NORMAL — You might say Valeri Farmer-Dougan’s rat lab has gone to the dogs.
But that’s good for her psychology students, not to mention the dogs themselves.
Now, instead of learning how to train a rat to run through a maze, Illinois State University students are learning how to use behavior modification techniques to train dogs from animal rescue organizations.
“What’s great about working with the dogs is you can make them more adoptable. They help us out and we can help them, too,” said Kellie Swoboda, a senior from Cary.
And these aren’t just regular strays from a shelter. Several have hearing or vision impairments that give students additional challenges.
Farmer-Dougan used to teach a traditional “rat lab.”
But the rat lab was “getting prohibitively expensive” at $40 per rat plus $5 a week to care for them, she said. So in late 2010, as she started working with foster dogs that had hearing and vision disabilities, Farmer-Dougan got an idea: “I don’t have enough time to work with my dogs and my students need something to do.”
So it was that the Canine Behavior Lab was born.
The dogs come from Wish Bone Canine Rescue and Australian Shepherd Rescue Midwest.
The lab is a hit with her students, all of whom are psychology majors. Many of the students miss pets they left at home and “they get their dog fix” at the lab, Farmer-Dougan said.
But it’s more than that.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to apply what I’ve learned in other classes,” said Jade Kestian, a junior from Normal.
Adds Swoboda, “In a lot of our classes, we learn about behavioral theories, but here you get to use it.”
The students learn to use functional analysis and various methods for training and communication — “skills they can use as clinicians,” Farmer-Dougan said. “The students really have to stretch themselves.”
The training starts with basic commands, such as “sit,” “stay” and “down,” said Farmer-Dougan, a professor in the Psychology Department and the School of Biological Sciences.
Then they train the dogs to walk through crowds or around other dogs without misbehaving.
“We also work on tricks — cute things that can help make the dog more adoptable,” she said.
Caiti Hernrott, Wish Bone’s foster coordinator, said the program has been very helpful, especially in socializing the dogs and getting them used to being around other people and dogs.
With deaf dogs, the students use hand signals. For example, showing the back of the hand to mean stay.
Jordan Jolly, a senior from Normal, explained that the hand signals or motions are paired with action until the dog makes the connection. He was so successful in teaching Moe to sit that the hand signal is no longer needed.
“You just sit and he sits,” Jolly said.
Now he is working on having Moe spin in circles.
This mimicry can serve another purpose.
“Imitation is really critical to learning,” said Farmer-Dougan, but some youngsters with autism do not like to imitate others.
She is hoping to take Moe to The Autism Place at ISU this summer to work with young children with autism — who often relate better to animals such as dogs than to people. If she can get the children to use imitation to have to dog react in a certain way, the children may become more comfortable learning their own skills through imitation, Farmer-Dougan theorizes.
On the Web
- Australian Shepherd Rescue Midwest: www.aussierescueil.com
- Wish Bone Canine Rescue: www.wishbonecaninerescue.org
NORMAL — When Valeri Farmer-Dougan’s youngest daughter came home urging her mother to adopt a dog in need of a home, it was a scene played out in homes across the country — except for one thing.
“She’s deaf like me,” her daughter, Lyssa Dougan, said.
Farmer-Dougan couldn’t say no and Miss Zoomba became part of the family.
Since then, Farmer-Dougan has adopted or been a foster “parent” to numerous dogs, many of which have been deaf and sometimes vision impaired.
Australian shepherds are at higher risk of inheriting hearing and vision problems when two “merle” dogs are bred, leading to excessive white coloration around the head, according to the Australian Shepherd Club of America.
But “we want to show that the dogs are salvageable,” Farmer-Dougan said.
David Thurman, president of Australian Shepherd Rescue Midwest, which is based in Washington, said before Farmer-Dougan started her program, the organization was hesitant to take in many of the dogs with hearing or vision impairments because there weren’t enough people who understood how to train and socialize them.
In many cases, they were mistreated by people who did not recognize the problem or know how to handle it, Thurman said.
One example is Keller, a deaf and blind Australian shepherd who now lives with Farmer-Dougan. The first 10 months of his life, Keller was boarded with little human contact, Farmer-Dougan said.
“It took us two hours to get him in the house that first night,” she said. “Now he lives in a house with five other dogs.”
Because 17-month-old Keller can’t hear or see, he is trained by touch, Farmer-Dougan explained. Plus, “his nose works,” so, “we use peanut butter (as a training reward) because he can smell it.”
Kellie Swoboda, a senior from Cary, used the smell of the peanut butter on a spoon to get Keller to follow the scent and lie down at the same time she used touch to get him to understand what behavior was wanted.
“These dogs are ambassadors … showing the capabilities of these dogs,” Farmer-Dougan said.
By Kim Behrens
NORMAL- Blind and deaf
dogs with nowhere to turn are now showing up in class at Illinois State
While the session gives
pooches playtime, it's also teaching dogs who are blind and deaf some valuable
"I think this class
clearly shows that all dogs deserve a chance to live and they deserve a chance
to live fully and they can do that with training," said Sasha Kaplan. Kaplan
is a psych major. She and other students are shaping canine habits, to exhibit
"You must make the
response in order to earn the treat," explained Psychology Professor
Valeri Farmer-Dougan. Instead of reading behavioral theories in textbooks,
students are able to try them out.
Prior to last year, they
used to train rats, but it left one big question..."What to do with a rat
at the end of the semester? Because once
the students trained it, what are you going to do with it?" explained
Farmer-Dougan. So the class chose to use rescue dogs instead.
But they're quickly
learning just like people, all pups are not the same."Since each of these
dogs is so individualized, they have to take those theories that they've
learned and apply the techniques in a little bit different way for each
animal," said Farmer-Dougan.
The point of the
exercises is pretty simple. Teach the
dog to do a command like, "Stand Up," and they get a treat.
But the benefit isn't
just for the pooch."Hopefully they'll get adopted," said Kaplan.
"When you adopt a
dog that we've worked with the dog comes to you knowing how to sit down and
stay," added Farmer-Dougan.
A psychological lesson
that's giving these pets a new lease on life.
The dogs also work with
autistic children who have trouble mimicking behaviors.
Research shows if the
child can teach a dog to obey commands, often times they'll do the same.
IF you're interested in
adopting one of these pets, call 309-438-4554.Updated: February 6, 2013
From the ISU
with special needs dogs
whine emanated from a room in the Felmley Hall Annex. It wasn’t a student
struggling with finals, but the sound of one of the stars of the Department of
Psychology’s Canine Behavior Laboratory.
a good girl,” said Professor of Psychology Valeri Farmer-Dougan as she fed a
quick treat to an impatient Australian Shepherd named Olivia. Scratching
gingerly under the dog’s chin, she pointed out the red around her azure-colored
eyes. “She can see a little bit out of her left eye, but the right one never
developed,” she added, giving the dog an extra, loving pat.
is one of several dogs helping students implement psychology theories that
Farmer-Dougan teaches during lectures. “It’s one thing to learn ideas in class,
and quite another to put them into practice,” she said.
brings in five or six dogs twice a week for the lab. All of the dogs are rescue
dogs, either from Wish Bone Rescue, which takes dogs from high-kill shelters in
Illinois, or the Australian Shepherd Rescue Midwest, which saves endangered
members of the breed. Students work to train the dogs, who all need some extra
guidance before they are adopted.
the dogs have disabilities, such as Keller who is blind and deaf. Keller is
known as a “lethal white,” meaning he has a double dose of a gene that drained
the color in his coat, and also left him without hearing or sight.
American Kennel Club recommends euthanizing all ‘lethal whites,’ because they
think they cannot be trained,” said Farmer-Dougan, her voice tinged in disgust. “Dogs with disabilities learn just as easily as other dogs, but people have no
idea how to train them.” She tapped Keller lightly on his back, and he sat
has been incorporating animals into her labs for years. Her work has been
honored with a University Outstanding Teaching Award in 2001, a College of Arts
and Science Teaching Award in 1999 and several Psychology Faculty of the Year
awards. This semester, however, is the first foray for rescue dogs. The goal is
for the students to learn how to communicate with the dogs while teaching them
basic skills. Their work is making the dogs more adoptable. So far this
semester, the class has helped place 28 dogs in permanent homes.
we learn here is not just about dogs. We learn patience and persistence,” said
Jakkie Johnson, a senior psychology major working with LaHoya, a deaf boxer.
Johnson has trained LaHoya basic commands by way of hand signals. “Bang!”
Johnson said to the massive dog, pointing her fingers in the shape of a gun.
Slowly, LaHoya rolled to the ground to play dead. “This is one of his favorite
tricks,” said Johnson, smiling as she fed the prone dog a treat. “I think it is
because he gets to lie
dogs came into Farmer-Dougan’s life several years ago when she fostered and
then adopted Zoomba. She now has two Australian rescues, Zoomba, who is
and Moe, who is deaf and has low vision. She also fosters Olivia and Keller.
All are part of the lab team.
meandered closer to Roxie, a brown pit bull who barked a warning. “Guide her
out of that, Terry,” Farmer-Dougan instructed to senior Terry Coughlin, who
distracted Roxie from Keller’s approach. “Look at me, Roxie. Look at me,” he
said calmly, rewarding the dog with a pat when she turned her head his way.
believes lessons from the lab translate easily to psychology. “One of the best
lessons the students learn is not to judge,” said Farmer-Dougan, whose own
daughter suffers from hearing loss. Students are heeding the lesson. “One of my
students made the connection, saying the prejudices these dogs face are similar
to those of people with a mental illness. Society assumes that someone with
schizophrenia will act a certain way, or that people are the way they are
because of ‘insert-mental-illness here.’ Breaking down those barriers is what
we do here.”
trotted up to Farmer-Dougan, looking for a treat. “High-five, Olivia,” she
said, holding out her hand. Dutifully, the dog touched paw to hand. “The
shelter where she was had her scheduled for destruction because she was
supposed to be ferocious and aggressive,” she said. “I’ve yet to see either.”