Watching Australian cattle dogs fly over jumps and border collies sprint through tunnels gave veterinary student Natalia Sytch a greater appreciation for purebred dogs and their abilities.
“Currently it’s popular for people to go adopt dogs from shelters, and that needs to happen,” said Sytch, a second-year student in the College of Veterinary Medicine who participated in the 36th annual Wine Country Circuit Dog Show, held Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 at Sampson State Park in Romulus, New York.
“But there’s kind of a lack of appreciation for purebred dogs,” Sytch said. “It’s really impressive to see how the animals can be trained, and how skilled and how intelligent they are. And that’s not necessarily something you can get if it’s not a purebred animal.”
Sytch was one of 20 students who participated in the dog show’s mentor program, which pairs Cornell veterinary students with breeders, judges and exhibitors from kennel clubs. The program was started in 2021 by Sue Hamlin, a now-retired administrative manager at Cornell’s Baker Institute for Animal Health. Inspired by a similar program at Tufts University, the mentorships help familiarize veterinary students with some of the 200 breeds the American Kennel Club recognizes as purebreds, Hamlin said.
“They’re going to see some good ones, and they’re going to see some lousy examples of the breed,” she said. “And some of these dogs you rarely see, at least in a certain part of the country.”
Sytch matched with Russ Hastings, president of both the Elmira Kennel Club and the Finger Lakes Afghan Hound Club, who told her that the slender, lanky labradors competing in the agility event were “field labs,” trained in ways that mimic the jobs they were originally bred to do.
“Now there’s no purpose besides being a companion,” Sytch said of most domestic pets. “So doing agility training is really valuable. Because when owners engage their dogs in that kind of training, it’s actually really healthy for the dog behaviorally and mentally. It gives them goals, something to work toward, keeps them busy and prevents negative behavior. And as future vets, we can ask our clients, ‘Have you ever considered participating in a competition with your dog? Do you know about this kind of training?’”
In addition to the students participating in the mentorship program, another group shadowed Cornell veterinarians who provided free medical care to show dogs and answered questions from owners.
While shadowing neurology resident Dr. Patti Lawler, veterinary student Hannah Flamme saw an English lab come into the vet tent with a paw laceration that happened before the competition. Despite administering antibiotics, his owners were concerned that it wasn’t healing. Flamme said Lawler quickly got down on the ground to do a physical exam and let her check out the paw.
“Luckily, it was at a point that we didn’t really have to do very much,” Flamme said. “But I think they were just happy to hear from a veterinary professional that the injury wasn’t something that had to be treated urgently. It gave them peace of mind that they were doing the correct thing for a very prized show animal.”
Later in the day they saw a Scottish deerhound with diarrhea. Lawler determined that the owner’s choice of treats – chicken necks – may have been too hard on his stomach, especially while dealing with the stress of travel, and advised a diet change.
“She was an excellent teacher,” Flamme said of Lawler. “I really admired her communication skills. She did a really excellent job of briefly, eloquently explaining to owners exactly what was going on with their animal.”
Sytch also said that the experience helped her learn how to communicate with knowledgeable breeders. Her mentor explained how frustrating it can be for breeders to interact with veterinarians who don’t take this into account.
“[Hastings] said, ‘When you go to the vet as a breeder, sometimes you’ve been breeding this [breed of] dog for 40 years. So when we come to you at the vet clinic, just at least give us give us a few minutes of your attention and listen to what we have to say, even if you know better. We really appreciate it,’” Sytch said.
Flamme said she thought her experience at the dog show would prove valuable in her future career as a small-animal general practitioner.
“I know that I will have clients in the breeding and showing industry someday,” Flamme said. “I now have a greater appreciation for what they do and the time and energy and care and compassion that goes into what they do.”