By Mary Margaret HalfordJanuary 11, 2019
VICKSBURG, Miss. -- Dena Dickerson, a research biologist with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center's Environmental Lab, has a personal fondness for animals and a professional talent for problem solving.
Throughout her career, she's come across some situations where those two worlds of hers come together, and today, Dickerson is part of a distinguished group of only a few thousand people worldwide who are officially certified as a Professional Dog Trainer-Knowledge Assessed through the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. She's also the only person in Mississippi certified as a Fear Free Animal Trainer.
"It's top of the line in the training world as far as humane and best practices for training dogs," Dickerson said. "This particular certification is one that uses positive training and no harsh techniques. It's accepted by all the animal rights groups."
The dog training certification came about after Dickerson got a call in 2015 about an issue with nuisance birds at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tula District's Robert S. Kerr Lock and Dam. Because of her expertise with dog training at home, Dickerson knew just who to call on to solve the problem-border collies.
"I train dogs, and I train lots of border collies," she said. "But I borrowed the idea from the military."
The military has been using border collies for years to get rid of wildlife in front of airplanes taking off, so Dickerson thought they could just as easily herd the troublesome birds on the dam.
"We trained the dog basically just to harness their natural instincts," she said. "Once the dog is taken out to the lock and sees the birds, they have a keen desire to make those birds move."
Because of Dickerson's idea, USACE now employs two border collies, Breeze and Ellie, who both came from animal shelters.
"Sometimes border collies don't do well in a regular household because they don't have a job to do, and they end up in shelters," Dickerson said. "Those are the dogs we really want to get our hands on; they have skills and want to use them. It's a matter of capturing those skills on command and putting them into a job."
With that mentality in mind, Dickerson began the steps to get certified through the CCPPDT.
"It's pretty involved," Dickerson said, noting that it took about two years for her to finish the process. "It's like going to school for another degree. You sit for a board but have to qualify to take the exam."
In addition to the board exam, Dickerson had to present a "huge" number of training hours, as well as clients and case examples.
Recently, Dickerson has also obtained her Fear Free Animal Trainer Certification, which will allow her to work with veterinarians, zoos, and other animal care specialists.
"It helps you work with situations like getting an orangutan to open his mouth," Dickerson said about the Fear Free Certification.
The training will help in letting Dickerson work with animals in a careful, humane way when doing research and examining animals.
"I've worked with manatees to train them to present their tail so we can draw blood out," she said. "Or another example would be working with elephants, teaching them to pick up their feet so you can check them out."
"Over the years, people have come to me because I'm a biologist," Dickerson said. "My professional and personal worlds come together."
Dickerson said the training she's received will be instrumental in her day-to-day job.
"We're looking for ways to provide environmental enrichment for the animals that we have at ERDC, even if they're just fish," she said. "I'm always looking for positive ways to get the animal trained or work in the least aversive method."