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

 

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