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Sally Dickinson

Ph.D. Student

I grew up with working Border Collies on a sheep farm in Northern England and was greatly influenced by my father who volunteered for many years with the Mountain Rescue team.  After moving to the USA and settling in Northern Ohio I joined the local Fire and Rescue department in 1997, trained my first search canine and began my public safety career along with studying pre-veterinary medicine at Kent State.  Animal medicine quickly morphed into human para-medicine as my firefighting career advanced to a large municipal department.  

As a wilderness and USAR canine handler I was interested in the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of developing behavior that would hold up in challenging environments.  I completed the KPA Professional Dog Trainer program and the University of Washington Animal Behavior program, which really began my love of applied animal behavior.  As with many working canines, I eventually had a dog with a significant injury, the rehabilitation from which sparked my interest in Canine Fitness and Conditioning, so my next educational experience was with the University of Tennessee to complete the Certified Canine Fitness Trainer program.

The idea of a firefighter as a tactical athlete was really taking shape in big departments, but it was obvious that there was more to fitness than lifting weights.  Being able to regulate breathing, have increased flexibility, body awareness and control were also critical.  To explore this dimension of fitness I completed a 200-hour first responder yoga teacher training program.  Finally, I had a mechanism to not only increase physical strength and conditioning, but also a tool to combat the significant physical and mental stress that the job created.

Until this time my firefighting / para-medicine career and my canine handling / training career had been on two-parallel tracks.  It became evident that there was an opportunity to combine many of the concepts I had learned.  There was little research available looking at ways to develop a dog’s resilience to environmental and psychological stress in a systematic and targeted way, using physical fitness conditioning and arousal control training.  Combining the science of behavior modification, emotional control, breathing control and physical fitness is the focus of my PhD research under Dr. Feuerbacher at Virginia Tech, in the School of Animal Sciences.