Monday, February 22, 2016

Beauty and brains: Best-in-breed show dog assists with Emory neuroscience on the side

Emory alum Lindsay Fetters and her best-in-breed winning vizsla, Eli, enjoy their moment at the Westminster Kennel Club. (Photos by Teddy Lei.)

By Carol Clark

The crowd applauded as Atlanta resident and Emory alum Lindsay Fetters, clad in a powder-blue suit dress, dashed into the ring with Eli, a graceful, spirited vizsla with a golden-brown coat. It was the recent Westminster Kennel Club’s best sporting dog competition. Fetters and Eli had just won a best-in-breed event at the show – making Eli the top vizsla in the country. Fresh from this victory, the pair seemed to glow as they glided across the green carpet.

Dog lovers around the country were watching the TV broadcast from Madison Square Garden as the announcer gave a bit of backstory: “Eli’s a participant in the Dog Project at Emory University, which is where dogs go into MRIs fully awake and unrestrained so we can learn a little more about their intellectual and emotional abilities.”

That’s right. While Eli did not take the prize for best sporting dog, he did get a nod for being the only Westminster show dog that assists with neuroscience research in his spare time.

“After we won best in breed and moved on to the sporting event, I had to fill out a card for the announcer to say some unique things about Eli, so I put down the Dog Project,” says Fetters, who is the owner, breeder and handler of Eli. “The general public watches the show and I wanted people to know that these dogs are much more than just pretty faces. Many of these dogs do therapy work and other important things.
Celebrating with a high five

“Also, I love Emory, so I wanted to plug it as much as I could,” adds Fetters, who received her MBA from Goizueta Business School in 2014.

Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns watched the Westminster show from Atlanta. Berns is the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy and also heads up the Dog Project, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding humans’ best, and oldest, friend. The project, which began with two dogs and has since expanded to 80, was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. The Dog Project has already identified regions of the canine brain associated with reward and processing faces and scents.

“Lindsay and Eli have been part of the Dog Project almost since the beginning and they have participated in four experiments,” Berns says. “Now that Eli’s won best in breed, I worry that maybe he will be having too much fun fulfilling his stud duties to stay involved in our research.”

Fetters was introduced to dog shows early by her mother, who specialized in Irish setters. “I started showing her Irish setters when I was four years old,” Fetters says.

By the time she was 15, she wanted her own dog to show, and chose the Hungarian vizsla, a medium-sized canine bred for hunting and pointing birds, known for its energy and intelligence. “I named my first vizsla Traitor, because I was cheating on the Irish setters,” Fetters recalls. (Eli, now six-and-a-half-years-old, is the offspring of Traitor.)

While she was still in high school, Fetters began working part-time at a non-profit in Alpharetta called Canine Assistants, which trains service dogs for people with disabilities. She continued working there throughout her undergraduate years at the University of North Georgia, and even after she graduated.

“It was a great job,” Fetters says. “I trained the dogs, and I loved being with them. And then I trained the people how to use the dogs. It was really rewarding to know you were enriching someone’s life. People with disabilities are often used to having a caregiver. But having these dogs makes them a caregiver, in a sense, which is empowering. I saw some people who previously rarely left their house find a sense of purpose when they got the dog. They would start getting up to care for their dog and go for walks and then decide to start school or find a job.”

"It’s hard to explain the feeling of being recognized on a national level with a dog that you raised and trained," Fetters says.

By 2013, Fetters decided that, after 15 years at Canine Assistants, she wanted dogs to just be her passion and not her job. She had already started looking at MBA programs. She was studying for her GMAT at a coffee shop when another customer noticed her Canine Assistants t-shirt and told her about the Dog Project.

“I thought it was really fascinating,” Fetters says. “I like the science behind the Dog Project, and also the challenge of getting a dog to be still in an MRI machine with all the noise and distractions.”

Plus, Eli needed a job, she says. “He’s very task-oriented and needs a lot of interaction. He’s really energetic so staying very still in an MRI is difficult for him but he loves a challenge. He especially likes the treats he gets afterwards.”

During high school and her undergraduate years, Fetters had worked so she wanted to quit her job and devote herself fully to enjoying the student life while getting an MBA. She found her match at the Goizueta one-year MBA program, where she focused on business management.

“When I toured Emory, I knew it was for me,” Fetters says. “I immediately felt at home there: I love the Emory culture and the sense of community, especially within the business school.”

A highlight was her experience in the Gouizeta Advanced Leadership Academy. “For spring break, we went sailing in the British Virgin Islands,” Fetters says. “We worked in teams and were given new challenges every day.” One day she was a navigator and the next day the captain.

“The year at Goizueta changed my whole life,” Fetters says. “I met friends that I will have forever, along with top professors and alumni that I can learn from and call on for advice. It opened my eyes to all the opportunities out there.”

Fetters found a great job as an asset manager at the Goddard Investment Group, a commercial real estate investment firm. Eli is part of the team.

“He goes to work with me every day and sits at my feet in my office,” Fetters says. “My boss is a great dog person and all my co-workers love Eli. He sometimes delivers mail to people because he loves to carry things around. He also enjoys just visiting peoples’ offices to get a treat.”

Every workday, Eli stops in at the convenience store in the office building where the owner gives him a boiled egg. “He doesn’t even have to pay for his egg like everyone else,” Fetters says. “She peels it for him and breaks it into little pieces and hands it to him. His nickname is Prince Eli and he definitely lives up to that.”

When he’s not raising office spirits or assisting in neuroscience, Eli dabbles in acting. Watch for his subtle performances in the Sundance Original TV series, “The Red Road.” Going against type, Eli acted sad while sitting next to a tombstone and afraid as a policeman chased him off a porch.

When they returned to work, Eli and Fetters were greeted with flowers and a party. (Courtesy Lindsay Fetters.)

Eli already had a huge fan base as he set off to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club, the most prestigious dog show in the United States and one of the oldest of any sporting events, now in its 140th year. Fetters and Eli had spent many weekends during the past year competing at dog shows across the country. Eli ranked among the top five vizslas, earning him an invitation to Westminster.

He did not disappoint. “He was kind of a super star the day he won best of breed, happy and outgoing and just wagging his tail the whole time,” Fetters says. “He’s just a heck of a show dog and embodies the ideal vizsla: Light-footed, graceful, smooth and really muscled. He looks like a dog that could go out into the field and hunt all day.”

Fetters is no slacker herself. “Winning best of breed at the Westminster Kennel Club is the thrill of a lifetime, something I’ve dreamt of since I was old enough to watch TV,” she says. “I’m not a professional, but I was showing against professionals in that venue, so to win was a huge honor. It’s hard to explain the feeling of being recognized on a national level with a dog that you raised and trained.”

Fetters’ cell phone and email were soon flooded with messages of congratulations. The Wall Street Journal ran a photo of Eli giving Fetters a high five and the Denver Post ran of a photo of him holding his best-of-breed ribbon.

When Fetters and Eli finally returned to the humdrum work-a-day world of their office, they were greeted with a surprise celebration party.

You will be glad to learn that Eli remains grounded. Yes, he’s in demand for stud services. To Eli, however, sex is not as important as relationships.

“We plan to keep doing the Dog Project,” Fetters says. “Both of us are at our best when we’re busy and interacting with others. And Eli enjoys learning the tasks and getting the attention from the people involved. He’s a little bit of a ham.”

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