Teaching and Learning Operant Principles in Animal Shelters: Perspectives from Faculty, Students, and Shelter Staff

Article excerpt

Many instructors have expressed a recent interest in incorporating service-learning activities into their courses. Several authors have maintained that service-learning opportunities help students to better understand class concepts and also lead to desirable outcomes in students, such as enhanced self esteem and an increased interest in social causes. In this article, we discuss the value of teaching and learning operant principles in animal shelters from the perspectives of a faculty member, a student, and a shelter staff member. We maintain that using psychology of learning students as dog trainers in animal shelters results in benefits for instructors, students, and shelter staff, as well as for the dogs in shelters and the people who adopt them.

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In recent years, faculty members in psychology and other university disciplines have begun to focus increased attention on incorporating service-learning activities into their course curricula that allow students to practice what they are learning in the classroom in applied settings (Anderson, 2002; O' Byrne, 2001 ; Tuber, et al., 1999). Some instructors have maintained that servicelearning experiences are extremely valuable (Giuliano, 2001; Kivenen & Ristela, 2002; Kretchmar, 2001 ; Tuber, et al., 1999; Valerius & Hamilton, 2001); service-learning can help students model the concepts they have learned in class as well as show the students that the material they are learning is directly applicable to real-world situations. Also, service-learning opportunities can allow students to be active participants in their own learning processes (Aberson, Berger, Healy, Kyle, & Romero, 2000; Giuliano, 2001; Gredler & Johnson, 2001 ; Kivenen & Ristela, 2002; Norcross, Slotterback, & Krebs, 2001 ; Tuber, et al., 1999). Furthermore, allowing students to "learn by doing" in a number of different settings can allow students to perform socially-beneficial work that may make them more satisfied with their educational experiences (House, 2000; Kretchmar, 2001; Raupp & Cohen, 1992). Although large class sizes can make the administration of a service-learning component unsuitable for some courses (e.g., in large introductory psychology courses), most upper-division courses, featuring smaller class sizes and broadly trained students, can be easily modified to feature a service-learning component that allows for student participation in the learning process.

The purpose of this article is to present one way that psychology instructors can allow their students to learn and practice important psychological principles while performing socially-beneficial work: by using students in advanced learning courses as operant trainers in animal shelters. Perspectives of the value of teaching and learning operant principles in animal shelters will be shared by a faculty member (TM) who has coordinated and led learning students in this setting, a student (RC) who has participated in a shelter learning experience, and an administrator at a Humane Society branch (DF) where shelter learning experiences have been offered. In this article we discuss why we believe that animal shelters are an ideal venue for service-learning, as well as our observations of how students and shelter animals have benefited from shelter learning experiences. Finally, we comment on how instructors and students at many universities can develop collaborative partnerships with animal shelters, allowing students the opportunity to learn important principles while helping make shelter pets more readily adoptable.

Each year in the United States millions of dogs and other companion animals are abandoned by their owners at animal shelters (By the numbers, 2003; Hart, 2003; The Humane Society, 2003). Organizations such as the Humane Society operate thousands of shelters across the country, and these shelters typically do their best to offer temporary housing and other services to abandoned animals, and also attempt to find them permanent homes (Hennessy, Voith, Mazzei, Buttram, Miller, & Linden, 2001 ; The Humane Society, 2003; Wells, Graham, & Hepper, 2002; Wells & Hepper, 2000; Wells, & Hepper, 2001). …