Psychology students teach old dogs new tricks
Published: Monday, October 29, 2012
Updated: Monday, October 29, 2012 13:10
For the sixth consecutive year, the UNO Psychology department began a three-week service project at the Nebraska Humane Society.
Under the leadership of psychology professor Rosemary Strasser, psychology students partnered with Blackburn Alternative High School students to assist in conditioning animal behavior at the Humane Society.
Students in Strasser’s Psychology of Learning course learn about various conditioning mechanisms in animals and she saw the objectives from the course were able to help meet a need in the community.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to mix the goals of the class, which is to learn how to apply conditioning principles, and the goals of the shelters which is to make the dogs more adoptable,” Strasser said.
Throughout the course of those three weeks, students go the Humane Society for about an hour every Tuesday. Two UNO students partner with one Blackburn student to serve as mentors during the project. For some students, this is a frightening experience because many of the dogs come from troubled circumstances.
Strasser said many of the dogs exhibit stress behaviors like barking and hiding from other dogs and people. Many animals are worried because they do not know why they are there or what they have done wrong, Strasser said. Having this understanding, students use positive reinforcement techniques to help shape the dog’s behavior.
“If a dog is barking, they’ll reinforce the absence of them barking. Or if a dog is hiding in the back of the kennel, they’ll reinforce with hot dogs and cheese and other goodies,” Strasser said. “Over time their going to show more of those good behaviors and less of those unwanted behaviors.”
Throughout the duration of the project, Strasser’s students participate in data collection that documents what problem behaviors the dog exhibits, potential training techniques to alter those behaviors, implementation of those techniques, and observations on the change in behavior over time.
“The goal is to make the dog better so that they succeed in the home and they don’t get returned to the shelter,” Strasser said.
Denise Gurss, director of Animal and Welfare Training at the Humane Society is very thankful for the efforts of the UNO and Blackburn students.
“It’s really a win-win situation for the shelter. Strasser brings her students in on several different levels in regard to teaching behavior modification,” Gurss said. “UNO has done most of the work we’ve just gained the gifts of everything they have done for us.”
Gurss discussed the need for students to realize the importance of showing empathy to animals and recognizing that not all dogs are harmful.
“They [dogs] don’t always have to be big, scary unknowns. We’re always wanting to get the younger students to work with empathy and give them a different look at the shelter and a different look at animals quite honestly,” Gurss said.
Being the sixth year Strasser has done this, she has noticed her Psychology of Learning course is one of her most popular ones because of the emphasis on service learning. Students are more interested in the curriculum because they realize they will not simply turn in an assignment, receive a grade, and then throw the assignment away, but there are lasting impacts because of their efforts.
“We’re actually doing research, collecting data, coming up with hypotheses and analyzing data and it’s making a difference for those animals,” Strasser said.
UNO P-16 Service Learning Academy Coordinator (SLA), Julie Dierberger, has been involved with service learning at UNO for three years and said the university has a unique opportunity to use what they are learning to help with the Humane Society.
“We can link what they’re [students] learning in the classroom to meeting a need in the community,” Dierberger said.
Most of the organizational efforts for the project are done by Strasser; however, the role the SLA plays during this project is meeting some of the tangible needs of the project like providing buses for students.
The SLA also provides two seminars each year that are a week long where instructors from elementary, middle school, high school, and higher education are able to learn how to best utilize service learning in the classroom. This was how Blackburn Alternative Program Instructor Cathy Nelson and Strasser were able to meet and collaborate on the Humane Society project.
Strasser and Dierberger both recognize the importance of service learning and Dierberger said that it not only helps students understand academic concepts better, but it provides them with experience for the future.