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UW-Eau Claire Psychology Students and Instructor Help Humane Association Increase Dog Adoptions

RELEASED: Aug. 24, 2007

UW-Eau Claire psychology student Erin Barney working with a dog

Erin Barney, a senior psychology major at UW-Eau Claire, works with a dog in the recently revived BARC program, a collaboration between the Eau Claire County Humane Association and the university’s psychology department to retrain dogs displaying problem behaviors. (Contributed photo)

EAU CLAIRE — Dog lovers in Eau Claire County will be happy to hear that several University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire psychology students and their instructor, Daniel Holt, have revived the BARC program, which works with the local Humane Association to retrain dogs that display problem behaviors in an effort to make them more adoptable.

BARC, which stands for Behavioral Applications Regarding Canines, was established during the 2001-02 academic year as a collaborative venture with the Eau Claire County Humane Association by psychology professor Dr. Greg Madden, with the assistance of Dr. Lori Bica, now chair of the psychology department. It operated for several years, but after Madden left UW-Eau Claire in 2005, the program became inactive.

Senior Erin Barney, New Lisbon, a psychology major, and Kristine Funk, Mound, Minn., who has a double major in biology and psychology, are two of several students who urged Holt, a relative newcomer to UW-Eau Claire (2006), to revive the program.

"We kind of ganged up on him," said Barney.

Holt agreed.

"I'm happy to serve in a supervisory role, but I told the students if they want to do this, then they should do it," said Holt. "I want to give them as much responsibility for this as possible."

Funk, who was away this summer, will take the lead in getting the program reestablished this fall, but Barney and Holt began working with a few dogs in mid-July just to get things started and reestablish a presence at the shelter. BARC T-shirts help differentiate them from other volunteers at the shelter and display their connection with the university.

"We started out just walking some of the dogs to establish a rapport with them, and then we started to identify a few who we could see would be really marketable except for some problem, like barking too much or jumping," Barney said. She went on to explain that they used behavior analysis and behavior modification techniques, such as turning their backs and ignoring the dogs when they exhibited the problem behavior, and using praise, petting and treats to reinforce desirable behaviors.

"One thing that really surprised us at first was that many of the dogs weren't attentive to us at all," said Holt. "They weren't looking to us for reactions or cues, so first we had to get them to start making eye contact and checking back with us before we could influence their behavior. It usually took a few days of working with them before they started to look to us regularly for reactions."

Holt also explained that it takes two people to work with the dogs properly — one to work with the dog while the other records the data and provides feedback to the trainer, noting the effects of variables such as posture and tone of voice.

"We're approaching this as scientists, so we record every detail about what the trainer is doing and what the dogs are doing," said Holt."We trade off between being the trainer or the data recorder, so each of us gets to experience both roles. Right now I think we're learning as much as the dogs are learning."

Barney agreed.

"It takes awhile to figure out what method of training will work best with each dog — for example, whether to use a clicker — and sometimes it even takes a while to figure out the best way to record what we're seeing," she said.

Holt has made Psychology 281, "Introduction to Behavior Analysis and Therapy," a minimum course requirement for participation in BARC, and so far four students are committed to working with the program this fall. He expects that students in that course will provide an ongoing source of volunteer trainers, not only because working with dogs is appealing to many students, but because there is the added benefit of being able to use participation in the program to fulfill UW-Eau Claire's service-learning requirement.

The program also will offer students opportunities to propose specific questions regarding canine behavior and then carry out research, record data, and write and present papers about their findings — all skills Holt said they will need in their future careers or as they pursue graduate programs.

The Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at UW-Eau Claire gave BARC a $500 grant to reestablish the program, and the psychology department has offered to help with funds as necessary to keep the program running.

"I think there are lots of potential adoptive families out there, and so far, we're finding that we spend about two-thirds of our time training the dogs, and the other third talking to the potential owners, making sure they understand the dog's behavior patterns and what to expect," said Holt. "That's the other element to this program — we want to be a resource for those adoptive families, so if they need some extra advice or support to make the adoption work, they know they can call us for help."

Barney said she hopes the program will encourage people to think about adopting adult dogs from the shelter, rather than always thinking immediately about a puppy.

Although she is an animal lover and wanted to become involved in BARC partly for that reason, Barney also has worked with children with autism in UW-Eau Claire's Campus Autism Program and expects to go on to work in that field.

Funk's main interest, however, is in animal behavior, and she has said she would love to work with animals. In summer 2006 she interned at the Minnesota Zoo with the marine mammal training department.

"I loved it!" said Funk, adding that she learned a lot about managing animal behavior.

This summer she did something completely different, interning for an industrial company to get some project management experience. However, she did make time to take an intermediate dog training class with her English springer spaniel, Mindy, and she said she learned some techniques from professionals trained to work specifically with dog behaviors.

"I really enjoyed it and can't wait to get back to Eau Claire and get started," she said.

Both women have worked as research assistants for Holt on other types of projects as well.

For more information about BARC, contact Holt at 715-836-5479 or holtdd@uwec.edu.

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