Shelter Dogs Go to College
Affiliation: ¹Department of Psychology, School of Health Sciences and Education, Saint Francis University. ² Marigold Holistic Pet Care
Paisley spent over a year at the shelter. With her large and strong physique, designated Pit Bull breed, and excessive humping behavior, no applications were submitted on her behalf. Kovu was brought to the shelter with severe mange. Although he was able to heal physically, his spirit remained broken. He was so frightened and noise-sensitive that he had stopped eating, and almost died of starvation. Cleo was chained to the shelter’s fence in the middle of the night. He was severely malnourished, had open sores on his ears and his paws, his posture was stiff, and his movements were painful. At the estimated age of 7, he was not house trained, perhaps never having the opportunity to learn how to live in an indoors environment.
Paisley, Kovu, and Cleo are among the 3-4 million dogs that enter U.S. animal care and control facilities every year. Once at the shelter, these dogs recover, socialize, and await their adoption. However, many shelter dogs display physiological and behavioral issues that can hinder and even prevent their successful adoption. Maladaptive behaviors such as over-activity, excessive barking, aggression, escaping, house-soiling, destructiveness, and disobedience are commonly seen in animal shelters. Moreover, these behaviors can be aggravated by the shelter environment, which may include a high level of noise, confined spaces, and reduced levels of human contact and socialization.
Staff and volunteers at animal shelters are dedicated to improving the well-being of sheltered animals. However, shelter personnel are commonly subjected to funding limitations, outdated facilities, and time constraints, which reduce their ability to engage in the training and behavioral rehabilitation of dogs in need. Many shelters have developed fostering programs to accommodate the special needs of very young dogs, moms with litters, dogs who are recovering from surgery, dogs showing significant signs of stress in the shelter, or dogs who have a history of neglect or abuse. These programs allow dogs to receive the special care required for growth and recovery in a home-based environment, and some foster programs are even charged with the mission of seeking potential adopters, but they’re not ideal for every shelter or every dog. How can we generate new avenues to support the work of shelter staff and volunteers, improve the well-being and adoption outcomes of shelter dogs, and create new partnerships between shelters and their local communities?
One such avenue may include the incorporation of shelter dogs into the academic classroom. A particularly good fit could be Psychology of Learning courses, which are offered by many academic institutions as a part of the undergraduate psychology curriculum. Given that this type of course aims to familiarize students with the theoretical concepts that govern behavioral analysis and modification — such as habituation, sensitization, and classical and operant conditioning — its applicability to dog training is easy to see. An academia-shelter collaboration that enables students to foster shelter dogs and apply what they learn in the psychology classroom towards their dog’s training and behavioral rehabilitation has the potential to impact the lives of people and dogs alike.
This idea has been put to practice at Saint Francis University (SFU), located in central Pennsylvania. Aiming to create an authentic, academically rigorous, and interactive learning experience where students can grow intellectually, spiritually, morally, and socially, SFU provides its faculty with opportunities to develop innovative instructional methodologies. The “Canine Learning and Behavior” course embodies this concept. Taught since the spring semester of 2015, this course has brought together local animal shelters (the Central PA Humane Society [CPHS], and the Huntington County Humane Society [HCHS]), certified dog trainers, faculty members, students, staff, and administration, all united by their love for dogs and desire to improve their well-being. The current article will describe the program, its implementation, beneficial effects, possible limitations, and future directions.
The semester starts with a visit to the shelter. During the visit, the students have the opportunity to interact with dogs who were selected as candidates for the course. These dogs display an array of behavioral and physiological issues that impede their adoption, but they are capable of tolerating the stress induced by the change of their environment to a campus setting and are tolerant of other dogs. After the completion of a basic animal care training (which covers dog nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction and prevention) the students select their foster dogs. Importantly, this is also the time when the dogs select their foster students. It is a unique moment, when an apprehensive shelter dog decides to trust a student and cuddle in their lap, or when a withdrawn, reserved dog plays joyfully with their chosen student (see Picture 1).
The selected dogs are then transported to campus to live with their foster students for the rest of the semester. During the first weeks after their arrival to campus, students take care to habituate the dogs to their new homes, classroom, and campus environment. Although everyone wants to meet them, precautions must be taken so they are not overwhelmed. During the semester, the students follow a rigorous regimen of training (see Picture 2), aiming to eliminate some of the dogs’ maladaptive behaviors and replace them with more acceptable ones (see specific training tasks in Table 1). Importantly, while training and socializing the dogs, the students become their “adoption ambassadors,” actively working to identify potential adoptive families for their dogs. While the adoption itself is handled by shelter personnel, the passion demonstrated by students as they seek future families for their beloved foster dogs assist and augment the process.
|Theoretical Concept||Practical Training Tasks|
|(1) Calm reaction to classroom, housing environment, students and other dogs in the classroom, route from housing to class, noise, and commotion around housing environment.
(2) Calm reaction when students are entering housing environment or leaving it.
(3) Calm reaction to student’s absence from housing environment and to crate during various times of the day.
|Classical & Operant Conditioning||(1) Obedience: “Sit,” “Down,” “Stay,” “Come,” “Up,” “Down,” “Leave it/Drop it,” walking nicely on a leash.
(2) Agility: completing an agility course made of tunnels, hoops, and weaving poles, arranged into a chain of sequential behaviors.
(3) Tricks: “Paw/Shake/High-Five,” “Speak,” “Place,” “Roll over/Play dead,” etc.
(4) Extinction of behaviors such as jumping, whining, urination in house, leash pulling, etc.
(5) Calm and cooperative reaction to crate/house-training.
(6) Calm reaction to the medical environment: walking nicely by crutches, wheelchairs and other types of medical equipment. Quietly sitting next to a patient’s bed in a hospital-like environment. Tolerance of noises associated with the medical environment.
|Generalization & Discrimination||(1) Sitting by student for a 50-min. class session in a regular campus classroom.
(2) Calm interaction with unknown individuals of various genders, ages, etc.
of fear reaction
|(1) Calm reactions to situations/stimuli that used to frighten/stress the dog (e.g., touching dog’s paws, tall unknown individuals, loud noise).|
Table 1. Theoretical concepts and practical training tasks learned throughout the semester. Adapted from Flaisher-Grinberg S. 2020. Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks: Using the Academic Classroom to Improve the Adoption Outcomes of 10 Shelter Dogs.
While training their foster dogs, students in the course also learn about the human-animal bond and about the application of animals into animal-assisted therapy, education, activities, and interventions. Since students in the course are enrolled into different programs (e.g., psychology, biology, nursing, occupational therapy, education, zoo and aquarium sciences, etc.), they have various interests in and applications for the knowledge acquired in the course.
For instance, one of the distinctive experiences integrated into the semester includes the acclimation of the dogs to the medical environment (equipment, noise, flooring texture, etc.), and their training towards visitation in hospital-like environments. SFU has recently built the new Health Sciences Experiential Learning Commons to serve as a clinical education space. The commons include a mock emergency room, intensive care room, patient room, maternity room, and exam room. Using this environment, students train the dogs to facilitate human physical recovery by walking next to patients’ wheelchairs, sitting next to patients’ beds, and gently interacting with an individual situated within the medical environment (see Picture 3). In order to train the dogs to endure the medical environment we use habituation and gradual desensitization. We do this by exposing them to increasing levels of noise and commotion, combined with operant conditioning. It is our hope that if adopted by an individual with medical needs, an individual who is working in a medical setting, or an individual who is interested in animal-assisted therapy education and/or certification, our training will be beneficial. At the very least, this type of training will have given the dogs an opportunity to become trustworthy members of the family.
Another essential skill taught throughout the semester is the ability to sit throughout an entire academic class session. Specifically, once the dogs demonstrate their ability to follow commands such as “Sit,” “Down,” and “Stay,” we start training them to accompany their student into a regular classroom and sit by their side for the entire duration of the class (50-75 minutes). We start with our own classroom and generalize the task to other classrooms, environments, and locations. This is most certainly not an easy task and must be done slowly and gradually. Dogs get easily bored, or alternatively distracted by the presence of the other dogs in the classroom, by the students, and by the commotion outside the classroom. Importantly, we must assure that none of the students in the class suffer from dog phobias or allergies and that we have the permission of the instructor teaching the class to bring the dogs into the classroom. In order to train the dogs to endure an entire class session, we use variable interval schedules of reinforcement, slowly “stretching the interval” from a few minutes to 10-15 minutes at a time. Towards the end of the semester, a person can walk into the classroom without even knowing that there are dogs sitting quietly by their students (see Picture 4). We hope that if adopted by an individual who is working within an educational setting or who needs to have their dog accompany them into the classroom, our work would be of benefit.
The presence of dogs on campus is treasured by many. Individuals who run into the dogs while walking from class to class smile, stop to chat with the student handler, and regularly comment that seeing or interacting with the dogs “has made their day.” In fact, the students in our course who are walking the dogs into the classroom sometimes start their walk 30 minutes ahead of time, knowing that they will be stopped by individuals who want to meet the dogs, pet them, or ask questions about them. When the dogs spend time in one of the preapproved offices on campus (when their students are in a class that does not allow the presence of a dog, such as labs), that office easily becomes the center of attention. Many students come to spend time with the dogs (especially if they have had a bad day), campus tours stop by to say “hello,” and everyone’s day gets just a little bit better.
In addition, throughout the semester, the students and their foster dogs receive many invitations to join different events on campus, from student-centered events, such as SFU’s Multicultural Festival, Philanthropy Day, Earth Day, Exams De-Stress Festival, etc., to community-centered events, such as SFU’s Gifted Day, Brain Awareness Festival, etc. (see Picture 5). When invited to such events we must assure that the dogs have shade, water, food, and an area to relieve themselves or withdraw, if needed. We teach our students to advocate for their dog’s well-being by assuring that crowding around them is prevented and that their dog’s behavior is assessed for any sign of stress or distress. Our students are instructed to always put their dogs first and leave the scene if the dogs are uncomfortable, even at the price of disappointing humans. Again, during these events we guarantee that we are situated at a location in which an individual with a dog phobia or allergy can easily avoid any dog interaction. Importantly, we see these events as an opportunity to advocate for the dogs’ adoption and to extend our training. This teaches the dogs to generalize their obedient responses from their students to unknown individuals of various genders, ages, etc. It is our hope that we thus expand the range of individuals who may find them suited for adoption.
The end of the semester is marked with a special event, the annual Puppy Graduation (see Picture 6). This event brings together course students and instructors, community partners, and adoptive families, and is open to students, faculty, staff, and administrators from all across campus. This event is set as an opportunity to celebrate the end of a successful semester, but also as a point of transition; the dogs come to the event with their foster students but leave with their adoptive families. It is an emotional event for everyone who has helped these dogs flourish during their time in the program. There are smiles and there are tears. But most importantly, it is a celebration of our love for the dogs, and a blissful opportunity to say goodbye. Luckily, since some of the students, their close families, and campus employees choose to adopt the dogs, we occasionally receive a joyful visit from one of our previous canine graduates.
The program described in this article was designed to improve the behavioral repertoire of shelter dogs, and as thus, increase the likelihood of their adoption and facilitate the adoption outcomes (e.g., reduce the likelihood of relinquishment). A research methodology to assess the effectiveness of the program was implemented. In addition to evaluating the ratio of successful adoptions, ratio of relinquishments, and making follow-up communication with the adoptive families, a test was developed to assess the behavior of the dogs at the beginning and end of the semester. This test includes 10 items adapted from the American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen (AKC-CGC) test (see Table 2). Constructed as a questionnaire, the test enables students to observe the dog’s behavior at the beginning of the semester, analyze it, and select target behaviors as candidates for modification. The dogs are tested again at the end of the semester by a certified CGC evaluator. The improvement in the dog’s behavior can then be qualitatively and quantitatively assessed.
|1||The dog allows a friendly stranger to approach it and speak to the handler in a natural, everyday situation.|
|2||The dog allows a friendly stranger to pet it while it is out with its handler.|
|3||The dog allows an evaluator to inspect it to determine if it is clean and groomed.|
|4||The handler is in control of the dog while walking with a loose leash.|
|5||The dog can move about politely in pedestrian traffic and is under control in public places.|
|6||The dog has training, will respond to the handler’s commands to “sit” and “down” and will remain in the place commanded by the handler (“stay”).|
|7||The dog will “come” when called by the handler.|
|8||The dog can behave politely around other dogs.|
|9||The dog is confident when faced with common distracting situations.|
|10||The dog can be left with a trusted person and will maintain training and good manners.|
Table 2. The AKC-CGC-adapted test, assessed at the beginning and end of the semester
Importantly, of the 13 dogs who were trained thus far by the students in the Canine Learning and Behavior course (see Picture 7), all were adopted (100%), one was relinquished and later adopted again (7.7%), and communication with adoptive families has yielded high satisfaction rates with little to no complaints in regards to the dog’s behavior. As for the AKC-CGC-adapted test, none of the dogs passed the test when evaluated at the beginning of the semester, but 12 dogs passed the test when evaluated at the end of the semester (92.3%).
It is important to mention that when delivered within an academic institution, a course such as the one described in this article must be planned with much preparation and caution. Strict regulations must be formed in advance, specifying restricted areas (where dogs are not allowed), standard operation plans (policies to follow in case a dog is sick or has escaped), and liability issues (e.g., volunteer and foster agreements, signed by students). In addition, IACUC (Institutional Animal Care and Use) protocols must be reviewed and approved, funding resources must be guaranteed (to support dog food, training treats, vet bills, etc.), and all relevant personnel and offices on campus must be kept well informed.
Anyone who works with animals knows that animals guarantee some unpredictable challenges. While regulations can be created, set in place, and written in – the dogs do not read the memo! We have had a dog who ate an entire peanut butter jar (including the jar), just to develop a comprehensive allergy, one who dug through a door just to reunite with her students, and one who managed to sneak out of his foster home, trigger a campus-wide search and keep dozens of students awake for many hours (all of these dogs are okay!). We have also had a dog, Cleo, whose bodily systems completely collapsed at the end of the semester, due to years of neglect and abandonment. At the advice of the shelter vet, Cleo was euthanized, breaking the hearts of his fostering students and everyone who came to love the sweet old hound. Our only consolation was the thought that before his untimely death and after years of suffering from neglect and mistreatment, he had received all the love, attention, and care that he was deserving of. We still miss this gentle soul. To overcome such unpredictable events, a strong partnership must be formed between instructors, shelters, professional dog trainers, and students. We treasure our partnerships and hope to see them continue and prosper in the future.
Five years into the project, many new directions seem to present themselves, and future adventures still await. First, a campus-based theme house, titled the PAWS House, will be established towards the end of 2020. This living-learning environment will enable multiple students to foster and train multiple shelter dogs throughout the entire academic year while promoting academic excellence, meaningful residential experience, and community engagement. It may also serve as a local educational center for our campus and surrounding community, allowing its residents to share their knowledge regarding dog training and work to eliminate animal neglect, cruelty, and abuse. Second, the possibility of socializing, training, and improving the adoption outcomes of shelter cats is another viable idea. Since cats can demonstrate an array of behavioral deficits, are trainable, and are in abundance in some animal shelters, the application of the course materials to cats is within reach. Finally, the project has received attention from other universities, academic programs, and college instructors. It is our hope that the described paradigm will be adopted by additional institutions while expanding its benefit to additional locations, shelters, and shelter animals.
For additional scenes from our classroom and from our annual puppy graduation, please see:
Flaisher-Grinberg S. (2020). 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, Boston University 9:1, 8-15.
Dr. Shlomit Flaisher-Grinberg is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Saint Francis University. She maintains an active research lab that investigates the neurobiology of neurodevelopmental and affective disorders, as well as the effects of the human-animal bond on health and well-being. Her research has been published in various peer-review journals, and presented in local, national, and international conferences: https://www.francis.edu/shlomit-flaisher-grinberg/
Megan Stanton is an honors graduate of Animal Behavior College and a mentor trainer for the school’s curriculum. She holds certifications through ABC in dog training, pet sitting/dog walking, canine and feline nutrition, pet massage, conducting private lessons, and shelter dog training. She is the owner of Marigold Holistic Pet Care in Central PA. When not helping clients relish easier lives with their canine companions, she enjoys time with her family and two dogs in the outdoors. www.marigoldholisticpetcare.com