UC Fetch Lab - 2/2019

A puppy licks the nose of a lab assistant while waiting in the hallway to have its hearing tested.

Every Friday, a flurry of puppies can be found running amok in a baby-gated hallway situated in the in bowels of French East on the University of Cincinnati’s medical campus.

Lab assistants at the UC Fetch Lab entertain a group of Dalmatian puppies as they crawl and jump across their legs. Dr. Pete Scheifele, M.D. and Ph.D., stands behind his computer analyzing the results of one puppy’s hearing exam.

A few lines with varying negative and positive slopes appear on his screen. “Perfect,” Scheifele says, indicating that the puppy’s test results showed no indication of abnormalities.

His lab assistants, a group of graduate and undergraduate students who aim to earn degrees in audiology or a related field, seem exhausted as they corral the puppies to determine which puppies have been examined and which have not.

Despite the practicality, the routine testing of dogs has only recently become a standard enforced by the American Kennel Association for dog breeders. It’s due in part to Scheifele’s uncharted research into audiology in canines and other animals.

Scheifele established the UC Fetch Lab in 2007 as his faculty research project. The concept of an animal audiology lab was a logical continuation of the research he performed on dogs and dolphins at the Naval Underwater Assessment Center.

Before his career in academia, Scheifele spent 23 years in the U.S. Navy. He spent much of his early time as a diver before working on submarines. Afterward, Scheifele began his research as oceanographer, which led him to study audiology and bioacoustics.

“My task was to work [with] bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales and sea lions and try to understand their hearing and their sonar,” Scheifele said. “The Navy sent me back to school to get various different degrees that was going to help them with that.”

From there, Scheifele went to the University of Connecticut, where he received a doctorate in animal science and hearing science. During this time, he also worked as the head trainer at the Mystic Aquarium.

“Working with marine animals at the aquarium was pretty much a high point in my life,” Scheifele said. “Working with animals gives you a very different perspective, and it’s been very fulfilling.”

In his lab, Scheifele showcases his aptitude with animals as he calms a fearful puppy to check its ears with an otoscope. He draws the canine’s attention, and the puppy leans over to lick Scheifele on his nose. The puppy barely notices the lab assistants, who approach to examine its ears.

Although Scheifele spent much of his early career working with marine animals, his transition to dogs came at a request by the U.S. military.

“Not much was done concerning audiology concerning working dogs, including police dogs, stability dogs and cadaver dogs,” Scheifele said. “Now we have learned dogs can suffer deafness, and we can do things to prevent that.”

Much of his earlier work in the UC Fetch Lab focused on military multipurpose canines who perform missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The research aims to keep dogs’ auditory organs healthy, and it ultimately led the lab to begin developing hearing protection devices for working dogs.

Yet Scheifele’s research eventually crossed over to other canine breeds, enabling researchers to identify 80 breeds in North America that suffer congenital hearing loss. The impact of poor breeding practices caused a significant emergence of deafness in dogs, Scheifele said. He also found that the overwhelming noise in kennels can cause deafness in dogs as well.

He doesn’t just identify problems — he attempts to solve them, too. Researchers in Scheifele’s lab are the only people in the world fitting dogs with hearing aids. The research also includes elephants, bottlenose dolphins, Asian small-clawed otters, penguins and shark rays.

“Animal hearing is so unknown,” Scheifele said. “No one really knows the full extent of what an elephant can hear, and it’s our job to find that out.”

Annika Hubers, a fourth-year audiology student, said she fell in love audiology through the UC Fetch Lab. She plans to join Scheifele on a research trip to Africa in a few months to study elephant hearing and conversation efforts.

“The lab is awesome,” Hubers said. “Animal audiology is not a huge field, and a lot of what we are doing is not done anywhere else.”

Since its founding, the UC Fetch Lab has expanded to two other locations — the University of Northern Colorado and the University of Akron. The lab also plans to expand to Arizona State later this year, Scheifele said.

Elizabeth Schmitt was with The News Record since 2016 as staff reporter, news editor and features editor. She was an editorial intern with CityBeat and graduated in May 2019.