Teaching Dogs

Amber Burdge
Aug. 6, 2015

RUSTON, La. - Every staff member within an intercollegiate athletics department is a teacher in some way. When Amber Burdge came to Louisiana Tech as the assistant athletics director for academics, she knew that she would be a teacher to 'Dogs. But an unexpected pair of guests on her doorstep this summer made that task take on a different meaning.

Burdge has always been a dog lover. Her father raised beagles as she was growing up, so she always had several four-legged members of the family nearby. With so much of her life spent with dogs, she was raised with an appreciation and humanity in caring for the animals.

That is why when two very young puppies -- a lab mix and a pit bull mix -- showed up on her doorstep in June, just months after she had moved to Ruston, she felt a responsibility to take them in and find homes for them.

"I had an opportunity to take in and foster a pair of puppies that were not being cared for," Burdge said. "4 Paws (a local animal shelter) was full. If I didn't take them in, I feared they would be dropped off on a dirt road and their lives would be in danger."

So Burdge took in the two puppies, a lab mix that was about five to six months old and a pit bull mix that was between nine and 11 months old.

But that caused a little friction in the Burdge house as her beagle, Gracie, was well-accustomed to being the only four-legged member of the family.

"My beagle was none too pleased with it," Burdge recalled, laughing. "She wants nothing to do with a puppy. She is a sweet, old lady who has arthritis. Gracie would let them play and try to stay as far away from them as she could."

Burdge got the puppies the necessary shots and began the process of training the dogs to behave on their leash. With neither of them having any training, it was on her to corral the dogs as they went on walks, but that required one-on-one walks.

"It was too much to walk them all at once," Burdge recalled. "The two puppies had no leash manners and were wild all over the place. So I had to walk them separately. I had my mile-and-a-half route that I normally walk my own dog. I would complete that route three times with each dog individually with a little treat pouch to try and teach them leash manners. That way, I would feel like I was sending them to a good home with at least a few manners."

A runner by nature, Burdge's father is a cross country coach that tried to get her to run for years.

"As a good daughter, I said absolutely not," Burdge joked. "When I was young, I didn't see how that could be fun, but probably about five or six years ago I thought I might want to try it. So I picked it up and realized he might know what he is talking about, this is kind of fun. I was running about an average of 20 miles a week."

But about a week before she began fostering the puppies, running no longer became an option. Burdge, who had moved from the completely flat terrain of Kansas to at least a slightly hilly north Louisiana, suffered a stress fracture and was no longer able to run. She was desperate for an athletic outlet.

"I had to put a boot on in early June and was not able to run," Burdge said. "For that one week before I got the puppies, I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I actually considered taking my boot off in the car and going to a yoga class because I knew there wasn't a yoga instructor out there that would allow me to come in and participate in a class if they knew I had a stress fracture. I was going stir crazy."

That is when the puppies showed up as a blessing in disguise.

Burdge was at least able to walk in her boot, which she did with all three dogs. They would go for their 1.5-mile walk at least once a day, many times twice. That allowed Burdge to get in a minimum of 4.5 miles of walking each day, oftentimes more.

While Burdge was busy teaching the dogs in her free time, during the day she would be hard at work at the Thomas Assembly Center teaching another breed of 'Dogs, the breed that wears red and blue on game day. That teaching post is one she has plenty of experience in.

"The bulk of my week is spent working directly with the student-athletes," Burdge explained. "Throughout the last two weeks of July, I haven't left my office before seven o'clock in the evening. The student-athletes are in practice or workouts or eating dinner (starting) around five or six o'clock. That last hour or two is when I finally shut the door and respond to emails and when I can deal with all the organized chaos that is on my desk."

She often has to balance advising many aspects of a student-athlete's life -- from academic counseling, teaching life skills, leading the Challenging Athletes' Minds for Personal Success (CHAMPS) Program and many other tasks -- utilizing not only her knowledge, but the resources the University has to offer.

"Helping our student-athletes to access those resources that we provide and that the University provides," Burdge explains is a major part of her job description. "Sometimes it can take hours upon hours to work with a student-athlete to identify what major they might want to select. You work with the counseling services on campus because they have someone that specializes in career counseling. Why not utilize it when it is on campus and available to you? The counseling center is your reference to personal issues, but also for career selection."

Burdge had to learn about all the services the University has to offer very quickly as she joined the LA Tech Family in February.

"I used the, `Hi, I'm new," introduction a lot," Burdge recalled. "When I came on my interview, everyone talked about the LA Tech Family. When I got here I was told a little bit about the LA Tech Family. But it is not just lip service. I felt at home here from the beginning."

"I met a lot those folks (across campus) that have those key pieces of information and asked a lot of questions," Burdge continued. "Each student-athlete's situation may look like it's the same on the outside but it is tweaked just a little bit, which means you have a different answer. It's getting out and getting face-to-face on campus, which is a challenge because you also need to be in your office meeting with your student-athletes who, by the way, you are trying to build a really quick relationship with."

Back in the summer with only a fraction of student-athletes on campus, she was training the foster puppies and the search for their "furever" homes was on. Burdge posted pictures and information about the dogs on the 4 Paws website, on Craigslist and on a local marketplace page on Facebook.

"I interviewed the people that said they were interested," Burdge explained. "Luckily, one of the people interested worked at the veterinarian's office that I was taking the dogs to. She told me the story and the lab mix puppy went to her fiance's brother. She explained to me that he was 16, lives with an elderly parent and it was going to be great for the parent and great for the boy. I knew that the dog would be well taken care of since she worked at the vet's office. That one was a no brainer."

Four weeks after the puppies arrived, the lab mix had a home. That left the pit mix needing a home and Burdge feeling sorry for the puppy in the meantime.

"There was a little more interviewing for the pit mix," Burdge recalled. "I turned down several people because I was afraid they were only interested in breeding her."

While the two puppies were together, Burdge would leave them in a fenced-in yard during the day when it wasn't too hot outside so they could play and let Gracie lay around the house. With the lab mix gone, the pit would be brought inside with Gracie but in separate areas of the house while Burdge continued the search for a home.

That home came about two to three weeks later as she finally found a family she felt comfortable giving the dog to.

By the time the puppies had their new homes, they were well-fed (coming to Burdge underfed and malnourished) and had minimal training as best Burdge could manage.

"I am definitely not a dog trainer," Burdge said. "I know what I know from a PetSmart class that I took when I first got Gracie and from a friend who helped me and has a very well-trained dog.

"[When they found their new homes,] they could at least sit on command and sit for their food. When I first got them, I would bring the bowls of food out and they would just completely attack me trying to get to the food, which I am sure was entertaining to watch. At the end of their foster stay, they would sit politely for their food, sit for their treats and sit to be put on and off their leash."

With homes found, Burdge can now focus her efforts on teaching the other kind of 'Dogs, the kind that reports for fall camp starting Sunday when the Louisiana Tech Football team reports to campus.

For complete coverage of Bulldog Football, please follow @LATechFB on Twitter or visit the official home of Louisiana Tech Athletics at LATechSports.com.

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