Trinity Stewart and Ella Bloom have been best friends since preschool because they are both crazy over creatures.

Trinity Stewart and Ella Bloom have been best friends since preschool because they are both crazy over creatures.

So instead of staying inside this summer watching reruns of "Animal Planet," the 12-year-olds participated in a weeklong veterinary medicine camp offered by Southern Oregon University Youth Programs.

For a week, they spent afternoons at the Southern Oregon Humane Society in Medford, taking in the sights and scents of dogs and cats, and learning about pet physiology and how to interpret animal postures.

"You can tell if a dog is nervous if he stays still and puts his tail under his bottom," says Trinity, who attends McLoughlin Middle School in Medford with Ella and would like to be a veterinarian or volunteer for the Peace Corps someday.

The girls, along with a dozen other students ages 10 to 14 enrolled in the July 29-Aug. 2 course, also studied a model of a dog skeleton and the similarities of animal organs, muscles and soft tissue compared to humans.

"Dog appendixes actually do something, unlike ours," says vet tech Kayla McLean of the Animal Medical Hospital in Ashland.

McLean fascinated the hopeful dog docs by showing them a cat heart floating in a jar and X-rays of a canine's fractured leg.

She then told them to volunteer at an animal shelter or clinic, and take science and math classes to eventually get a job working with critters.

Programs such as vet med camp engage, educate and challenge children, says Stephanie Butler, SOU's pre-college youth programs coordinator.

Experts recommend kids participate in fun educational activities during the summer to prevent learning loss, also known as "summer slide," when classes start up again in September.

The vet med campers are among 600 kids enrolled this summer in SOU's hands-on day camps and classes, which cover a variety of fields, from law to music.

An additional 400 youngsters are participating in activities during the day and getting an early taste of college life by sleeping in the Ashland campus dorms and eating in the cafeteria.

Last week, high school students shadowed health care professionals as part of Camp M.D. (Medical Detectives).

This week, about 100 Latino students in seventh through ninth grades are taking math, creative writing and dance classes on campus.

One of SOU's residential camps, called Academy, has been orienting fifth- through eighth-graders on campus life and learning for 33 years.

"Young people who attended our programs as youth are now returning, filled with enthusiasm to teach for our programs because their experiences were so memorable," says Butler.

Ashland mom Roxanna Stapp required her four children to take summer classes of their choice offered through SOU, the Ashland Family YMCA and Ashland Parks and Recreation.

"Summer can be a good balance between relaxing, recharging and keeping active," she says. "They take a music, art or theater class that interests them now but may connect to their education or career in the future."

She has noticed that starting the new school year is less stressful on her children because of their summer courses.

Her son, Kyle Storie, 14, attended band camp earlier this summer and then vet med camp.

Afterward, while vacationing on a ranch, she noticed that Kyle could read fear in a calf separated from its mother. The Ashland Middle School student caught and calmed the animal and returned it to its mother.

"He was confident in knowing what to do," says Stapp. "He was also comfortable feeding pigs."

Kenn Altine, executive director of the Southern Oregon Humane Society, says the vet med camp is a broad-based look at a career working with animals. And more.

"Our biggest hope," he says, "is that these children have a better understanding of animals, their moods and needs, and learn that pets are more than cute puppies. There are shy dogs and freaked-out cats who need their help."

After five days of instruction, Trinity and Ella were ready to shake off any hesitations they had about putting Dexter, a mix of poodle, terrier and Jack Russell, into a tub and shampooing his black fur.

Together, they reassured the 1-year-old pup as they brushed him. Then they wrapped him in a towel, and Dexter relaxed in Ella's arms.

"I can't believe no one has adopted him," she says, holding him like a swaddled baby. "He's so easy to take care of."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or