Pet Refuge, a no-kill animal shelter in Mishawaka, lacked a training program for their dogs until one day, when Bethel Professor of Psychology Stephanie Carlson, Ph.D., volunteered as part of Bethel’s annual service day.

“I realized they had a need and that I could fill that gap, so I started training there,” says Carlson. After seeing the connection between cognitive psychology and training dogs, she worked to implement it into the classroom.

Now, eight years later, the partnership is still going strong, with Bethel students, faculty and staff training dogs year-round. And every spring, a new group comes in from Bethel’s cognitive psychology class, where eight hours of fieldwork at Pet Refuge is required for the course.

Students use behavior modification to train dogs in basic obedience. Through positive reinforcement and treats, students teach the dogs to sit, stay, lay down, come, heel and shake. And because Pet Refuge is a no-kill shelter, students are able to work with a diverse population of dogs, from puppies to elderly, some scared and abused, and even dogs that are blind or deaf.

“The key to the program is that the shelter is no-kill,” Carlson says. This allows students to see dogs of different ages and developmental levels, and correct negative behaviors. “You don’t see that at a kill shelter,” she says.  Pet Refuge gives elderly dogs and dogs with behavioral issues a chance.

President of Pet Refuge Pam Comer sees the training program as a blessing and a gift. “The work that these students do with the dogs enhances their chances for a successful adoption,” she says. “It is an excellent learning experience for both the animals and the students.”

Carlson says that students use exposure techniques, along with positive reinforcement, to reduce fear in shelter dogs, similar to how phobias are treated in humans. Since it’s unethical for undergraduate students to perform therapy with patient populations, working with dogs allows students to get experience with these techniques.

This semester’s class has 23 students, and though the course work is tough, not all students are psychology majors. She says the partnership with Pet Refuge has definitely attracted some students.

In addition to their fieldwork, students write a paper about how cognitive psychology applies in the context of obedience training. It’s a learning lab, providing real-world, hands-on experience for students.

Some students go on to serve as interns at Pet Refuge, and become very proficient at applying psychological principles to a diverse dog population. Carlson says that of the students who work with Pet Refuge in class, about 10 percent stay on as regular volunteers or interns. The work is just that rewarding.

Not only do students develop more confidence as they work with dogs, the dogs do too.

“These students give these frightened dogs much needed love and confidence. With that confidence they learn trust, and with trust comes the ability to learn basic skills. Skills that then make them wonderful candidates for adoption,” says Comer.

The overall experience has been win-win for both Bethel and Pet Refuge. “I would have to say it is a perfect partnership,” Comer says.