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Going to the Dogs

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    Norton, a boxer owned by Kinesiology Professor Jimmy Smith, is a regular guest in the First-Year Seminar Smith teaches with Professor Laura Hobgood-Oster. (photo by Carlos Barron)
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    Norton listens as Professor Jimmy Smith delivers a lecture on dog kinesiology. (photo by Carlos Barron)
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    First-year student Erica Massey visits with Dizzy, who is up for adoption at the Georgetown Animal Shelter. (photo by Carlos Barron)

First-Year Seminar class is for the dogs – literally

It’s Friday morning and 15 first-year students at Southwestern are sitting in a classroom waiting for their teachers to arrive.

When Professor Jimmy Smith comes in, there is a sudden round of applause. Smith has brought one of his dogs, “Norton,” to class with him today.

Norton is a nine-year-old boxer that Smith rescued from the Town Lake animal shelter in Austin. He has had two surgeries to repair the cranial cruciate ligaments in his knees, which are similar to anterior cruciate ligaments in humans.

Smith, who is a professor of kinesiology at Southwestern, uses Norton’s story to launch into a lecture about the physiological characteristics that enable dogs to reach speeds as high as 40 miles an hour.

Throughout the lecture, Norton circles the classroom, getting lots of petting from the students and licking several of them in return.

Welcome to “Going to the Dogs,” one of 24 First-Year Seminars offered to incoming students at Southwestern. The seminars are designed to be fun, yet at the same time expose students to important skills such as reading, writing, critical thinking, discussion and creativity.

Smith teaches the class along with Laura Hobgood-Oster, a professor of religion. This is the eighth year that the two have taught the class. “This is a topic that is really interdisciplinary, which is what we want these First-Year Seminars to be,” Hobgood-Oster said.

In addition to dog physiology, the class covers topics such as where dogs came from, the history of humans and dogs, and dogs in art, religion and philosophy. The latter is Hobgood-Oster’s specialty.

“We even talk about presidents and their dogs,” Smith said.

The class has guest speakers come in and talk about topics such as service dogs, K-9 dogs and dog training. Reading for the class includes The Man Who Talks to Dogs, which is about one man’s efforts to rescue the street dogs of St. Louis. The students also watch a documentary titled “Dark Water Rising,” which details the efforts of people who tried to rescue animals after Hurricane Katrina.

“This is not an easy class,” Hobgood-Oster said. “We make them deal with some pretty tough social issues.”

As part of the class, students also are required to spend one hour a week volunteering at the Georgetown Animal Shelter. Volunteer tasks can include bathing or walking dogs, helping socialize them, taking pictures for adoption web sites, or helping with low-cost spay and neuter clinics.

“We can talk forever about dog overpopulation, but it doesn’t mean anything until they actually see the dogs at the shelter,” Hobgood-Oster said.

The second day of class, the students received a tour of the shelter from manager Jackie Carey. Carey told them the shelter gets about 1,600 animals a year. Of those, 25 percent have to be killed because they can’t find homes for them. Carey said she hopes the students will remember what they learn at the shelter before deciding to get pets of their own.

“Don’t adopt a pet unless you can make a 15-year commitment to that pet,” she said. 

After the tour, Smith showed the students the proper technique for walking dogs. “King,” a black labrador retriever mix, was wild at first, but Smith quickly got him settled down.

“If you can help train these dogs, they will have a better chance of getting adopted,” he said.

After the demonstration, the students got their turn to try walking some dogs. The barking was almost overwhelming as they approached the cages to select a partner.

“I didn’t know we would get to play with dogs, so this is a bonus,” said Steve Broes, a first-year student from Long Valley, New Jersey. Broes walked “Zappa,” a black basset hound mix whose owner had to turn him in after moving away from an abusive husband.

Both Hobgood-Oster and Smith were involved with dog rescue efforts before they started teaching the class. Smith has been involved with boxer rescue groups for more than 10 years, and Hobgood-Oster is on the Board of Directors for Georgetown Animal Outreach, which takes dogs from the city animal shelter and gives them to breed-specific rescue groups that might be able to find homes for them. The two have been posting pictures of all the dogs from the Georgetown shelter on the Petfinder Web site for seven years.

Hobgood-Oster and Smith said several students have continued volunteering at the shelter after the class ended and some have even ended up fostering dogs themselves.

“We don’t encourage our students to adopt dogs at this point in their lives, but almost all the ones they work with end up in a much better situation than they would have been,” Smith said.

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