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Teaching and learning operant principles in animal shelters: perspectives from faculty, students, and shelter staff.

Many instructors have expressed a recent interest in incorporating service-learning activities into their courses. Several authors have maintained that service-learning opportunities help students to better understand class concepts and also lead to desirable outcomes in students, such as enhanced self esteem and an increased interest in social causes. In this article, we discuss the value of teaching and learning operant principles in animal shelters from the perspectives of a faculty member, a student, and a shelter staff member. We maintain that using psychology of learning students as dog trainers in animal shelters results in benefits for instructors, students, and shelter staff, as well as for the dogs in shelters and the people who adopt them.


In recent years, faculty members in psychology and other university disciplines have begun to focus increased attention on incorporating service-learning activities into their course curricula that allow students to practice what they are learning in the classroom in applied settings (Anderson, 2002; O' Byrne, 2001 ; Tuber, et al., 1999). Some instructors have maintained that servicelearning experiences are extremely valuable (Giuliano, 2001; Kivenen & Ristela, 2002; Kretchmar, 2001 ; Tuber, et al., 1999; Valerius & Hamilton, 2001); service-learning can help students model the concepts they have learned in class as well as show the students that the material they are learning is directly applicable to real-world situations. Also, service-learning opportunities can allow students to be active participants in their own learning processes (Aberson, Berger, Healy, Kyle, & Romero, 2000; Giuliano, 2001; Gredler & Johnson, 2001 ; Kivenen & Ristela, 2002; Norcross, Slotterback, & Krebs, 2001 ; Tuber, et al., 1999). Furthermore, allowing students to "learn by doing" in a number of different settings can allow students to perform socially-beneficial work that may make them more satisfied with their educational experiences (House, 2000; Kretchmar, 2001; Raupp & Cohen, 1992). Although large class sizes can make the administration of a service-learning component unsuitable for some courses (e.g., in large introductory psychology courses), most upper-division courses, featuring smaller class sizes and broadly trained students, can be easily modified to feature a service-learning component that allows for student participation in the learning process.

The purpose of this article is to present one way that psychology instructors can allow their students to learn and practice important psychological principles while performing socially-beneficial work: by using students in advanced learning courses as operant trainers in animal shelters. Perspectives of the value of teaching and learning operant principles in animal shelters will be shared by a faculty member (TM) who has coordinated and led learning students in this setting, a student (RC) who has participated in a shelter learning experience, and an administrator at a Humane Society branch (DF) where shelter learning experiences have been offered. In this article we discuss why we believe that animal shelters are an ideal venue for service-learning, as well as our observations of how students and shelter animals have benefited from shelter learning experiences. Finally, we comment on how instructors and students at many universities can develop collaborative partnerships with animal shelters, allowing students the opportunity to learn important principles while helping make shelter pets more readily adoptable.

Each year in the United States millions of dogs and other companion animals are abandoned by their owners at animal shelters (By the numbers, 2003; Hart, 2003; The Humane Society, 2003). Organizations such as the Humane Society operate thousands of shelters across the country, and these shelters typically do their best to offer temporary housing and other services to abandoned animals, and also attempt to find them permanent homes (Hennessy, Voith, Mazzei, Buttram, Miller, & Linden, 2001 ; The Humane Society, 2003; Wells, Graham, & Hepper, 2002; Wells & Hepper, 2000; Wells, & Hepper, 2001). Unfortunately, there are often many more abandoned animals than there are people and families wanting to adopt them. As a result, millions of animals are put to death each year to make room for incoming pets (By the numbers, 2003; Hart, 2003; The Humane Society, 2003). One of the reasons most often cited by people who leave their former pets (usually dogs) at animal shelters is that the animals engage in problem behaviors that the people find difficult to deal with (Hennessy, et al., 2001; Tuber, et al., 1999; Wells et al., 2002; Wells, & Hepper, 2000; Wells, & Hepper 2001). Furthermore, it has been repeatedly demonstrated that the shelter experience, often characterized by cramped conditions, loud noises, and insufficient access to human contact, leads to the development or acceleration of problem behavior (Hennessy, et al., 2001; Tuber, et al., 1999; Wells et al., 2002; Wells & Hepper, 2000). For example, many animals that were originally abandoned for behavior problems may develop more pronounced behavior problems, and many other animals that were abandoned for other reasons may develop behavior problems that did not exist prior to arriving at the shelter. These problem behaviors typically make the animals less likely to be adopted, and if they are adopted, more likely to be returned to the shelter because the adopting person or family finds the behaviors difficult to manage.

In light of the presence of problem behaviors in some shelter animals, it seems advantageous to develop a program to reduce or eliminate these behaviors in order to make shelter animals more adoptable. It seems that developing such a program would increase the likelihood that shelter animals would be adopted and decrease the likelihood that these animals would have to be put to death. Furthermore, among the many shelter animals that do not show problem behavior, a program of behavior modification could likely help them develop certain behaviors that are considered desirable to many prospective adopters. Fortunately dogs, which make up a large percentage of shelter animals, respond extremely well to the operant conditioning principles used in behavior modification programs. In this article, we will describe the development of a behavior modification program involving trained undergraduate students from psychology of learning courses. In this program, student volunteers who have been taught important operant principles engage in training techniques to make shelter dogs with behavioral problems acceptable and desirable pets, and also make dogs without obvious behavioral problems even more desirable to adopt.

The shelter training program described in this article is much more than simply a student volunteering program. Although we believe that any efforts to involve students in socially beneficial volunteering activities are desirable, they often do not relate particularly well to the concepts taught in the psychology classroom. In contrast, the dog training program described here relates to psychology of learning class concepts extremely well; many of the operant conditioning principles and phenomena discussed by learning instructors are modeled and used by the students in the shelter setting. As described below, we feel that using students as trainers in animal shelters allows these students to learn the operant principles while performing them and directly observing their effects. In this way, we believe that students who participate in appropriate shelter work can better learn important psychological principles while performing work that they will feel good about and which may save the lives of abandoned dogs. Below, perspectives of the experience of shelter work will be shared by a faculty member who has coordinated and led training efforts, students who have participated in them, and shelter staff who have overseen the training efforts.

Faculty Perspectives

The first author began using psychology of learning students as dog trainers in animal shelters during the Fall 2000 academic semester. The impetus for the project was a recognition that that two important goals could be achieved simultaneously; these two goals included providing opportunities for students to develop a better understanding of operant principles by using them in a handson manner, and helping to make unwanted shelter dogs more readily adoptable. During that semester, psychology of learning students were offered an opportunity to earn supplementary course credit (i.e., "extra credit") for attending a training session and then working for six hours training dogs at local Humane Society shelter. The students were informed that they would be taught how to use the operant principles learned in the classroom to help reduce undesirable behaviors in the dogs, while increasing desirable behaviors. Those students who indicated an interest in the extra credit opportunity met with a dog trainer affiliated with the local Humane Society shelter, who brought a shelter animal to the university for a two-hour training session. During this session, the trainer modeled many of the important techniques the students had learned in class (e.g., shaping, prompting, providing reinforcement and punishment) in the context of dog-training. The students were encouraged to ask questions and briefly work with the dog, imitating the behaviors modeled by the trainer. After the students completed the training session, they were allowed to schedule times to work at the local Humane Society shelter and were rewarded with course credit for their completion of the remaining six hours of their work commitment, as well as for completing a work journal documenting their experiences.

Since the initial semester that this option was implemented, shelter training work has been conducted for four semesters at animal shelters in two western states. All of the students who have participated in shelter training work have been upper-division students enrolled in psychology of learning courses; I (TM) believe that these courses are ideal for recruiting dog trainers for several reasons. The first reason is that learning courses typically focus heavily on the use of operant conditioning procedures for increasing the likelihood of desirable behaviors and decreasing the likelihood of undesirable behaviors. The second is that the students enrolled in these courses, being upper-division students nearing completion of the requirements for their baccalaureate degrees, typically have broad knowledge of psychological principles, including ethical principles regarding work with human and animal subjects. The third is that, unfortunately (especially for instructors who are passionate about the psychology of learning), some students in learning courses find the topics to be rather dry and uninteresting. They also find the experiments discussed heavily in these courses (which often involve pigeons and rats performing various behaviors in operant chambers) to be far removed from "real life" applications that they can relate to. By taking some of the students in these courses into settings in which they can apply the principles they have learned in "real life" settings, learning instructors can make the material "come alive" and become much more interesting and relevant to the students enrolled in their courses.

As noted briefly above, some of the experimental examples that learning instructors are compelled to use in classroom discussions of operant principles may appear to be rather tedious and are far removed from the experiences of their students. For example, when trying to articulate the use of shaping (rewarding successive approximations of a desired behavior), a learning instructor might explain how a researcher who is interested in teaching a pigeon to peck a colored disk (known as a "key") in an operant chamber might first allow the pigeon access to a food hopper for facing the key, then for moving into the side of the chamber where the key is located, and so forth. Although experimenters specializing in learning research often use this exact procedure when training experimentally-naive pigeons to key peck, many students would likely fail to see the relevance of the procedure and would probably develop a shallow level of knowledge of the shaping concept. However, if that same instructor modeled the shaping procedure in an animal shelter and then encouraged the students to perform it on their own, the students would very likely develop a deeper understanding of the use of the procedure and of its value in shaping truly desirable behaviors. For example, a learning instructor could show how to shape a shelter dog to sit on command by first rewarding it for approaching the instructor, then for standing still next to the instructor, and finally for performing the desired outcome of sitting. Because the instructor could communicate how teaching the dog this behavior might make it more attractive to a potential adopter, the students would immediately recognize how shaping can be used in a way that has real and lasting effects.

Shaping is not the only operant procedure that can be effectively taught and learned in a shelter environment; many other operant principles--including some that are rather difficult to "bring to life" in the classroom--can also be taught and learned. Below are some examples of operant procedures that have been demonstrated in the shelter environment. Definitions for the procedures are provided from the text used by the students in the first author's classes (Lieberman, 2000).

Reinforcement: A reinforcer is typically described in the classroom as an environmental consequence that increases the future likelihood of a desired response. Positive reinforcement is used whenever a desirable outcome follows an appropriate response, and negative reinforcement is used whenever an aversive stimulus or state of affairs is removed following an appropriate response. Definitions such as these are technically accurate, but they are sometimes difficult for students to understand, and how reinforcement can be meaningfully used may not be immediately clear to them. However, modeling the effective use of positive and negative reinforcement in the shelter environment is extremely easy to do. Students can quickly learn the concepts if the definition of the procedure is given while the instructor or another trainer models the behavior. For example, an instructor can discuss how the likelihood of sitting behavior will increase if a treat (e.g., small slices of cooked hotdogs and bits of "jerky treats") is presented immediately after the desired behavior. In just moments, an instructor can develop a novel and desirable behavior in a shelter dog, while pointing out all of the important elements of Skinner's (e.g., Skinner, 1938) three-term contingency (e.g., stimulus=trainer instructing a dog to sit; response=dog sits; reinforcer=hotdog slice immediately presented). Negative reinforcement can also be easily modeled. For example, a dog might be left in its kennel until it stops lunging at the kennel door and sits quietly. The dog would then be allowed to leave the kennel and be led to the outdoor yard to play. Each step in the process can again be labeled by the instructor to explain how the operant procedure works to increase the likelihood of quiet sitting behavior in a kenneled dog. I frequently describe how negative reinforcement is used to teach dogs to walk on a leash without pulling the trainer walking them. A dog pulling on a leash often gags when the leash cinches tightly around its throat; when the dog stops pulling and walks next to the trainer, the leash eases around its throat and it can breath easily. Thus, it can easily be shown how a desirable change in a dog's behavior (walking with the trainer) can be made by the removal of an aversive state of affairs (a tight leash about the throat).

Punishment: Punishment, like reinforcement, is an important operant principle that is crucial for psychology of learning students to understand. However, textbook definitions of punishment (again like reinforcement) are often rather baroque and may be difficult for students to understand, and students may have difficulties understanding how punishment can be effectively used in a real world situation. Fortunately, the principle of punishment is rather easy to model in the shelter environment. For example, I frequently model negative punishment by withholding attention from a dog that is engaging in an undesirable behavior, such as jumping up on a trainer. Students quickly realize that attention is a desired state of affairs for the shelter dogs (which commonly receive very little human contact in the shelter environment) and that withholding this attention (usually modeled by turning away from the dog in an exaggerated manner) leads to a decrease in the dog's previous behavior. Modeling positive punishment is somewhat more sensitive, because shelter staff and volunteers typically do not endorse the use of physical punishment (e.g., swatting a dog on the rear end) to reduce undesirable behavior. However, an instructor or other trainer can explain to students how the use of an authoritative verbal response of "No!" following an undesirable behavior can reduce the future likelihood of that behavior in the shelter dog, who is typically eager to please and therefore likely to avoid behaviors that result in responses of "No!"

The examples provided thus far are relatively simple examples, but a creative instructor can model other, more sophisticated operant conditioning phenomena as well. In fact, nearly any important operant phenomena can be taught and learned in the shelter environment--even the most complex phenomena. For example, differential reinforcement of low rates of behavior (a DRL schedule of reinforcement) is sometimes difficult to explain in class in a way that is meaningful to learning students. However, a DRL schedule can be modeled in the training environment by an instructor who rewards a dog who has not barked or jumped up on the instructor more than once in a five-minute period. Also, the partial reinforcement effect (the tendency for organisms to persist in a behavior longer when they are not reinforced for every desired behavior) can be modeled by providing continuous reinforcement to one dog for sitting and providing another dog with a treat after sitting on command three consecutive times (a fixed-ratio or FR-3 schedule) and then stopping reinforcement altogether. Very likely, the dog on the FR-3 schedule of reinforcement would continue sitting on command long after the continuously reinforced dog had stopped. Modeling this phenomenon in a shelter environment provides a concrete example of a rather counter-intuitive concept learned in class.

In the above paragraphs, it has been described how a number of operant conditioning techniques can be effectively modeled in the shelter environment. I have found that using students as trainers in the shelter environment has been a very effective way to enhance discussion in the classroom. For example, when I have presented information on operant conditioning experiments in class, students involved in the shelter training program frequently comment on how the principles used in the experiments are similar to the procedures that they themselves have used while working with dogs in the shelters. This engages the entire class in discussion, and even those students who choose not to participate in the program benefit from this interaction. Operant conditioning, which seems to be an area of study that some students find somewhat boring, suddenly comes to life. The students have "real life" experiences to discuss, share, and compare with other students and with the instructor. Furthermore, the students have an opportunity to demonstrate how well they have learned the important principles when they submit their work journals at the conclusion of the project. The students' journal submissions typically show great sophistication and understanding of operant conditioning and its applications. I have also found that the students have become more socially aware, and seem to feel quite good about themselves and about how they have been able to apply what they have learned in a real-world application.

Up to this point, the benefits of shelter work to instructors, students, and to the general learning process have been discussed in some detail. As an instructor, I feel these benefits to be great. However, I have not yet discussed where perhaps the greatest benefits of shelter work lie: in helping to save the lives of dogs that have been abandoned at the shelter. As was briefly discussed earlier, many dogs are initially abandoned to shelters precisely because they are believed to engage in too much undesirable behavior and too little desirable behavior. Further, the shelter environment is typically a stressful one, which may increase the frequency of undesirable behaviors in the dogs that are housed there. Dogs showing evidence of undesirable behaviors, such as barking loudly in their kennels and lunging at the kennel door whenever a prospective adopter approaches, are not likely to be taken out by the adopter to examine (Hennessy, et al., 2001; Wells et al., 2002; Wells & Hepper, 2000; Wells & Hepper, 2001). Even if they are removed from their kennels for examination, these dogs may be so excited and full of pent-up energy that they immediately jump on the prospective adopter and drag him or her about on the leash. Dogs engaging in these behaviors are not likely to be adopted, and therefore become likely candidates for disposal. As most dog trainers and shelter staff would attest, there are few, if any, inherently "wild" or "bad" dogs--there are only poorly trained dogs. These dogs can benefit greatly from training, but shelter budgets are often stretched so thinly that adequate trainers cannot be hired to make the dogs more adoptable. Students completing shelter work can help fill this gap by applying their developing skills to teach the dogs to more readily engage in various desirable behaviors (e.g., sitting quietly, walking well on a leash, coming on command) and to more often avoid engaging in various undesirable behaviors (such as barking wildly, lunging, jumping, and pulling on the leash). These students, in my experience, have done a wonderful job in working with shelter dogs, and although I have not collected data to verify this, I strongly suspect that their work has likely led to the adoption of many of these dogs. As I see it, teaching students to be trainers in animal shelters is a rare "win-win" situation. The instructor and students benefit from enhanced understanding of relevant course-related information and feel good about what they are doing. The dogs benefit through exposure to human contact and by learning behaviors that make them more readily adoptable and more attractive pets.

Student Perspectives

Many college students take courses in psychology because the topics associated with psychology are interesting, and they have a strong desire to understand the external and internal factors that influence behavior. Furthermore, because the information presented by psychology instructors is of interest to the students, many of these students would likely enjoy the opportunity to further explore the topics of psychology in an out-of-class setting. Unfortunately, at some universities it may be difficult to become a research assistant--and therefore difficult to have these out-of-class learning opportunities--due to many factors, including competition for few available assistantships, student work commitments, family responsibilities, and so forth. The implementation of course-related learning opportunities, such as the shelter work described in this article, is another way in which students can practice concepts delivered by the professor in a non-classroom setting. In the subsequent paragraphs, I (RC) will describe why students in psychology of learning courses can learn key operant conditioning principles better, and understand the application of these principles more fully, if they have the opportunity to apply their learning to the training of dogs in animal shelters. I will also share some additional thoughts expressed by fellow students who have completed this experiential learning component and have commented on it in anonymous written evaluations.

In a classroom environment, information is often presented using only two of the three major learning modalities (auditory and visual) (McCabe, 1985; Zentall & Smith, 1992). The classroom environment can make it difficult to incorporate the kinesthetic (tactile) modality due to a lack of resources and/or space. The inability to incorporate all learning modalities places some students at a disadvantage (McCabe, 1985; Zentall & Smith, 1992). Those students who learn information best through either the visual or auditory modalities of learning stand to learn the information presented in class more readily than those students who learn best through kinesthetic means. With the addition of a service-learning component to the course curriculum, it is possible to incorporate opportunities for learning through the kinesthetic modality, which may benefit those students who learn better through tacit means (Kivenen & Ristela, 2002). Furthermore, service-learning opportunities are beneficial for the students to reinforce the concepts delivered in a classroom environment and to increase a student's self-esteem (e.g., Gredler & Johnson, 2001 ; House, 2000; Kretchmar, 2001; O' Byrne, 2001; Raupp & Cohen, 1992). When a service-learning component is added to a class, those students who are visual or auditory learners can use their out-of-class experiences to reinforce the concepts learned in class, thus increasing their grasp of the topics, and those students who are primarily kinesthetic learners can take advantage of learning opportunities that are not typically available to them in the classroom, but which also are geared toward their own unique learning styles (Kivenen & Ristela, 2002; O' Byrne, 2001).

The use of dog-training in conjunction with classroom instruction on the operant learning process affords students like myself the opportunity to experience firsthand the concepts associated with the operant learning process. Many concepts in psychology can initially seem abstract and difficult to grasp, but when those concepts can be experienced in a "hands-on" environment, they are more readily understood (Kivenen & Ristela, 2002; O' Byrne, 2001). In my experience, some operant conditioning concepts that in class seemed to lie just beyond my comprehension became solidified when implementing the concepts with the dogs.

When the shelter training opportunity was first presented to the students in my class, I was hesitant to allocate the time needed to complete the project. I believed that it would interfere with the limited time I had available for studying. I found, however, that the time spent at the Humane Society was of more benefit to my learning of operant conditioning than time spent at home studying. While training the dogs, my partner and I (many students chose to train the dogs in groups of two) discussed the principles of operant learning we were using to elicit positive behaviors from the dogs. Both the interaction with my partner and the "hands-on" practice of the formerly abstract-seeming concepts allowed for the creation of secondary retrieval cues that I believe facilitated quicker and more reliable retrieval during subsequent exams, which resulted in higher exam scores than I had previously achieved. These higher scores led to an increased feeling of self-worth, which in turn led to a greater feeling of satisfaction associated with the volunteer program. By increasing feelings of satisfaction, my willingness to complete further volunteerism was amplified. This cyclical effect is beneficial for students, their grades, the Humane Society, and the dogs.

After finishing the class project, students who participated in the shelter training program were allowed the opportunity to voice their opinions of the program anonymously in a written course evaluation. This evaluation contained questions that asked whether completion of the shelter training program led to increased understanding of operant conditioning principles, and whether the shelter training program should be continued in the future. Of those students who chose to answer these items, 100% of them reported that the shelter work increased their understanding of operant principles, and 100% endorsed the continuation of the program. Those students who participated in the program and completed the course evaluation reported an increased knowledge of the subject matter and an enhanced sense of self-worth resulting from the increased adoption rates of the dogs at the shelter. Several sample responses from student evaluations from the Spring 2003 semester are presented below.

"I believe continuing this project would be beneficial for students as well as the dogs. You come to understand the operant principles on a hands-on basis. It should continue, in my opinion."

"Definitely (the program should continue), I think it is important to encourage people to volunteer in their communities and make a difference. I love how (the instructor) incorporates this aspect into his classes. It tied in well with the class."

All of the students who volunteered at the Humane Society during the Spring 2003 semester (the semester during which I participated) reported their experiences at the shelter to be both emotionally and educationally beneficial. It seems to me that the students' sell-esteem and understanding of psychological concepts increased through the utilization of all three learning modalities (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) in the completion of the shelter training program. Furthermore, the dogs that were trained during the program very likely held a higher chance of being adopted due to the reduction of undesirable behaviors. When the outcomes of a volunteer project such as this one are all positive, it seems important to implement that project into many different arenas. I strongly encourage other psychology instructors and students to consider implementing shelter training programs wherever possible.

Shelter Staff Perspectives

Although much of this article has been written from the standpoint of university personnel who have participated in shelter work, I (DF) have had the unique experience of being able to observe the impact of the dog-training program from the perspective of a shelter staff member. As the public relations and education director of a major regional shelter, I have had the opportunity to observe the effects of the university-shelter collaboration from start to finish. Although it would be difficult for me to comment on the effects of the program on student learning, I have helped coordinate student shelter work for several years, so I can comment from experience on the benefits of the program to the dogs in our shelter and on benefits to the shelter itself. I will discuss these benefits in the following paragraphs.

There are several clearly observable benefits to the shelter dogs that result from student participation in a dog-training program such as the one we have used for the past two years. As discussed earlier in this article, some of the dogs that come to shelters do so because they have "problem behaviors" that their former owners find difficult to control. Unfortunately, many dog owners fail to realize that the cute puppy they buy or adopt will eventually grow into a larger dog that, if not trained properly, can develop some behavior problems. Rather than learning how to deal with these problem behaviors themselves, many owners simply bring them to animal shelters such as the Humane Society. This is especially unfortunate because the dogs that are relinquished to shelters could have their undesirable behavior easily corrected with basic obedience training and positive reinforcement methods. The owners who relinquish their dogs can no longer provide this training, but shelter staff and the students who perform shelter work can.

Dogs that are relinquished to shelters are immediately deprived of human contact. Human contact is essential to socialization and positive behaviors in dogs, and when the dogs are brought to the shelter they no longer have access to many people, as animal shelters are chronically understaffed due to lack of funding. Students can provide needed social contacts with the dogs, helping them to become more comfortable around people even as they are taught new behaviors through operant conditioning. This increased human contact allows the dogs to learn how to interact with, and behave appropriately, around many different people, as well as other dogs that are being worked with by the students. Also, increased contact with people seems to calm the dogs' emotions. Of course, it is difficult to objectively measure what emotions dogs are feeling, but trained animal shelter staff members frequently observe that many shelter dogs seem anxious, depressed, and fearful. The more that people interact with the dogs, the less anxious and depressed they seem, and the more calm and adjusted they appear in the shelter environment. Furthermore, we at the shelter have noticed that when dogs exhibit fewer signs of stress as a result of opportunities for interaction with people, and have opportunities to get out of their kennels and learn new behaviors, they are less likely to come down with the colds, upper respiratory injections, and other stress-related illnesses that are so common in shelter animals.

In short, the presence of the students is beneficial to the dogs in many ways--even without the students performing operant conditioning work. Simply walking, petting, and playing with the dogs seems to have a very positive effect on their behavior. But the operant training skills that students from learning classes bring seem to be a real bonus, and the training that the dogs receive when working with the students can lead to very desirable outcomes, such as higher adoption rates. I will briefly explain our program of shelter work, in terms of how we select and train dogs, and share some comments that might he helpful to other faculty, students, and shelter staff who wish to develop a program such as ours.

A large number of dogs that are brought to our shelter are between the ages of nine months and two years of age. These are typically the dogs that, as noted earlier, are no longer the cute puppies that their owners bought but rather growing dogs who need training and guidance. We at the shelter select dogs from this age range, who are frequently considered "juvenile delinquents" and would greatly benefit from any form of training, and assign them to the learning students from the university (before assigning them to students, the dogs are evaluated to make sure that they show no signs of illness or aggression). We simply prepare a list of dogs that are most in need of training, and provide the necessary resources (e.g., treats, leashes, and a quiet area to work) for the students. When students arrive to work with a dog, they are provided with an evaluation form on which they can note what behaviors the dog has been learning. For example, there are "boxes" on the form that the student can "check" after teaching the dog to sit, walk quietly on a leash, and so forth. This card is left on the dog's kennel so that potential adopters can read what the animal has been learning and what skills it has mastered. Dogs with developed skills and more manageable behaviors are very likely more attractive to these potential adopters. We at the Idaho Humane Society strongly feel that dogs that appear to have some training and that exhibit positive reactions to humans are more likely to get adopted, and that the act of "sitting" on command or walking appropriately on a leash can be the difference between life or death to a dog in a shelter.

The benefits of the shelter training program extend beyond those to dogs; the shelter itself benefits from the program as well. When student volunteers fill a need for a staff member, that staff member is free to perform other functions vital to the success of the shelter and the adoption of animals, such as completing administrative tasks, attending to the needs of sick animals, and so forth. Thus, the students act as "unpaid" employees by providing an indispensable service that most shelters cannot afford to hire staff to perform. Furthermore, the shelter benefits from the higher adoption rates associated with having well-trained and manageable animals available for adoption. The more dogs that are adopted, the more space we have for incoming dogs. We would obviously much rather make space for incoming dogs by adopting out shelter dogs than by euthanizing them. In sum, the students, through their use of operant conditioning principles learned at the university, can make a number of wonderful contributions to the dogs in animal shelters as well as to the shelters themselves.


It is likely that most university faculty, regardless of their discipline, hope to make the learning experiences of their students engaging, exciting, and socially relevant. It is also likely that many instructors hope that, by imparting their students with relevant knowledge and training experiences, their students will be able to use what they have learned to work toward solving problems and addressing important social issues. It seems desirable, therefore, to incorporate socially relevant training experiences into course curricula in order to help students better learn class concepts and make the world a better place by putting those concepts into action. Service-learning experiences seem to do this, and there is a great deal of support for the notion that students do learn better through service-learningexperiences (e.g.,Anderson, 2002; Giuliano, 2001; Gredler & Johnson, 2001; Kivenen & Ristela, 2002; Kretchmar, 2001; O' Byrne, 2002; Tuber, et al., 1999; Valerius & Hamilton, 2001; Winn, 1995) and that they also feel good about making a contribution to addressing relevant social problems (Connor-Greene, 2002; Kretchmar, 2001; Valerius & Hamilton, 2001).

Some instructors may wish to implement a service-learning component into their class curriculum, but do not know how to do so in a meaningful way. In this article, we have described how instructors who teach psychology of learning courses can implement a service-learning program in animal shelters that is easy to develop and monitor, complements classroom learning and allows for active demonstrations of class-related principles, and performs an important function that may save the lives of shelter dogs. We believe that a program similar to the one we have described here could be implemented at almost any college or university, as Humane Society shelters or other animal welfare organizations can be found in most communities across North America. We also believe that students at any college or university would benefit from participatton in such a program: offering shelter training opportunities to students in learning courses that do not have a laboratory component built into them or access to an animal colony seems particularly beneficial, In short, the shelter training program that we have described here seems to be a viable way for psychology faculty to implement a service-learning project, to offer students valuable learning opportunities that may expand their understanding of course material, and to foster collaboration with a community agency dedicated to combating an important social problem. We strongly encourage faculty who teach psychology of learning courses to seriously consider implementing a similar program in their own classes in the future.


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Theodore W. McDonald and Rafaelito Caso, Boise State University. Dee Fugit, Idaho Humane Society.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Theodore W. McDonald, Department of Psychology, MS-1715, Boise State University, 1910 University Drive, Boise, ID 83725-1715.
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Title Annotation:educational psychology research
Author:Fugit, Dee
Publication:Journal of Instructional Psychology
Date:Dec 1, 2005
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