April 11, 2024

Class, today your instructor will be a Labrador retriever named Prof. Birdie

Innovative Pet Professor program at UCalgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine gives students a chance to practise their skills with pets belonging to the school’s students, faculty and staff
A collage of pets
Pet professors, clockwise from top left: Birdie, Duka and Tibo, Capri, Stark, Maya and Tau, Jax.

In 2022, the University of Calgary's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) introduced the Pet Professor program, a pioneering initiative aimed at enriching the educational experience for students while promoting animal welfare. In this program, students, faculty and staff can bring their own pets in — from cats to dogs to exotic pets like bearded dragons — to be a part of the learning experience. 

These pets participate in non-invasive labs where the students practise skills such as reviewing musculoskeletal anatomy. One of the labs a dog may participate in is the cardiovascular lab where the students learn to take heart rates, listen to the heart, feel pulses, and generally assess cardiovascular health. Students gain practical skills while fostering a deeper understanding of animal behaviour and handling techniques. 

This initiative is led by UCVM veterinarians including Dr. Nanci Bond, DVM, Dr. Rebecca Jackson, DVM, and Dr. Chantal McMillan, DVM — along with a team of dedicated teaching assistants. Crystal Read, a teaching assistant and the program's co-ordinator, played a key role in its development and implementation.

Two students give a dog a belly run in white coats

Kaitlyn Busson and Hannah Stark from the Class of 2026 with Pet Professor Capri

Adrian Shellard

"We have one to two assessments to decide if the animals are appropriate," Read says. "These assessments are crafted with input from two board-certified veterinary behaviourists to ensure that participating pets are comfortable in lab environments and can safely interact with other animals."

"Assessments vary for dogs and cats," Read says. "For dogs, we assess their comfort in lab settings and their interaction with other dogs. We also perform basic manoeuvres to gauge their reaction, such as touching their paws or placing them in lateral positions. Cats undergo similar assessments but are evaluated based on their willingness to participate in lab activities, and they may have shorter pet professor shifts.

"My favourite part of the program is meeting the pets and their owners. Seeing the pride and joy that owners feel when their pets become pet professors is incredibly rewarding."

"Our small animal patients come with different anatomy, disease susceptibility, and behaviour," explains one of the program's lead veterinarians, Rebecca Jackson. "The pet professors expose the students to this variety at the earliest stage of their career."

Meet some of the pet professors

A brown labrador dog sits in a field with dandelion


Jessie Kennedy

Jessie Kennedy (Class of 2026) | Birdie

Jessie Kennedy's deep-rooted love for animals traces back to her upbringing on a farm just northwest of Cremona, where her family had horses, dogs, cats, and cows. Her aspiration to become a veterinarian stems from admiration for the professionals who cared for her family's animals and the desire to make a difference in both animal and human lives. Kennedy first pursued a BA in English, and her passion for animals persisted, leading her to work as a tech assistant in a vet clinic and eventually to the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program at UCVM.

Kennedy's pet is a chocolate lab named Birdie. Birdie's amiable nature and unwavering loyalty bring immense joy to Kennedy's life. Whether it's accompanying her on hunting trips or providing comfort and companionship, Birdie is a great addition.

"I was drawn to the pet professor program largely because of some of the same things I love about Birdie," Kennedy says. "I felt like she would be relaxed in labs, based on how I had seen her behave in the vet clinic and figured she could provide great learning experiences.

"My favorite thing about the program is hearing how happy my classmates are when they get Birdie as their pet," she continues. "And getting to spend more time with Birdie."

She adds: "The variability in dog size, shape, breed, and temperament allows us to see a realistic range that simply cannot be captured with a pack of dedicated beagles. This program is great in balancing learning with animal welfare."

Two striped cats in front of a windowsill

Maya and Tau

Lisa Colangeli

Lisa Colangeli | Maya and Tau

Lisa Colangeli has been at UCVM since its inception in 2008 and is now the manager of clinical teaching technicians. With a background spanning 20 years as a registered veterinary technician, her journey has been one of dedication to the well-being of animals and the education of future veterinarians.

Colangeli participates in the Pet Professor program with her beloved cat, Maya, who has been actively involved since the program's inception in 2022.

"I have two cats, Maya and Tau, who are both six years old," Colangeli says. "Tau was also part of the program, but he did not enjoy it that much. Maya, on the other hand, is quite happy to be here. They are both Savannah breed, super smart, and have lots of energy."

"I really love that the students get to experience different breeds, temperaments, physical problems, and behaviours," she says. "I really agree with the Pet Professor program because it is important for them to see a variety of animals."

A black and white dog wearing a yellow bandana sits on a snowy bridge


Cathy Dewaal

Cathy Dewaal (Class of 2026) | Stark

Cathy Dewaal's journey to veterinary medicine took an unconventional route, starting as a pharmacist for 14 years before pursuing her lifelong dream. Originally from Vancouver Island, the prospect of moving to Saskatchewan for veterinary school deterred her due to distance and the harsh winters. Volunteering with organizations like AARCS and the Canadian Animal Task Force solidified her passion for veterinary medicine. 

Her beloved companion, Stark, holds a special place in her heart. Adopted as a two-year-old semi-feral foster dog suffering from mange, Stark's transformation into a confident and affectionate companion reflects Dewaal's dedication and love. Stark's vibrant personality and heartwarming journey from fear to friendliness make her a beloved figure at school, where she charms everyone she encounters with her antics and zest for life.

"When I found out about the Pet Professor program, I signed her up right away knowing she'd love it because she's such a social girl," Dewaal explains. "She's been involved since I started the program in 2022 and we plan to continue until graduation.

"My favourite thing about the program is getting to learn skills on my own dog, and being able to share her with my classmates," Dewaal continues. "It's also a great way to involve her in my day since we spend so many hours at school. We have a variety of different breeds, sizes, and ages participating in the program, which gives us the realistic experience that we'll see in practice."

"The other benefit I get is the reassurance that my dog is healthy," she says. "Who doesn't love free diagnostics?! For example, in our Cardiology Lab we noticed that she seemed to have an abnormal heart rhythm. We were able to hook her up to the ECG machine and see the arrhythmia, and the veterinarians in the room were able to provide reassurance that it was not a clinically significant problem."

Two black and white dogs sitting together on a field

Duka and Tibo

Karin Orsel

Dr. Karin Orsel, DVM, PhD, and Dr. Frank van der Meer, DVM, PhD | Duka and Tibo

As integral members of the UCVM faculty since 2008, Orsel and van der Meer have played pivotal roles in shaping the educational landscape of the institution. With a combined teaching and research appointment, their dedication to veterinary education is underscored by their commitment to animal welfare.

Duka and Tibo, two Stabyhouns from the Netherlands, were welcomed into their lives at the tender age of 11 weeks. These littermates embody the spirit of companionship and joy that enriches the lives of all who encounter them.

"Duka, our female Stabyhoun, is a bit shy," Orsel says. "But with her brother by her side and a ball in her mouth, she can conquer the world."

Tibo, on the other hand, is the epitome of a "mellow man" who thrives on life's simple pleasures, especially cuddles from his adoring owners.

Orsel and van der Meer's decision to participate in the Pet Professor program was driven by a desire to contribute to the educational experience of veterinary students while advocating for animal welfare and reducing the need for university-owned animals.

A brown and black dog with a pink leash


Adrian Shellard, for the University of Calgary

Nikki Knopp | Capri

Nikki Knopp is the development and communications co-ordinator at UCVM and plays a vital role in facilitating communication and fostering development initiatives within the veterinary community.

Her companion, Capri, a two-year-old Lab/Rottweiler/Doberman mix, embodies the spirit of rescue and love. Adopted from AARCS at one year old, Capri's big frame may seem intimidating, but her friendly nature melts hearts.

Knopp's interest in the Pet Professor program stemmed from a desire to showcase rescue dogs' potential as ambassadors. "We wanted Capri to be a rescue ambassador, and show that rescue dogs are good ,too," Knopp says. Capri joined the program in fall 2023, quickly becoming a beloved participant.

"The Pet Professor program offers invaluable exposure to diverse ages, sizes, and temperaments of dogs," Knopp says. 

Beyond its educational benefits, she highlights the program's role in fostering camaraderie among colleagues. "It's a fantastic way to get to know your colleagues' dogs, they are always great icebreakers!"

A fluffy grey dog wearing an orange harness stands in the snow in front of a mountain


Katie Paul

Katie Paul (Class of 2027) | Jax

Katie Paul's journey to veterinary medicine took her through wildlife conservation and equine veterinary clinics before she joined the DVM program. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science from the University of Alberta, her passion for veterinary medicine solidified during her time working closely with clients and horses at an equine veterinary clinic. 

Jax, Paul's 10-year-old miniature poodle, challenges stereotypes about small dogs with his adventurous spirit. From hiking mountains to cross-country skiing, paddle boarding, and even joining forest rides with Paul's horse, Jax proves that size doesn't limit capability. "He is the fittest, most agile and athletic dog I have ever had. He always impresses as he summits another mountain with me or chases me through the forest with the horses." 

Paul's favorite aspect of the Pet Professor program is having Jax accompany her to school on designated days, enriching both her and her classmates' experiences. Jax's presence fosters socialization and exposes him to diverse scenarios, contributing to his well-rounded nature.

"As a student, I benefit from the Pet Professor program as the pets that come in often reflect the animals that we would be dealing with in a true clinical scenario, which I think enhances our education and learning opportunities," she says.

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.