by Melanie Zuercher
As a Bethel College senior, Ashley Klein had apparently found a way, according to one of her professors, Jon Piper (biology), “to surpass the space-time continuum.”
Ashley graduated May 19 with a B.A. and a double major, in natural sciences and psychology. She owns and operates her own pet-sitting business. And in her “spare time,” she’s been working to get a dog park for Newton.
Ashley can’t recall a home without animals.
“As young as I can remember, we’ve had dogs and cats – and birds and lizards,” she says. “The first one I remember as being ‘mine’ was our dog Lassie, who we got from Caring Hands Humane Society [in Newton]. She was four or five years old and lived to be 16 or 17.
“Pets have always been in my home. I started volunteering at Caring Hands at a young age and did it fairly regularly through middle school.”
When it came time for college, Ashley naturally took a look at the hometown institution. She was interested in web design and technology, and she liked what she saw at Bethel. But things didn’t turn out as she’d first imagined.
“I came thinking I’d be a computer science major,” she says. “Then Karl Friesen [’86, adjunct assistant professor of computer science] called me to say: ‘We’re ending the computer science major but you can be a math major with computer science emphasis.’
“I’d already committed to Bethel, so I thought I’d at least come for a year. Somehow I became acquainted with Dwight [Krehbiel ’69, professor of psychology] and the psych department and discovered that I loved it. I loved all the sciences.
“I went from computer to math to STEM [a collective term for the sciences] and that’s how I got into psychology.”
Both psychology and natural sciences majors are often a prelude to further study in medicine, so as her time at Bethel was coming to an end, Ashley began working with Dwight, the pre-med adviser, on “what you’d like to do after college. I was supposed to pick three professions, research them and report back to him. I thought maybe veterinary medicine – but I didn’t really want to do medicine. I wanted to do more behavior.”
“Most of the psychology courses are on human behavior,” she says, “but we also have some animal behavior courses. I did an independent study my junior spring on canine cognition behavior and evolution, to help figure out what I wanted to do with my senior seminar. I already knew I wanted to do it with dogs.”
Why dogs? “My entire life has been about dogs,” Ashley says. “When I came to college, I had an idea you had to do what you were good at and also provides a steady job, so I came for web design and web coding.
“Dwight really encouraged me to look at other interests in my life I was just as good at or better. I’ve had a lot of good experiences with dogs. Dogs live with us. They are ingrained in a lot of our lives. I thought it was interesting that we don’t have a lot of literature about [the behavior of] dogs themselves. ‘Pavlov’s dog,’ for example, is about people.”
She decided to look at whether the preference that dogs show for their owners, established in other studies, is toward humans in general or the owner as a human, compared to how dogs react to another, “stranger,” dog.
She set up her experiment using a modified form of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation. The original looked at attachment between human mothers and infants. It has been modified for use with chimpanzees and also with dogs but, Ashley says, “I couldn’t find anyone who’d done it with dogs [reacting to] other dogs coming into the room, so that was the thing I added.”
She started with 20 pairs – volunteers and their dogs – but several factors whittled that down to 10 pairs. “Initially, my results looked good,” she says, “but Dwight encouraged me to do more in-depth analyses, and the results weren’t so good. There were trends but it wasn’t as definitive.”
However, such is often the way of senior seminars. Ashley sees her work as far from wasted.
“It [could apply] to future work with dogs and humans,” she says. “There are implications that I didn’t even think of. When I did the rough presentation for my STEM group, one of the freshmen, Lila Tibbets, said, ‘That’s great. A lot of people say, “Get a playmate for your dog if it’s having separation anxiety,” but his research could help determine if it’s better to have [a human] come play with your dog if there are separation anxiety issues.’”
These questions apply both to Ashley’s future plans and her current livelihood. While she was developing, conducting and analyzing her senior research, she was also doing a “behavior internship” at Caring Hands Humane Society as well as running Blue Skies Pet Care.
The latter is a business she started in 2010, after her first year at Bethel.
On the Blue Skies Pet Care website (which, of course, Ashley designed and now maintains), she says her company “was not founded as much as it developed and grew naturally. Even at a young age, I found myself rescuing and caring for animals. Born and raised in Newton, I have a small-town appreciation for personally committing to work and the things I truly love. I also realized early on that serving is one of the best paths to happiness.”
Blue Skies Pet Care began as “just one of those things where I would help a friend take care of a pet, either for money or just to help,” Ashley says. “They would refer me to a friend who would refer me to a friend, and it became a business. I thought it would be a good job during college: pet fuzzy animals all day.”
Eventually, she found herself being a fulltime student, working for her brother as a billing clerk (she was the second in the family to start her own business – his is in computer networking and web hosting) and maintaining her own fulltime job, which Blue Skies is, “between actual petsitting and paperwork.”
In addition to caring for people’s pets overnight or during vacations, Ashley offers dog-walking, mid-day visits, dog waste removal and cat litterbox maintenance.
“I’m the only fulltime pet care service in the Newton-Hesston area,” she says. “Most clients are in Harvey County, with a few nearer Wichita. I’ve had about 200 between when I started and now – of course, not all are repeat. I have maybe 40 keys in my lockbox.”
Then there’s her Humane Society internship.
After volunteering at Caring Hands through middle school, Ashley returned in college as a matchmaker. “You get to know the animals – I was in the little dog room,” she says. “Then when people come in, you get an idea what they’re looking for in a pet.”
Not long ago, the Caring Hands marketing staff got an intern from another college. “When Lori Smith, the in-house behaviorist, saw that, she said, ‘I want one, too,’” Ashley says. “She needed the help and she wanted to build connections in the community. She talked to Kevin Stubbs, the director, who recommended me.”
While she was still a Bethel student, Ashley only had a few hours to give each week. She started out mostly “sitting with dogs that aren’t used to humans, working with dogs at walking on a leash, reinforcing basic manners like not jumping. I’ve also sat in on private consultations Lori does and on intake interviews and tests.”
This summer, she’s spending more time at Caring Hands, starting to get into working on food aggression and other more difficult behavior issues.
Ashley is benefiting from a brand-new initiative that has developed from the generosity of Bethel STEM alumni, called the RICHE Initiative (RICHE stands for Research, Internships, and Careers in Health and Environment).
The initiative was started to support both internships and research for STEM students. “The money is coming from donations by STEM alumni,” says Dwight Krehbiel, “and the program is supported as well through the advice and contributions of our STEM Advisory Council.
“Most of the donated money is going into an endowment, but we are spending some in this early stage before the endowment has yet yielded anything. That is what is allowing us to provide a stipend to Ashley.”
Ashley anticipates applying to graduate school “sometime in the near future.” She knows of a program in canine cognition at Duke University and is exploring similar ones as well.
In the meantime, she’s still dreaming about that Newton dog park, which she began talking with city officials about in spring 2012.
“It’s mostly a budget thing,” she says. “There was a tentative plan to put up a fence in Centennial Park, just an area for dogs to run, but it got cut. I would like to see it be a public facility rather than having it privately owned and publicly available.
“People are sometimes concerned that tax money goes to a dog park, but you don’t have to do that, and it doesn’t have to be private. There are grants out there – for example, from major pet stores – and there are clubs and individuals willing to give money.”
For now, most information is accessible through another of Ashley’s websites, newtonksdogpark.com.
“I hope [now that I’ve graduated] I can pick up more of my community projects,” she says.
As for continuing to defy “the space-time continuum,” Ashley says, “You have to like what you’re doing or there’s no way you’ll get it all done.”