Shlomit Flaisher-Grinberg, PhD
Saint Francis University
My secret mission, as a college psychology professor, is to bring as many animals as possible into my classroom. Of course, I strive to improve my teaching effectiveness, maintain my scholarship productivity, and expand my service activities, but what I really want is to have cats sitting on my students’ laps, or dogs sitting at my students’ feet, during lectures. My college is a pet-free institution, and thus, animals can only be a part of it if integrated into the curriculum. Students in my undergraduate “Learning” course train rats to ride tiny scooters, play bowling, or shoot hoops. Students in my “Animal Minds” course receive numerous visits from ferrets, chickens, rabbits, cats, and their humans. But this is not enough. Millions of dogs annually enter animal shelters around the US. Some lack training or socialization, and many display problematic behaviors which can hinder their adoption (Protopopova et al., 2018). The integration of shelter dogs’ training into our lessons enables my students and myself to target this issue, make an impact on dogs and humans alike, and welcome shelter dogs into our campus environment.
Purpose and Goal:
In the spring of 2015, I taught the “Canine Learning & Behavior” undergraduate psychology course for the first time. The course was designed to allow students to foster shelter dogs for an entire academic semester, bring them to class, and train them using “learning” methodologies. It was hypothesized that the course will improve students’ ability to translate theoretical concepts to real-world, skill-based practices, apply their knowledge towards their personal and professional development, while improving the behavioral repertoire of shelter dogs and facilitating their adoption.
Course Set Up: I teach psychology, but I am not a dog trainer. I know the theories, but I also know that shelter dogs don’t bother reading the textbook. To prepare for the teaching of the course; I teamed-up with an experienced dog trainer, to later become the course adjunct instructor, set up a partnership with a local animal shelter, secured dog-appropriate classrooms and animal-approved housing units, submitted IACUC (Institutional Animal Care & Use) protocols and assured safety and liability regulations. The course was defined as an upper-level course, with a size limit of 12-15 students.
Course Content: If you teach “learning” concepts, for your freshman (e.g., Introduction to psychology) or advanced courses, you probably know the struggle. Students find it hard to differentiate CS from a US, UR from a CR. They tussle with the combination of ‘positive’, ‘negative’, ‘reinforcement’ and ‘punishments’ into meaningful units. They do not always “see” the application of these terms to their lives, the lives of people around them, or to their future professional occupation. Shelter dogs can bridge the gap.
We start the semester with a visit to the animal shelter. Interacting with, and selecting, dogs in need to join our classroom is an opportunity for students to practice behavioral observation and analysis. Assessing the dogs’ behavioral deficits and excesses (e.g., jumping, barking, nibbling, pawing, humping, leash-pulling, fear, house-soiling) allows students to align the dogs’ needs with their interests and capabilities. Once the dogs are chosen (one dog per 3-4 students, a total of 3-4 dogs per semester) they are transported to campus to live with preselected course students.
During the first few weeks after their arrival, students receive the opportunity to practice habituation, gradually and carefully exposing the dogs to the campus environment, and to new unfamiliar people. Discovering stimuli that stress/frighten the dogs (e.g., certain individual characteristics, moving cars), they learn to apply and de-sensitization and counterconditioning techniques (e.g., combining the exposure to a fear-producing stimulus with the dogs’ favorite treats). Later in the semester we expand the training to obedience and agility training. Grounding our work in the American Kennel Club’s “Canine Good Citizen” program, students train the dogs to calmly react to the approach/touch of a “friendly stranger”, to tolerate unexpected/distracting stimuli, to behave politely in public places or around other dogs, to sit at the students’ sides for an entire class session, to respond to the basic commands “sit”, “down”, “stay” and “come”, and to walk nicely on a loose leash. Depending on the interests of the students, the dogs are then taught different tricks, such as “paw-shake/high-five”, “roll-over”, “sit nicely”, “speak” or “army crawl”, and are trained using various agility courses. The work to extinguish maladaptive behaviors (e.g., jumping) and allow the acquisition of new adaptive behaviors (e.g., “nice” leash-walking) offers students with the opportunity to practice the application of classical and operant conditioning techniques. For instance, clicker-training requires the conversion of a “click” from a neutral stimulus to a conditioned stimulus, via its repetitive association with a treat, an unconditioned stimulus. Later, it can be used to mark the appropriate response in operant conditioning training, or to regain the dog’s attention if a distraction arises during practice. Training a dog to eliminate jumping or leash-pulling calls for the use of positive reinforcement (providing a treat/toy/other reinforcer when the dog does not jump, or for appropriate leash-walking), as well as negative punishment (withholding attention while the dog is jumping or pausing the walk for leash-pulling). Agility courses provide an opportunity to apply shaping (e.g., progressively training a dog to jump through a hoop), fixed/varied ratio schedules of reinforcement (starching the ratio by adding more hoops/waving-poles to the course), as well as forward/backward chaining (chaining various components within the course). Training dogs to sit quietly and calmly by their sides for an entire class session allows students to practice fixed/varied interval schedules of reinforcement (progressively requiring the dogs to sit “nicely” for 5, 10 and even 15 minutes before a reinforcer is provided). Training dogs for these tasks in various campus locations (including a hospital-like learning-environment comprised of wheelchairs and patient’s beds), enables the practice of generalization techniques. Finally, completing “research projects” focusing on the training of dogs for students-selected tasks (e.g., scent discrimination, responding to commands provided in sign language, pressing pre-recorded buttons for “verbal” communication) allow students to experience with all stages of the scientific methodology: literature search, hypothesis formation, methodological design, data collection and analysis, scientific writing, APA citation, and occasionally, conference presentation or the preparation of a manuscript for peer-reviewed publication.
Benefits: The end of the semester is marked with a “Puppy Graduation” celebration. During the event, the dogs receive paw-shakes, “graduation” diplomas, dog-cakes, and transition into the care of their adoptive families. In addition to its benefits to the dogs, there are benefits to animal shelters, enrolled students, campus community and me, the teaching faculty. Since 2015, 17 dogs were trained by our students. All were successfully adopted. In addition, staff and volunteers at the animal shelter often comment that the course reduces shelter crowding, lighten the time-burden on shelter personnel, increase the shelter’s visibility in the local community, and is perceived as a genuine contribution to the shelter’s efforts to improve the well-being of sheltered dogs. Importantly, the assessment of course effects on students’ learning outcomes suggest that the impact on students may be multidimensional (MS under review). First, the opportunity to “practice what they learn” in this course has been found to improve students’ comprehension of course materials and to enhance their appreciation of psychology. Students believe that it has enabled them to acquire employable skills (applicable towards the work with various animal species or with humans), solidified their future goals and enhanced their graduate school/workforce preparation. These findings are aligned with literature, demonstrating that hands-on learning (especially when involving live animals) increase students’ preference, enjoyment and understanding of class concepts (Elcoro & Trundle, 2013; Hunt & Macaskill, 2017). Second, students believe that learning to balance their schedules to accommodate the training of a shelter dog and learning to share training responsibilities with other students has enhanced their interpersonal awareness, effective communication, teamwork, leadership, and time-management skills. Third, students comment that pursuing activities that aligns with their values (e.g., animal advocacy) has provided them with a sense of self-efficacy and allowed them to become engaged members of their community. Fourth, walking a dog on its daily outing and spending time with it during the day has been suggested to improve the student’s physical and mental health via exercise and stress-reduction. In fact, students state that it allowed them to get to know more individuals on campus and generate new friendships, centered around the love of dogs. This is not surprising, given the joy brought to campus by our four-legged companions. Various individuals on campus stop to greet the dogs on their way to class, and many comments that after meeting the dogs their day got much better. Finally, the benefits to myself, as the teaching faculty, spans all 3 pillars of academic duties. The opportunity to design and teach the course has been a constant drive to improve my teaching pedagogy, and the assessment of the course’s effects on students, dogs, and our community-partners has yielded new research projects and publications (Flaisher-Grinberg, 20202a, 2020b). In addition, teaching the course has enabled me to connect with my local non-academic community, to better understand the needs of my community, and to make meaningful connections with individuals who share my passion for dogs. As such, the course has promoted both my personal and professional development, not to mention the attainment of my ultimate goal – bringing more animals into my classroom!
Important Consideration: There are a few important factors to consider if one wishes to develop a similar course. Working with shelter dogs may require adequate hands-on experience, a constant supply of “dog-necessities” (food, kennels, etc.) and veterinary supervision. The generation of a collaborating with an experienced dog trainer in the community and the cooperation with a local animal shelter may be of benefit. In this respect, it is advised that the roles and responsibilities of each ally in this partnership be clearly defined. Working with shelter dogs in an academic institution generates potential risks and obstacles. The investment of time and effort into the creation of IACUC protocols, preparation of safety/precaution procedures, elucidation of liability regulations and attainment of adequate permissions from all involved academic offices is advised. It is also recommended that the possibility of allergies/phobias in campus residents is evaluated.
Possible Alternatives: There are alternative ways to integrate shelter dogs (or shelter cats) into “learning” (or other) psychology courses. One can organize visitations of shelter animals to the classroom, or arrange for students to visit animal shelters, allowing students to practice supervised, yet time-restricted animal-training sessions. These may be included within the course’s syllabus or extend the curriculum, offering extra credit opportunities to invested students (McDonald, Caso, & Dee, 2005). These may involve observation, documentation and analysis, instructor-led training demonstration, or individual/group-led animal training. Seeking opportunities to engage students in independent research projects, community service or internships – one may consider supervising their work with, or at an animal shelter. If the institution holds pet-friendly policies, or allow animal residency in campus housing, these options can be extended to include the fostering of animals in need by responsible and experienced students. At any point, attention should be dedicated to institutional guidelines, safety of students and animals, and the pursuit of fun, interactive and impactful learning/teaching opportunities!
Elcoro, M., & Trundle, M. (2013). Student Preferences for Live Versus Virtual Rats in a Learning Course. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 7(1), 1-13. https://doi.org/10.20429/ijsotl.2013.070116
Flaisher-Grinberg, S. (2020a) Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks: Using the Academic Classroom to Improve the Adoption Outcomes of 10 Shelter Dogs. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. 28:1-15. doi:10.1080/10888705.2020.1717339
Flaisher-Grinberg, S. (2020b) For the Love of Dogs! Creating an Academia-Community Partnership to Target a Mutual Goal. Impact: The Journal of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning, 9(1) 8-15 2020. http://sites.bu.edu/impact/previous-issues/impact-winter-2020/for-the-love-of-dogs/
Hunt, M. J., & Macaskill, A. C. (2017). Student Responses to Active Learning Activities with Live and Virtual Rats in Psychology Teaching Laboratories. Teaching of Psychology, 44(2), 160–164. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628317692632
McDonald, T. W., Caso. R., & Dee F. (2005). Teaching and Learning Operant Principles in Animal Shelters: Perspectives from Faculty, Students, and Shelter Staff. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 32(4) 310-321.
Protopopova, A., Hauser, H., Goldman, K. J., & Wynne, C. (2018). The effects of exercise and calm interactions on in-kennel behavior of shelter dogs. Behavioural processes, 146, 54–60. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2017.11.013