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Alumni Profile: Animal Behaviorist Alyssa Ward 94F

By Michael Samuels 09F

Alyssa (Bennett) Ward 94F isn't just any pet trainer. A true Hampshire College alum, she works with a strong social conscience and a view of the big picture. In 2001, while working as an adoption counselor at the MSPCA Animal Shelter in nearby Springfield, she saw firsthand that, after a recent policy change, "any dog who can be adopted and not go out and bite somebody can stay as long as they need," while dogs with behavior issues, especially aggression, may have to be put down. "I wanted to be on the prevention side of that," she says, "to fix the behavior."

Ward started her own company, Friendly Pet Training, in Northampton in 2002. She helps pets with fears, anxieties, and aggression, making it possible for countless dogs and cats to remain with their owners.

Ward, who grew up working with animals in Vermont, came to Hampshire planning to become a veterinarian, but Professor Emeritus of Biology Ray Coppinger "kept on me about how cool behavior was," she says. "And I really had to change my mind."

While at Hampshire, Ward studied animal behavior and physiology. She also started rock climbing, helping to plan and build the climbing cave in the Robert Crown Center with future husband Pete Ward 93F and other students. After graduation she briefly became a nationally-competing professional rock climber.

For her Division III (senior) project, Ward researched canine hip dysplasia. Because it is generally thought to be entirely genetic, hip dysplasia causes dogs with the condition to be "thrown out" of the breeding pool, even though as much as 40 percent of certain breeds develop bad hips. Ward took a broader view, examining evidence that the condition is not entirely genetic, but also developmental, having to do with the kinds of surfaces dogs walk on and what they are fed. She also found that trying to breed out hip dysplasia could be harmful, as guide dogs with better hips might also have worse temperaments.

In 2009, Ward received her master's degree in biology at Smith College. She studied levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in dogs living in homes, in order to provide a baseline that could be used to measure and compare stress in dogs living in different environments, including shelters.

She examined cortisol in dog hair samples. Hair samples "measure days, weeks, or months of accumulated cortisol, whereas blood sampling, for example, measures only momentary cortisol levels," she says. To provide a baseline using blood would require the collection of numerous samples over time, which she points out "is then an added stressor to the dogs." Ward recently submitted a paper reporting her findings to the Journal of Domestic Animal Endocrinology.

In addition to her work at Friendly Pet Training, Ward volunteers at local schools, teaching dog safety to children in kindergarten through third grade, and is teaching biology, anatomy and physiology at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield.

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