Communicating with Lethal Whites and Special Need Dogs

Report The Illinois State University Faculty-Staff Newsletter Jan 15, 2013

A quiet whine emanated from a room in the Felmley Hall Annex. It wasn’t a student struggling with finals, but the sound of one of the stars of the Department of Psychology’s Canine Behavior Laboratory.

“That’s a good girl,” said Professor of Psychology Valeri Farmer-Dougan as she fed a quick treat to an impatient Australian Shepherd named Olivia. Scratching gingerly under the dog’s chin, she pointed out the red around her azure-colored eyes. “She can see a little bit out of her left eye, but the right one never developed,” she added, giving the dog an extra, loving pat.

Olivia is one of several dogs helping students implement psychology theories that Farmer-Dougan teaches during lectures. “It’s one thing to learn ideas in class, and quite another to put them into practice,” she said.

Farmer-Dougan brings in five or six dogs twice a week for the lab. All of the dogs are rescue dogs, either from Wish Bone Rescue, which takes dogs from high-kill shelters in Illinois, or the Australian Shepherd Rescue Midwest, which saves endangered members of the breed. Students work to train the dogs, who all need some extra guidance before they are adopted.

Most of the dogs have disabilities, such as Keller who is blind and deaf. Keller is known as a “lethal white,” meaning he has a double dose of a gene that drained the color in his coat, and also left him without hearing or sight.

“The American Kennel Club recommends euthanizing all ‘lethal whites,’ because they think they cannot be trained,” said Farmer-Dougan, her voice tinged in disgust. “Dogs with disabilities learn just as easily as other dogs, but people have no idea how to train them.” She tapped Keller lightly on his back, and he sat obediently.

Farmer-Dougan has been incorporating animals into her labs for years. Her work has been honored with a University Outstanding Teaching Award in 2001, a College of Arts and Science Teaching Award in 1999 and several Psychology Faculty of the Year awards. This semester, however, is the first foray for rescue dogs. The goal is for the students to learn how to communicate with the dogs while teaching them basic skills. Their work is making the dogs more adoptable. So far this semester, the class has helped place 28 dogs in permanent homes.
“What we learn here is not just about dogs. We learn patience and persistence,” said Jakkie Johnson, a senior psychology major working with LaHoya, a deaf boxer. Johnson has trained LaHoya basic commands by way of hand signals. “Bang!” Johnson said to the massive dog, pointing her fingers in the shape of a gun. Slowly, LaHoya rolled to the ground to play dead. “This is one of his favorite tricks,” said Johnson, smiling as she fed the prone dog a treat. “I think it is because he gets to lie down.”

Rescue dogs came into Farmer-Dougan’s life several years ago when she fostered and then adopted Zoomba. She now has two Australian rescues, Zoomba, who is deaf, and Moe, who is deaf and has low vision. She also fosters Olivia and Keller. All are part of the lab team.

Keller meandered closer to Roxie, a brown pit bull who barked a warning. “Guide her out of that, Terry,” Farmer-Dougan instructed to senior Terry Coughlin, who distracted Roxie from Keller’s approach. “Look at me, Roxie. Look at me,” he said calmly, rewarding the dog with a pat when she turned her head his way.

Farmer-Dougan believes lessons from the lab translate easily to psychology. “One of the best lessons the students learn is not to judge,” said Farmer-Dougan, whose own daughter suffers from hearing loss. Students are heeding the lesson. “One of my students made the connection, saying the prejudices these dogs face are similar to those of people with a mental illness. Society assumes that someone with schizophrenia will act a certain way, or that people are the way they are because of ‘insert-mental-illness here.’ Breaking down those barriers is what we do here.”

Olivia trotted up to Farmer-Dougan, looking for a treat. “High-five, Olivia,” she said, holding out her hand. Dutifully, the dog touched paw to hand. “The shelter where she was had her scheduled for destruction because she was supposed to be ferocious and aggressive,” she said. “I’ve yet to see either.”

Re-Printed with permission