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Psychology students experience hands-on learning

Training helps shelter animals find homes

POSTED: November 4, 2013 11:49 p.m.

Playing with animals for class sounds great, right?

For students taking Introduction to Psychology at Brenau University, the trip to the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia was a chance to experience an exercise that brought course theories to life and an opportunity to help animals possibly get adopted.

The activity was established to assist students studying learning theory, said Perry Daughtry, assistant professor of psychology at Brenau, who said he has supervised the event for the last four to five years.

Learning theory covers two main types of learning: Classical conditioning, which pairs a wanted behavior to a neutral stimulus, such as a clicker, and operant conditioning, which focuses on behaviors that are strengthened by reinforcement.

In addition to supervision from a faculty member, graduate students in Clinical Counseling Psychology had the opportunity to lead groups from the class.

Graduate student Kristen Williams said it was great to show students how things they are learning in class really apply.

“Things like, how behavior is modified, that’s what they’re learning right now. It’s a lot of fun and I think (students) enjoy this activity the most out of a lot of the activities we do,” Williams said.”

“The biggest thing we are trying to get the animals to do,” Williams continued, “is to become more adoptable, so they learn behaviors that make people want to adopt them, like being more interactive when they walk into a room, sitting down with all fours on the ground ... and rewarding them for these types of behaviors so that people want to take them home.”

Students worked with the different animals using “clicker training,” which involves pressing a clicker tool at the same time the animal has performed a positive behavior. This is also usually accompanied with other forms of positive reinforcement, such as treats, words of praise and affection, such as petting, rubbing or stroking.

This will eventually train the animal to perform the positive behavior when it hears the “click” noise, and works on both types of learning.

Kelley Uber Sterner, director of Education and Volunteer Development for the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia, introduced the students to the animals in the shelter. She pointed out any type of positive reinforcement from the students, such as praise in a happy voice, could help the shelter animals.

Dogs and puppies were conditioned to sit, lie down and be quiet, while cats and kittens were conditioned to reach their paws out in order to “high-five” visitors.

Students split into groups to work with the puppies, using bacon-flavored treats as well as words of praise as forms of positive reinforcement.

Williams reminded her group of students to use the clicker tool only when the puppies’ bottoms actually touched the ground to complete a full “sit” command.

“The exercises give the students a chance to see the concepts of classical and operant conditioning in action,” Daughtry said. “Watching the puppy sit, it really drives the point home,” he added.

Twyla Bryant, another graduate student leading a group, said she hopes the students learn behaviors that can be applied to nonhumans as well as human beings.

“It’s for a great cause. It’s teaching the animals certain techniques so they can get adopted, so hopefully we’re helping (in that way), too,” she added. so hopefully we’re helping (in that way), too,” she added.


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