BARC student uses psychology to make shelter dogs adoption ready

SUBMITTED PHOTO

They say it’s impossible to each an old dog new tricks. Senior Jeff Miller and a number of UW-Eau Claire students are setting out to prove the saying wrong.

Miller is just one student involved in Behavioral Applications Regarding Canines, BARC, and works almost daily at the Eau Claire County Humane Association, 3900 Old Town Hall Road, with different dogs who show problem behavior, making them adoption-ready.

“It’s a learning experience but it’s fun,” Miller said.

BARC was established in the 2001-2002 academic year by the current psychology chair and former faculty member Greg Madden, but became inactive after Madden left the university, according to a 2007 university press release.

Psychology Professor Dan Holt, specializing in experimental psychology, who knew of the BARC program when it first started, re-established the program after a student approached him. Holt’s main priority was to make BARC a student-first organization, placing a lot of the responsibility for making BARC happen on the students, he said, adding that he facilitates the program and provides structure.

BARC returned to campus in 2007. Holt, however, had no previous dog-training experience and said there was a steep learning curve both for himself and the students.

“We knew what we wanted to do,” he said, “but what behaviors do we train up? . and what system do we use?”

Executive Director of the Eau Claire County Humane Association (ECCHA) Lauren Evan said BARC students work on site at the Human Association three to four days a week, Evans said.

Miller first heard about BARC through a friend and got involved after taking a behavior analysis introduction class.

Miller said there was an elaborate learning curve when he first started training. Miller is now a seasoned trainer, having been in the program for more than one year already, and coordinates other trainers with BARC. He said he stayed with BARC because he likes the experience and because he likes giving back to the community and helping the animals.

Miller said BARC is unique because it gives him the opportunity to get hands-on experience working in an area of psychology he’s interested in.

Long term, Miller said he is interested in going to graduate school and later working with autistic children. Miller said the principles of behavior apply to all organisms, animal or human, so BARC is very beneficial to him and his future career.

“The more practical experience you can get, the better,” he said.

Holt said he thinks the uniqueness of BARC is two-pronged. One aspect is that BARC gives students the chance to impact the area.

“We’re able to make a connection with the community as a department,” he said.

Another aspect is the student involvement. Students get the chance to not only apply knowledge they learn in class, but also gain field experience and all the professional skills that go along with field work.

“It’s not just training the dogs,” Holt said. “It’s training the trainers to train the dogs.”

Miller said that while working with each dog is rewarding, one of his most rewarding experiences has been working with Echo, a deaf dog.

“He’s the cutest, he’s smart and he catches on so quick,” Miller said, adding he thinks Echo is such a fast learner because he doesn’t have as many distractions being deaf as the other hearing dogs have.

Miller said he normally trains dogs with both verbal and hand signals, but with Echo he is limited to hand signals, making the training experience unique.

“It’s fun to have something different and test your own abilities,” Miller said.

One of Miller’s most challenging experiences has been with a dog named Cleo, who was extremely shy around humans, cowering in her kennel whenever anyone came near.

“I’ve never seen a dog that wouldn’t not leave her kennel,” he said, adding that Cleo was later adopted.

Currently Miller is working with two dogs named Andrew and Sasha, both who aren’t consistently exhibiting the desired behaviors that would make them ready to be adopted.

Miller has worked with four dogs in the past month, three of which have been adopted.

“I’ve never had a dog not get adopted,” he said.

When students are working with an animal, there is always another person recording data about the dog’s response to every command given. The student trainers have specific behaviors for adoptability they are teaching. The data they are collecting is used to evaluate if the training is at all effective, Holt said.

BARC is a completely optional program, not required by the psychology department and all majors and minors are able to participate. Holt’s only requirements are that participants take psychology 281: Introduction to Behavior Analysis and Therapy, and are extremely motivated and dedicated to this field of psychology.

Holt said the students involved in BARC enjoy the program and are very motivated.

“I see lots of smiles and twinkles in their eyes,” he said, adding it is powerful to experience the application of learning in dogs and peers. The students in BARC are motivated and the environment they work in is such that it keeps them motivated, he said

Student trainers have had great success working with the dogs at the ECCHA and the impact the program has had at the shelter has been significant, Evans said.

Working with an average of two to four dogs a month, participants in BARC have worked with approximately 40 to 50 dogs, Evans said. Only one dog handled by student trainers from BARC was unable to be adopted, Evans said, adding that the particular dog was an extreme case.

“It’s a great program,” Evans said. “We’re glad to have (the student trainers)