazing, smart, and naughty puppy that ever existed, nothing there is really blog-worthy either. Although he does have a very amusing obsession with socks.

After several years at this, I should be able to find a kernel of something to write about on a semi-regular basis. But I am unable to find either the energy or the kernel.

Oh, I could drone on and on about minutiae of innervation of the small mammal head or about how my younger peers confuse kindness in an instructor with competence. Or about how it took me three days and multiple attempts at my taxes to figure out the pathway that was most favorable to me. Or about how I am wringing my hands over what snacks to bring to class on Thursday that will satisfy the vegans, gluten-frees, and other freaky food-o-phobes in class in addition to pleasing the largest number of the rest of us.

In sum, vet school is sucking all desire out of me to sit in front of a computer screen unless I am studying.

Still, there are glimmers.

Archie is quickly mastering hand signals for down, the obedience "around" command, coming up to my indicated side from a sit-stay or while moving, recalls in general (god, he's a stubborn little terrier), running with me (not ahead of me or biting or jumping at my hand), and verbal commands for turning left and right. I've never taught any dog a solid right or left verbal command. It should be interesting.

And Archie starts class in two weeks. Hopefully that will provide some training hijinks that I can write about.

And this interminable term draws to a close in just a couple of weeks (plus finals week after that). Spring break won't be nearly long enough, I'm afraid.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Archie, Thirty Clicks, and Crate Games

Archie's training is proceeding at a brisk pace. He's the perfect study break. Of course his attention span is very short, although it is improving daily, along with his motor coordination. He still flings himself through life but his aim is a little better now. Even so, I keep his training sessions even shorter, which means sometimes I have less than three minutes to make things count. Planning is required.

Crate training is super important but it was on my list along with a couple of dozen other critical behaviors. By crate training I mean two specific things: the dog will run into the crate willingly and with enthusiasm then remain in the crate until released, even if the door is open. The general behavior of sitting quietly in a crate once the door is closed gets lumped into another category of skills.

To back up a bit, I have a crate for each of the dogs. It is their crate--other dogs aren't allowed in there. Mimi's crate is really just a hidey-hole for her, a place for her to chew on super high-value things. She sometimes naps in there when I'm studying since her crate is right next to me. But even though she has the run of the house during the day, she still has to get in her crate to receive a treat before I leave the house.

Azza and Archie have nice big crates that face each other across the living room. Both of them spend the day in their crates. Both of them have to get in their crates in order to get a treat before I leave.

The routine is this: once I do a final check of my backpack for the things I need for the morning, I say "get in your boxes!" as I go to the fridge to get a yummy soft treat for each dog. I have trained them to, and expect them to run, not walk, to their respective crates, dive in, and wait for me to deliver the treat.

Archie had to be formally introduced to those two specific behaviors I described earlier. I introduced "get in your box" using the clicker in three separate training sessions spaced about two days apart each. To keep Archie on his toes, I train three or four different behaviors in each training session. In sum, I probably went through thirty clicks and thirty treats on the "get in your box" behavior. Remember, I expect the dog to RUN into the crate with enthusiasm. I trained the release command separately, not in the context of the crate but in the context of sit-stay-release. Thirty treats may seem like a lot but I can deliver thirty treats in well under two minutes, depending on the clarity of my training and the focus of my dog--and these were spread out over three different training sessions.

I turned to working on other skills and put the crate training aside. Of course, Archie still had to get in his crate every morning. I simply opened the door and tossed a treat in for him. I'm not a purist and not at all above luring if it seems to be the appropriate tool at the time.

Imagine my astonishment when two days ago, after I said my usual (and invariable) "get in your boxes!" (it comes out more of a sing-song than a command) and headed for the fridge, I noticed Archie was not under my feet as usual. I turned the corner to find him standing in front of his crate. The door was pushed shut so he was looking at the crate, looking at me, looking at the crate, dancing back and forth on his toes, clearly communicating his desire to get in his crate right now! I opened the door and he shot into the crate like he'd been fired out of a gun, whipped around, and stared at me, waiting for his treat.

My jaw hit the floor.

Okay, sure, he's seen this behavior modeled by the other dogs day after day. I didn't specifically train the "wait in your crate until released" but he's seen them do that too. And I did train a stay-release sequence so he had the general idea.

I thought it was a fluke. I released him from the crate, and using the treat intended for Mimi, I said, "get in your box!" and he shot in the crate again! He's flawlessly repeated this behavior every morning and lunch time since. And at night, he now goes into his sleeping crate (pushed next to the bed) on his own.

To be clear, he never resisted going in his crate. I never had to stuff him in a crate against his will. And the breeder had him sleeping at night in a crate from about 10 weeks of age. Heck, he's already crossed international boundaries in a crate on a plane. He's traveled in cars in a crate. The crate isn't even the important part of this whole affair--it's really all about drive and excitement. What is huge about this leap is that he made it so quickly and with so little formal shaping on my part. He watches the other two dogs closely. He already loves the clicker so much that just the sight of it causes fox terrier boinging--training him at this point is a matter of his focus.

I could not have devised a more perfect diversion from the trials and tribulations of vet school.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Riding On A Wave of Chickens

I've been riding on a high for the past couple of weeks. And I have to chalk it all up to the chickens.

I'm planning on conducting a research project next summer using tissues from laying hens to study ovarian cancer. No need to go into details here, but laying hens are considered a robust animal model for this disease. Considering that synapsids, from which mammals arose, and sauropsids, from which avians remain, split apart around 320 million years ago, that's pretty amazing.

Figure from University of California at Berkeley.

My chosen summer project has some unusual constraints. To cut right to the point, 18-month-old laying hens take, well, eighteen months to make. I could not wait until summer to begin "making" my tissues. I had access to appropriate laying hens last fall and I had to start collecting my data then, somehow finding time between all the studying I was doing.

First, I collected blood samples from the hens at monthly intervals.

In case you were wondering, there are three locations that can be used for venous blood collection from avians, just like in small mammals: external jugular vein, saphenous vein in the lower leg, and wing vein. I chose to collect from the wing vein. The skin in this location is paper-thin and transparent--you can see the veins clearly. The vessels tend to be rather delicate too and tear easily. When you pull back on the plunger of the syringe, even a tiny bit, you can see the veins collapse completely. It's a delicate balance to pull the plunger back between the heartbeats that fill the vein. We needed about 2 ml from each bird, which doesn't sound like a lot until you actually have to collect it. I invited other first-year vet students and vet tech friends to come with me each time. If you can successfully do a blood draw from the wing vein of a chicken, you can claim considerable bragging rights about your blood draw skills.

Second, I had to collect the tissues. The nutritional trial that included these birds was ending in December. Of course, it was during finals week that I had to euthanize and collect the tissues for my study: complete ovaries and oviducts and samples of liver. No reason for any of this to be convenient or simple!

The types of analyses that I want to perform on the tissues in the summer meant that I couldn't keep them in formalin for too long, certainly not until the summer. But the next step required some money to pay for specialized lab work. Sections of the tissues needed to be embedded in paraffin blocks. From these, we can cut thin slices that can be stained for various purposes such as microscopic or immunohistochemical analysis.

The college has an established program to provide funds to students for summer research projects that pays a small amount for supplies and a bit more for a stipend for the student. I of course submitted my application to this program but none of this money would be released before the summer. I had also applied for a scholarship from the American Association of Avian Pathologists but wasn't going to hear about that until early February. And Gita, my MS advisor, had encouraged me to prepare a proposal to the Agricultural Research Foundation of the university. She has received numerous grants from them in the past for her own work, including for the project that I did for my MS. The grants pay for student salaries and equipment and other supplies. We submitted the proposal back in December. It was a real crush for me to find time to write the draft but we made the deadline. I didn't expect to hear about that until late February. So there were plenty of potential funding sources up in the air but none of them were assured or even available to me so I could complete this critical step.

In desperation, I turned to another of my mentors, Jean. She allowed me to use her discretionary account, a sort of slush fund each faculty member can use for small expenses not directly related to specific grants, to cover the costs of having the tissues embedded in paraffin.

I went down to the Histology lab to get information. They gave me a tour, and showed me how to load tissues into the little cassettes that would be used to form then hold the paraffin blocks. I learned that if I trimmed the tissues and loaded the cassettes myself, I would save a lot of money.

So instead of spending more time with the cadaver dogs and cats on the Saturday before the gross anatomy midterm, I spent four hours in the gross anatomy lab trimming pieces of laying hen ovaries and oviducts. In our lab, we have special dissection tables with downdraft circulation systems. By using one of these tables, I didn't have to use a fume hood to do the work--formalin is nasty. It was delicate and slow work, made slower by my inexperience.

Here's what a loaded cassette looks like:

The two round bits are slices of oviduct near the ovary (upper left) and about 4 cm away from the ovary (upper right). The lower bit and the bits on the paper towel are pieces of the hen's ovary. Based on gross observation of tumors on her oviduct and abnormalities of the ovary, this hen had ovarian cancer. In fact, I think that eight of the eighteen hens had ovarian and/or oviductal cancer. That is always a risk with projects of this sort: will enough of the study animals have the disease of interest to make the results statistically significant? The minimum number of disease cases that you need out of your study population can of course be determined before you even begin the experiment, and I had already made those calculations. But I had no control over the outcome. So it was really exciting to see the tissue with my own eyes.

This is what the Histology lab emailed to me after I returned the cassettes to them:
Also, we would like to tell you how wonderful your samples were! The tissues were the appropriate size and thickness and easy to embed. Your cassettes were not too full or difficult to read and your sample numbers were simple. Many thanks.
Well, this was a confidence boost! Maybe it was beginner's luck. But I did receive detailed instructions that I saw no reason not to follow to the letter.

Whew. I was able to breathe a bit easier knowing that at least select bits of the tissues were now resting safely in paraffin. I was still stressed about funding though. The analyses I want to run on those tissues are pretty expensive--and that's just for the chemicals. I was wondering how I could pay for additional lab work too.

Well, it turns out there's good money in chickens, even when you use them to study human disease. 

Less than a week later, I received two emails one day apart. Gita and I got the ARF grant! We asked for, and were awarded, $12,500--with that level of funding, I will run out of avian-specific proteins to run on the tissues before I run out of money! And I got the AAAP scholarship, which I can use however I see fit.

Chickens. They got me into vet school. Here's hoping they get me a good job when I finish.