Shenandoah University psychology students in the “Behavior Modification” (PSY 330) course taught by Rodney Bragdon, Ph.D., are getting a break from standard classroom routine and have the opportunity this semester to apply the concepts they’re learning to a service project benefitting some four-legged friends from the local SPCA.
Throughout the spring semester, the 21 students in Dr. Bragdon’s class will work with four foster dogs on a project designed to teach students how to develop and implement a canine training program based on positive reinforcement training techniques. Three of the dogs are being fostered by students during the semester-long project, while Bragdon is fostering the fourth.
The project was formed through a collaboration with the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke Counties, and Lisa Marino, a certified dog trainer and founder of Head of the Class Dog Training LLC in Winchester.
While the students benefit from getting hands-on experience with course concepts, the dogs – and the SPCA – reap the rewards as well, as dogs who have received obedience training are more appealing to prospective owners.
At the end of the semester, the dogs will be put back up for adoption, and students in the course will have first rights to adopt if they’re interested.
This experience has truly been awesome because we are able to take these skills and apply them outside of the classroom. One thing in particular that I have loved about this experience is how our class is able to be so hands-on with the dogs, and that we are allowed to train them ourselves instead of us watching someone else do it.”
Delainey Stickley ’24, student and foster parent to Penelope (pictured above right)
Penelope, an 8-month-old, small, mixed-breed puppy, is the youngest of the group of foster dogs, which includes Gucci and Spud, a pair of 1-year-old, medium-sized, mixed-breed brothers, and 7-year-old Brutus, a large mixed-breed who was pulled from another shelter, according to Alisha Piper, canine services manager of the Winchester SPCA. Piper said that for the purposes of the project, the dogs chosen had to weigh less than 40 pounds, and Piper made sure the selected canines would be comfortable spending all of their time in a campus setting surrounded by people.
The dogs were outfitted with custom Shenandoah University vests, which identify each of them as a “Hornet in training” and feature SU logos designed by the university’s Office of Marketing and Communications.
Prior to the start of the semester, Bragdon and Marino, a former teacher, selected specific behaviors they felt would be beneficial for the dogs to learn in order to increase their chances of being adopted.
Early class sessions were dedicated to demonstrating the initial instructions to students, who, by the end of the first two weeks of class, had received what Marino called an “information dump” of course concepts in order to form a basic understanding of the work they’d be performing during training sessions with the dogs.
Marino said that because all dog training is behavior modification, the classroom concepts and the training being performed are inseparable. Bragdon, who has taught the course for 16 years, noted that the positive reinforcement techniques and classical conditioning principles that students are using can be applied to animals and humans alike.
Training dogs to become “good citizens,” Marino said, focuses on the central question: “How do we get more of X behavior and less of Y behavior?”
“Well, to do that we have to ‘shape’ the behaviors we want, create training plans, identify reinforcers, note the steps needed to progress, collect data – which are all components of operant conditioning as based on the work of behaviorist B.F. Skinner,” Marino said. “And we also want to make sure the dogs have a good experience doing it, which relies on classical conditioning as described in the work of Ivan Pavlov.”
Meredith Lloyd ’24, a student who is fostering Gucci (pictured right) this semester, praised the project for making the classroom experience “so much more than reading chapters from a textbook.”
When we train with the dogs, we’re learning a lot of life lessons. It’s been really heartwarming to watch these dogs learn and break out of their shells. As students, we don’t know much about the dog’s history and what kind of home they came from, so it’s just incredible to watch how we can modify their behavior based on the reinforcement of what we are training them to do.”
Meredith Lloyd ’24, Behavior Modification student
Lila Shipley ’23, Spud’s foster parent, said the project has presented challenges. Early on, Shipley said, Spud had trust issues, but he has adjusted quite well over the past month.
“The two of us have bonded so much and he is following commands and learning so many new tricks,” said Shipley, who has introduced Spud to members of Shenandoah University’s softball team, classmates, family and friends, and plans on adopting Spud when the semester is over. “I am hoping to get him trained to become a therapy dog to take to work with me at my clinics. I am working with kids with autism and am studying to become an occupational therapist professionally. I would not trade this experience for anything and it’s the best program I have done through the school.”
The foster dogs in the Behavior Modification class service-learning project love a good snack. Project-related items for Bragdon’s class can be donated through this Amazon Wish List.