Just as the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine welcomed its Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) class of 2026 this Fall, it also welcomed its new participants in the Animal Care for Education (ACE) program. From August to mid-October, the veterinary college fosters dogs that come from local shelters.

The dogs are essential contributors to the education of students. In fact, their contributions are so valuable that they are often referred to as "canine instructors.” Students work closely with the dogs to improve their physical and mental health while helping them develop social skills that elevate the animal's adoptability. Following their time in the ACE program, dogs are adopted into loving homes.

The ACE class of 2022 consists of 32 dogs who range from all-American mixed breed dogs to several near purebred dogs, including a German shepherd and a golden retriever. Their ages also vary from less than a year to 12 years old, and all of the dogs are neutered and vaccinated before departure to their forever homes.

"The students see a variety—and that's what they'll see in a practice," said Virginia Edwards, collegiate assistant professor and service chief of ACE. "They get to work with many of the dogs, so they'll get to appreciate different sizes, temperaments, and behavior patterns from different dogs."

The dogs come from Pulaski County Animal Control, the Regional Center for Animal Care & Protection in Roanoke, and Mercer County Animal Shelter in West Virginia. Many shelters struggle with inadequate space and resources, so the ACE program alleviates some of the burden of housing these dogs and giving them medical care.

"Thank you to the shelters—there's no way we can do this without them," said Mel Kegley, MDL manager. "They trust us to care for the dogs, and that's important to us."

The dogs contribute to the education of first-, second-, and third-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) students in many ways. The students in the first-year class are responsible for taking the dog on regular walks and they learn basic animal husbandry skills and how to conduct examinations through their Professional Foundations course and Normal Animal Clinical Skills labs while working with these dogs. During their time with the dogs, students also learn basic restraint techniques, how to perform physical examinations and vaccinations, how to place catheters, and other critical veterinary skills. And the first-year students are provided a basic introduction to the methods and principles of dog socialization through positive reinforcement. These skills are practiced with their dogs to help them be good companions for future adopters. Second-year DVM students expand on this foundation to learn additional clinical procedures.

This fall, third-year DVM students teamed up with the dogs to advance their understanding of dog behavior and further to social skills of these dogs by enrolling in a new, interdisciplinary course titled Companion Animal Behavior and Socialization (CABS). This course is offered as an elective to third-year veterinary students, as well as graduate students specializing in the study of Animal Behavior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).

This course was developed through the joint efforts of Erica Feuerbacher, assistant professor at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Virginia Buechner-Maxwell, a professor and specialist in large animal internal medicine that is also certified in shelter medicine. Feuerbacher is internationally recognized for her work in the field of companion animal behavior and welfare and provides lectures on these topics to both first and third-year DVM students.   

Involvement in ACE goes beyond the veterinary college and CALS—the university community comes together to take care of the dogs. For example, groups from the Carilion School of Medicine and the university-wide BARC Club come out to walk the dogs, aiding in their socialization.

Before entering the ACE program, the dogs are screened by a behaviorist to ensure that they are well-mannered and have no food and dog aggression. The dogs will leave the college spayed or neutered, vaccinated, tested for heartworms, fecal tested, and trained with basic commands.

"We view it as a win-win-win program, and we hope that all these dogs will make really great family dogs," said Edwards.

If you are interested in adopting one of the "Canine Instructors," please visit their webpage.