For Kelly O’Toole '14, combining her interests in biology and anthropology with her passion for animals provided the perfect starting point for her Sharpe Community Scholars Program summer project.
In the Sharpe program, first-year students take concepts and ideas from the classroom and apply them in real-world situations. Then they have the opportunity to propose a funded research project for the following summer.
“In my community-based research studying the implications of the human-animal bond, I hope to answer how animals can have an impact in the lives of humans and in what capacities these interactions can successfully occur,” says Kelly, who plans to major in both biology and anthropology. “More specifically, I want to understand whether a program bringing abandoned and abused canines together with juvenile offenders can improve the juveniles’ behavior, social skills, and self-confidence.”
“Animals have always been a central part of my life,” continues Kelly. “That’s why I wanted to focus my project on the human-animal bond.”
Kelly took two classes with Anthropology Professor Barbara J. King and studied King’s book Being with Animals: Why We are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World. In her further research into the human-animal bond, she came across many programs that involved juvenile offenders training and caring for dogs. These programs were successful in increasing adoption rates for the dogs and reducing the juveniles' recidivism rates, as well as developing new, positive ways of viewing the world for the youth involved. After studying much of the evidence, Kelly decided to start a similar program with the Heritage Humane Society (HHS) of Williamsburg and the local juvenile detention facility, the Merrimac Juvenile Detention Center.
"I have been volunteering at the Heritage Humane Society since the beginning of my freshman year, and I have seen firsthand the kind of canine behavior that repels potential adopters," says Kelly.
With the support of the Assistant Director of Programs at Merrimac, the Volunteer Coordinator of HHS, local dog trainer Jean Nohle, and other trainers and students of the Animal Behavior College, Kelly’s research and planning has turned into the Teen Trainers Program at HHS.
Here’s how it works. Post-dispositional juveniles at Merrimac (who are already involved in community service and job-shadowing outside of the detention center) will spend four weeks training dogs at the shelter twice a week after attending an initial orientation. The training will work toward having the dogs pass the official AKC Canine Good Citizen Test, thus improving each dog’s chance of being adopted. Kelly also hopes to positively affect the behavior of the juveniles involved and to create a successful partnership between HHS and Merrimac.
The program will take place throughout July, and the test will be in early August.
“The research that I am involved in has been extremely beneficial for my intellectual and academic development,” says Kelly. “I have also developed a more specific focus on learning more about nonhuman animals and the human-animal bond.”
“Working with animals can really open people up to new experiences and make their lives better in the long run,” says Kelly. “But more than just having the dogs pass the test and kids having better behavior, what I am really looking for is to have a positive impact on the community.”