Last fall, Bucknell University Professor Reggie Gazes, psychology and animal behavior, taught a course on learning, where she asked her students to put the concepts they studied to use by training animals. Gazes could have used lab rats and Skinner boxes, which are often employed in psychology for the exercise, but when it's all said and done, she thought, who needs a trained rat?
Instead, Gazes decided to put her students to work serving the local community. She and her class partnered with a local dog rescue, Mostly Mutts of Sunbury, Pa., where owner Cheryl Hill keeps nearly 100 dogs available for adoption. Bucknell students aimed to apply psychological concepts to make some of those dogs more adoptable.
"A lot of the reason dogs don't get adopted is that they show negative behaviors — things people don't want," Gazes said. "If a dog is up for adoption at a shelter and it jumps like it's crazy or wants to drag you when you take it for a walk, no one wants to take that dog home to their family.
"Cheryl went through her dogs and came up with a group that had small behavioral problems that we might be able to solve within a semester, and every group in the class got assigned a dog with a set of problems — anywhere from three to five," she continued. "Some of them were things like learning to walk better on a leash, not to jump, to sit, to come when called — basic behaviors."
The class spent the first part of the semester studying theories of learning and training, and used that knowledge to develop training plans for each dog. Throughout the second half of the semester they spent three to six hours a week of their own time putting their plans into action with their dogs at Mostly Mutts.
"It's something you can't cut corners with — you have to put your all into it," said Mae Lacey '18, an animal-behavior major. "It's not as if you can do it all in five hours on a Friday night; It's something that you have to do over time, with a progressive training plan, applying what you know."
Lacey and her partners, Corinne Leard '18 and Jake Dixon '18, also animal-behavior majors, spent the semester working with Koby, a 1-year-old Labrador mix with a seemingly limitless supply of energy.
"We call him Koby the kangaroo," Lacey said. "He does this strange thing where he jumps up and touches his front paws to his back paws, and he gets enough air to do that every time. That's our dog's level of energy."
Lacey, Leard and Dixon began each training session by allowing Koby to burn off some of that excess energy through play. Once he'd calmed down and gotten into the proper frame of mind, they used clicker training — which teaches the dog to associate a distinct sound with a reward — to teach Koby to sit, and target training — which teaches the dog to follow the trainer's hand — to help him walk on a leash.
No two dogs are alike, and each presented its own set of challenges. Chaplin, the pit-bull mix Charlotte Detwiler '18 and her group trained, is blind, which limited the training methods the students could employ.
"We started by walking him on a leash just to see what he could do, and he was walking everywhere because he gets so distracted by sounds," said Detwiler, a psychology and education major. "We used clicker training to teach him to associate the clicker with a reward."
Gazes recognized that some dogs, like Chaplin, would present more challenges than others, and didn't grade the students based on the behavior of their dogs, but rather on what the students learned.
"Everybody faced challenges they didn't expect. How they dealt with those challenges was mostly what their grades were based on," she said. "Did they come up with new approaches? Were those new approaches based on science? Did they make sense for the dog? No one was going to fail if the dog didn't sit."
"You can't train a dog without understanding the concepts, so it really makes you look deeper at what you're learning and apply some of those concepts to an actual animal," Detwiler added. "You might think, hypothetically, that one approach is the best, but maybe it's not going to work in your situation and you've got to adjust. I think it's a really good teaching model."
That said, Hill noted that her dogs learned a lot from the partnership, and thinks it will make them more appealing to potential owners.
"I think it has been great for the dogs," Hill said. "Some of my dogs that are anti-social are now more sociable; my dogs that need to wait instead of rushing out my door are a lot better about that; and some basic commands have been taught to some of my dogs."
While the class focused on dogs, Gazes and her students noted that the lessons students learned are applicable to training other animals as well, including the two-legged variety. "Psychology is the study of the mind in general; it's not just the study of humans," Gazes explained.
"Here at Bucknell, a large portion of our psychology department is focused on animals as well as humans — we like to think that understanding how a rat thinks is just as important as understanding how a human thinks. That being said, there are a lot of practical applications of what we've been studying for humans."
"One of our textbooks, Don't Shoot the Dog, goes over different training methods you could use for certain situations," added Detwiler. "It will say, 'For the dog barking in the kennel, for the spouse that comes home angry, for the boss who yells at you all day.' A lot of the scenarios are directly related to people. It's good for kids too."