The American Kennel Club (AKC), the AKC Canine Health Foundation, and the Theriogenology Foundation have awarded a $100,000 grant to the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech for a three-year companion animal theriogenology residency program.

The college is one of two U.S. veterinary colleges with renowned expertise in genetics to receive the competitive grant this year and one of only six veterinary programs to receive the grant since its establishment by the AKC in 2014. 

The grant will pay for the training of a full-time resident focusing on clinical care and research pertaining to theriogenology — the physiology of reproductive systems and reproduction health — and genetics in dogs. This advanced training program, founded more than 20 years ago, has produced well-regarded specialists who have enhanced the field through clinical service, scholarship, and discovery. 

Alyssa Helms, of Knoxville, Tennessee, the recipient of the sponsored residency, began her training in July. As part of her residency program requirement, she will prepare for board eligibility in the American College of Theriogenologists through in-depth study of clinical reproduction cases, as well as fulfill requirements for a master’s degree in biomedical and veterinary sciences. She will also teach third- and fourth-year veterinary students in the areas of theriogenology in both the clinical and classroom environments.

Helms received her doctor of veterinary medicine degree, graduating with honors, in May from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. She has been intrigued by theriogenology since her time as an undergraduate when she studied large animal reproduction in cattle and horses.

“My interest in canine reproduction started in veterinary school where I began showing my Australian shepherds and joined my local kennel club. This allowed me to build strong relationships with responsible breeders, and I saw firsthand their commitment to the health and well-being of their beloved breeds. It was their commitment that made me realize that I wanted to help them produce healthier future generations by serving as their veterinarian,” said Helms.

Her primary focus will be on canine reproduction and genetic counseling, which is what attracted her to the college. “I knew that I wanted to receive specialty training in order to give my breeder clients and their dogs the best information and care,” Helms said. “The program at Virginia Tech really interested me because of the heavy canine caseload, strong mentorship, and training in canine genetic disease. I know that this residency will prepare me to better serve the breeder community and improve the health of future generations.”

“The AKC, AKC Canine Health Foundation, and the Theriogenology Foundation value this joint commitment to companion animal reproductive health as an invaluable tool for training the next generation to advance the health of dogs,” said Diane Brown, chief executive officer of the AKC Canine Health Foundation. “We are thrilled to establish this program, which will advance the science of theriogenology and genetics for the purpose-bred dog.”

Helms will train under the counsel of Julie Cecere, clinical assistant professor of theriogenology, who is board certified by the American College of Theriogenologists. “Alyssa is a fantastic addition to our program and I am delighted to serve as her mentor over the next three years. We are grateful to the American Kennel Club, the AKC Canine Health Foundation, and the Theriogenology Foundation for their support of her specialty training,” said Cecere.

“Purpose-bred dogs, such as those that help people with physical disabilities, detect explosives, or engage in sporting events, have traits that are genetically determined,” said Charles Franz, executive director of the Theriogenology Foundation. “The rapidly changing world of clinical theriogenology and genetic testing has given dog breeders the tools to produce healthier litters and puppies with predictable aptitudes and temperaments. We look forward to working with Drs. Helms and Cecere through this program to further small animal theriogenology.” 

The theriogenology service of the college’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Blacksburg, composed of board-certified faculty veterinarians and a resident veterinarian, provides consultations on reproductive cases, as well as high-quality reproductive care to breeders and producers of small and large animals.

Representatives from the funding organizations visited the college in May for a special rollout event of the first sponsored theriogenology residency at the college. The event included a welcome from Interim Dean Gregory B. Daniel and program leaders, a tour of the campus and facilities, and meetings with Helms. A reception followed where participants were able to meet and talk with faculty and students, area breeders, and representatives of local breed clubs.

-Written by Sarah Orren

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