Canines go to college in this class that seeks to give shelter dogs a fresh start

Text saying: Uncommon Courses, from The Conversation

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course:

“Canine Learning and Behavior”

What prompted the idea for the course?

When I was growing up, my love for animals led me to volunteer at animal shelters. But it wasn’t until I started teaching psychology that I found another way to support the well-being of shelter animals. During my first year of teaching a psychology course about learning, I realized that the course’s content could be used to train shelter dogs.

Since some shelter dogs display problematic behaviors, such as fearfulness, destructiveness and disobedience, they are less likely to get adopted. I wanted my students to use their knowledge, passion and care to train shelter dogs and improve their chances of finding a permanent home.

What does the course explore?

The course teaches students how to apply behavioral analysis and modification techniques toward the training of shelter dogs. Students work with dogs on learning to follow cues such as “sit,” “down,” “stay” and “come”; perform tricks such as “high-five,” and “roll over”; and complete agility courses made of tunnels, hoops and weaving poles.

The course also explores the emotional, psychological and physiological benefits of the human-animal bond, such as reduced stress, by integrating the dogs into educational and therapeutic environments. For instance, the students train the dogs to sit by them calmly for the entire duration of a lecture. This skill may be important for future adopters who work within an educational setting or need their dog to accompany them into the classroom.

The students also train the dogs to visit our clinical educational facility, the Experiential Learning Commons, which was built as a mock hospital. Within our simulated emergency room, intensive care room, patient room, maternity room and exam room, students train the dogs to walk next to simulated patients’ wheelchairs, sit by patients’ beds and provide them with affectionate and nurturing companionship.

Finally, the course instructs students on how to apply for grants for nonprofits, with the idea being to secure funding to support animal shelters.

Why is this course relevant now?

This course creates a collaborative and reciprocal partnership between a university and the community in which it is located. Focusing on the care for shelter dogs, it allows for faculty, students and a shelter’s staff and volunteers to exchange knowledge and resources. As such, it uses an instructional approach known as community engagement.

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

Working alongside our animal shelter community partners, and under the direction of my co-instructor, talented dog trainer Megan Mills, students learn that they can make a true and visible impact on society, one dog at a time.

What materials does the course feature?

Michael Domjan’s “The Principles of Learning and Behavior

Cynthia K. Chandler’s “Animal-Assisted Therapy in Counseling

Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy,” edited by Aubrey H. Fine

What will the course prepare students to do?

Students will learn to use psychological learning principles to work effectively with shelter dogs – and this knowledge can later be translated to other domains of their lives. I believe that by training shelter dogs and learning to write nonprofit grant proposals, my students will develop into ethical and responsible citizens – both locally and globally.


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