“What do you do when you’re not a grad student?”: An Interview with Sheila Gibbons

As part of our efforts to connect graduate students outside of the classroom/department, we’re interviewing our fellow grad students about what they do when they’re not reading, writing, or researching.

Sheila teaching scenting!This week we interview Sheila Gibbons, a second year PhD student at York University. Her research interests include the history of eugenics and the rise of health reform on the Prairies. When her head isn’t in academic text, it can be found in dog training books or on the racing lane. She trains and competes in a wide variety of dogsports. 

1. What do you do when you’re not a grad student? Describe your hobby/job/talent keeping in mind that others may know little or nothing about it.

When I am not a graduate student, I am a dog trainer. I train and compete with my partner in sport Spencer in many different venues. We compete primarily in rally obedience and sport detection, but we are also actively training and preparing for competition in agility, canine freestyle, and flyball. We also work on day to day obedience, and fun tricks.

I also train other people and dogs. I have been actively training dogsport teams for almost four years. I train flyball, rally obedience, and sport detection. I have taught classes and private sessions for clubs and formal training facilities, and have recently been invited to teach larger formal seminars across Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Sport detection is brand new to Canada! It promotes the fun and competitive version of scent detection (dogs trained to search for narcotics, bed bugs or explosives). However, our competitions use legal scents that are easily purchased and stored by the average person. The dog must locate a hidden target scent within a certain area and alert the handler to its location.

Rally obedience is a new sport that is a fusion of formal obedience (think of what you would see in a Kennel Club show) and agility. You and your dog have to work through a large course in an active heel position, and complete different tricks at various points.

Flyball is a team sport in which two teams of dogs race against each other from a start /finish line, over a line of four hurdles to a box which , when triggered by the dog, releases a tennis ball that the dog must catch and carry back to their handlers over the jumps. It is a relay sport with four dogs on each team.

Agility is perhaps the most “well known” dogsport. Working as a team, the dog and handler must negotiate a large obstacle course as quickly and efficiently as possible. Obstacles include tire jumps, hurdles, teeter totters, tunnels, and weave poles.

Canine Freestyle, also known as Heelwork to Music, is possibly the least well known dogsport. Freestyle could be described as a celebration of the joyful relationship between a dog and handler. It is a choreographed obedience performance organized with music. It is meant to show both the athletic conformation and movement of the dog alongside through their relationship with the handler.

 2. How long have you been doing this, and how did you get involved?

I have been involved in training for a relatively short amount of time, compared to many trainers out there. I have been playing dogsports for almost five years, and have been active in either apprenticing or training on my own for nearly four.

I got involved because I had a “bad dog”, and had no skills for dealing with him. What I found in dogsports was an amazing community of people. My love of learning took over, and I quickly became very actively involved in apprenticing with different trainers and exposing myself to as many ideas and dogs as I could.

It has been an amazing experience.

3. What’s your favourite aspect of this activity?

I think it would have to be the people (I bet you thought I was going to say getting to squish puppies – which falls in a very close second). There is this whole huge dogsports world out there with amazingly diverse ideas about training and sport. But they are all engaged in these activities that, at their heart, are about pure joy. These are people who recognize the value of dogs as companions, rather than property, and join together to celebrate their relationship.

The wider dogsport community is an incredibly supportive and passionate group who are dedicated to helping themselves and others. These are people who spend their spare time helping people learn; work in rescue and foster care and share their homes to rehabilitate dogs in need; will drive a rescue dog across the country, or rush over to another person’s house if their dog is sick. Conversations can bounce from formal learning theory to poop without missing a beat. I am often in awe of so many of my amazing friends and the remarkable work that they do and knowledge that they share, often for free.

I do sports with my dog because we enjoy spending time together. I love teaching because the dogs and their handlers are so genuinely happy and eager to learn. People come out to do something fun and learn something new with their dogs. There are people who get stressed and people who get competitive, but at the end of the day we are all there to have fun with our dogs.

4. How do you manage the balance between your graduate career and your activity?

I think that my activity is what balances my graduate career. Sometimes, grad school can get you down. You can feel like an automaton or let the inferiority complexes and imposter syndromes get the better of you. For me, I solve this by grabbing my leash a handful of treats and going to the park to practice whatever we are working on that week.

You can not be stressed or angry and work well with your dog, so dogsports offers a therapeutic effect. Sit in a room full of dogs and try to be stressed. Try it. I dare you. You will fail.

In terms of time balance, I just try the best I can. I think it is very important for graduate students to have time for mental health breaks. For me, this is time with my dogs, and my community of dog friends. There are times when the time scale can tip too far into dogs or too far into school, but I always try to do my best for my schoolwork while also doing the best for myself and my dogs.

Dog training has also taught me a great deal about learning theory and pedagogy, patience, public speaking, and networking. It has been an excellent skill builder. I see a great deal of overlap between the passion I have for my academic pursuits and the goals I have as a trainer. For example, in training I want to expose myself to as many ideas as I can and gain a greater appreciation of the wider culture and discourse; I want to make myself part of the dialogue that is happening regarding inclusivity and individualized learning styles; I want to continue advocacy work; and I’d like to write a book some day. I think that statement could easily translate to any academics goals as well.

Sheila and Spencer at the Saskatchewan borderThank you, Sheila, for finding the time to answer our questions! If you or someone you know would be interested in being interviewed for this series, please contact us!

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