There Is a Shelter Dog in My College Classroom
Shlomit Flaisher- Grinberg
Shlomit Flaisher-Grinberg, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology and co-coordinator of the interdisciplinary neuroscience minor at Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania. She teaches classes including Canine Learning & Behavior and Animal Minds and specializes in experiential learning. She maintains an active research lab where she investigates the effects of the human-animal bond on health and well-being.
I was trained as a neuropsychologist. The field of neuropsychology aims to study the interaction between the brain, nervous system, cognition, and behavior. After many years in research, I decided to combine my love of science with my love of teaching and accepted a position as a tenure-track assistant professor of psychology. Although some of the courses that I was charged to teach were within my field of expertise (e.g., biological psychology, psychopharmacology), other courses required a lot of preparation. One of them was “Learning”, a class which Focuses on the theoretical basis of human learning. The field encompasses complex theories, principles and terminology (e.g., classical and operant conditioning), but it also offers practical tools that are relevant to many situations, conditions, and species. Specifically, the processes that govern human learning are the same ones that affect animal learning.
I thus designed lab-sessions and research-projects which required my students to apply their learning to the training of live rats. Although rats have a bad reputation, they are in fact clean, sociable, and smart. There is a great joy in the ability to teach rats to ride tiny scooters, push miniature shopping-carts, bowl, complete custom-built agility courses, or paint with their paws. There is also a benefit to the learning outcomes, as the acquired knowledge can be implemented towards the work with other animals (e.g., zoos/wildlife-rehabilitation centers), or with human patients (e.g., developmental disorders, addiction, etc.). Moreover, as my students learned to care for the health and well-being of the rats (providing a clean and stress-free environment, food, water, and enrichment), they also learned to respect
A Shelter Dog in My College Classroom 21 their capabilities, and follow the ethical guidelines that pertain to the work with live animals. In fact, many of my students grew to love their rats, and several students chose to adopt them at the end of the semester.
A year later, I became intrigued with another teaching opportunity: shelter dogs. One of the factors which may facilitate or hinder the successful adoption of a dog from a shelter includes its behavioral repertoire. Specifically, a dog which displays fearful, aggressive, destructive, over-excitable, or disobedient behaviors may spend a long time at the shelter or may not find its forever home. While shelters are full of dedicated staff and volunteers, their ability to offer behavioral rehabilitation is subjected to time and funding constrains. I thought, what if we could use the knowledge and practices offered by the field of “Learning”, and the resources that are inherent to higher education institutions to make a difference in the lives of shelter dogs, one dog at the time?
I, therefore, designed a new undergraduate psychology curricular item, titled the “Canine Learning and Behavior” course. I wanted my students to work with shelter dogs which have been abandoned, neglected, and abused (and as a result, display an array of health and behavioral issues), with the goal of providing these dogs with training and behavioral rehabilitation to improve the likelihood of their successful adoption. In order to accomplish this goal, I established a partnership with a local shelter and recruited an experienced, certified dog trainer as my adjunct instructor. I then secured dog-approved, on-campus housing and classrooms, notified campus police about the presence of dogs on the campus property, and generated dog-handling and training protocols which were reviewed and approved by our “Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee”. Finally, I designed lectures and lab-based sessions which targeted the extinction of maladaptive behaviors, and training for obedience, agility, and socialization.
Thus far, I have taught the course four times. Many of the dogs selected for the course displayed behavioral and health-related issues, were older, belonged to the pit bull breed, and spent over a year at the shelter. All were successfully adopted at the end of the semester. In fact, we celebrate the end of each semester with a “Puppy-Graduation Ceremony”, which includes paw-shakes, the handout of ACK-CGC certificates, Saint Francis University' “Diploma”, collar-tags, and a cake (liver and peanut butter for dogs, chocolate and vanilla for humans).
The teaching of animal-integrated courses within an academic institution requires a great deal of preparation and flexibility. Securing a budget (animal food), setting (animal-approved classrooms/housing), community partners (animal shelters), and protocols (planning for unexpected events) calls for the generation of collaborative partnerships with multiple academic offices. It also requires the recruitment of knowledgeable adjunct instructors (my academic education did not prepare me to train dogs) and the enrollment of enthusiastic, dedicated, and responsible students.
22 Shlontit Flaisher-Grinberg
Taking a larger perspective on the topic, my role as faculty in higher education has both advantages and disadvantages. This is a demanding line of work. From class construction, teaching, and grading, to committee service, scholarship, and publication, it is hard to maintain a life-work balance, and I always take work home with me. On the other hand, the opportunity for life-long learning is irreplaceable, and the ability to work with accomplished colleagues, talented students, and enthusiastic community partners is unmatched. Moreover, the incorporation of animals into my classroom, as a part of the psycholog}' curriculum, has dramatically enhanced my work satisfaction. My students perceive the class as instrumental for their personal and professional development; faculty, staff, administrators, and students enjoy the presence of dogs on campus; and I find myself smiling every day on my way to work. Given this positive experience, I was able to integrate animal visits into additional courses (e.g., roosters, bunnies, ferrets, and cats in my “Animal Minds” class), and I am currently working on the generation of a campus-based “shelter-dogs theme-house”. This “living-learning” environment will enable students to foster and train shelter dogs throughout the entire academic year, while promoting academic excellence, meaningful residential experience, and community engagement. Potentially, it may serve as a local educational center to our campus and surrounding community, sharing knowledge in regard to dog training and working to eliminate animal neglect, cruelty, and abuse.