In her 11-year career as a dog trainer in New York City, Rachel Lane has worked with thousands of misbehaving mutts and their overwhelmed owners. Behind each canine crisis, she always finds a pet and a human that could have used her help much sooner.

“If you start working with a puppy in its first 8 to 10 weeks, you can prevent the older dog behaviors I get calls about and keep a lot of problems from occurring in the first place,” she said. “So many dogs end up in shelters or euthanized because of behavior that could have been addressed if they were better socialized as a puppy.”

Lane is a professionally certified trainer who has worked with dogs and people of all ages, teaching skills ranging from care and obedience to basketball and skateboarding. Through her business, Leash & Learn, she offers in-home training for dogs and their owners and a variety of packages designed to support busy families and working professionals.

But as she advanced in her career, Lane yearned to broaden her education and expand her impact in the field of canine behavior and welfare.

“I had some certifications, but I felt I did a lot of learning from here and there, piecing things together from online studies and seminars,” she said. “I wanted to find a cohesive academic program that would support me as a practitioner, to make sure I wasn’t missing anything.”

In Virginia Tech’s Online Master of Agriculture and Life Sciences program in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Lane found “a perfect fit.” This month, she will graduate from the program’s first cohort with a master’s degree in applied animal behavior and welfare, a broadened community of professional peers, and a master’s thesis examining a topic near and dear to her heart: the importance of early socialization for puppies.

“It really has helped with my confidence,” she said. “I feel much more comfortable reading research papers and applying the takeaways to my job. I can ask other trainers from the program questions and use them as a sounding board. The professors and instructors are top-notch and always willing to make themselves available. I’ve loved the program and I’m going to be sad when it’s finished.”

Lane with Dustin on Virginia tech's Blacksburg campus. Image courtesy of Lane.

Rachel and Dustin at Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus.
Rachel Lane and her dog, Dustin, on the Blacksburg campus. Image courtesy of Rachel Lane.

Growing up, Lane always wanted to be a dog trainer but didn’t know there were college programs that would allow her to pursue her passion. Her high school counselor told her there was no professional path to dog training and encouraged her to get a college degree. She enrolled at the City College of New York and earned dual bachelor’s degrees in advertising and public relations and digital design.

But Lane didn’t give up on her dream of becoming a dog trainer. While in her first year of college, she landed an apprenticeship with a well-regarded trainer. Within the next few years, she earned her professional certification and built a thriving business.

After searching for several years for an online master’s program that supported working animal behavior and welfare practitioners, Lane found Virginia Tech. Launched in fall 2020, the online Master of Agriculture and Life Sciences in applied animal behavior and welfare allows professionals to expand their knowledge of behavioral principles, and ultimately, improve the lives of animals and their caregivers.

According to Associate Professor of applied animal behavior and welfare Erica Feuerbacher, who coordinates the program, Virginia Tech offers one of only two online animal behavior and welfare programs in the country.

“Our curriculum is designed to provide the academic requirements for students to be eligible for the Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist certification from the Animal Behavior Society, currently the only applied animal behavior certification in the United States that has an academic requirement,” Feuerbacher said.

For her master’s thesis, Lane focused on an issue she encounters regularly in dog training: helping owners learn how to socialize their puppies.

“Puppies need strong, early, positive interactions with new people in order to become properly socialized, but it’s often hard for owners to read their dog’s body language and understand whether it’s enjoying an interaction or experiencing stress,” she said. “Those signs of stress can quickly turn into aggression. By teaching people the precursors to aggressive behavior, we hope to avoid a negative or dangerous situation.”

Lane developed an online survey to measure dog owners’ ability to read how puppies respond to meeting new people. The survey invites participants to watch three videos of puppies greeting strangers and share their impressions of the puppy’s response. After the survey, participants read a training module on the signs of stress and then re-take the survey. The responses will help Lane identify which types of instruction best enable people to read dogs’ behavior.

After graduation, Lane hopes to work with Feuerbacher and her research mentor, Lisa Gunter, to publish findings from the project that will provide helpful guidance for professionals and puppy owners on successful approaches for puppy socialization.

“There is a lot we still don’t know about how best to socialize puppies. Rachel’s work is an important step in that understanding,” Feuerbacher said. “What happens to puppies and their experiences can have long-term impacts on their behavior, so we have to be hyper-aware of making sure our puppies feel safe and that they are learning skills to function well in a human-centric world. We want owners to see themselves as advocates for their dogs and that starts with being able to see all the subtle things their dogs are telling them.”

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