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Psychology & Dogs


Psychology is the study of  humans….and other animals!

The psychology course that motivated me to become a psychology major was Comparative Psychology— comparing behaviors of different species. It was exciting to learn that studying other species is an essential part of psychology. Many of the basic principles of psychology were discovered using simpler animals, e.g. fruit flies, squids, rats, pigeons, dogs, monkeys. In the classroom, an animal can create a memorable demonstration of an important concept. In addition, using a pet rather than using “laboratory” animal is a humane alternative. A pet animal is well-loved and lives in a comfortable home, rather than living in a sterile lab.


Here are some topics for which a dog might be used as a demonstration subject.

  • Research Methods: Operational Definitions: Behavioral measures
  • Intelligence:  Defining and measuring.
  • Biological Psychology: Behavioral Genetics
  • Sensation and Perception: Dog Senses and adaptive behaviors
  • Personality: Behavioral traits and dog breeds. Measuring traits.
  • Development: Critical periods for socialization with human and other dogs.
  • Abnormal Behavior: Phobias, irrational fears
  • Psychotherapy: Systematic Desensitization as a treatment for Phobias.
  • Learning: Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning
  • Stress: the role of pets in coping with stress, and promoting health


Classroom Social Environment

In addition to learning about Psychology, a dog in the classroom can enhance the teaching environment by providing the following benefits:

  • The presence of a dog can create a more relaxed environment
  • Elimination of dog phobia: any student motivated to eliminate a fear of dogs can begin by meeting a well-behaved dog in a controlled environment. Ignorance fosters fear.
  • A negative aspect: A dog can be distracting, i.e. more interesting than the instructor. Note: if you ignore the dog it will tend to ignore you.


Inter-species Etiquette


Just as there can be a cultural misunderstanding between two humans, there can be misunderstandings between a human and a dog. Here are some tips on “inter-species etiquette.”


A Polite Human when meeting a dog...

Ø      First asks the owner/guardian if touching or feeding the dog is OK

Ø      Respects the dog's personal space. Stand about two feet away and allow the dog to approach you. 

Ø      Extends a closed hand below the dog's head. An open hand over a dog's head can be threatening.

Ø      Initially pets the dog’s shoulders, rather than the dog’s head

Ø      Doesn't stare at the dog. Staring can communicate dominance or aggression to a dog.

Ø      Gives the dog appropriate treats (not human junk food)

Ø      Doesn’t tease the dog.


A Polite Dog when meeting a human...

Ø      Is clean and flea-less.

Ø      Refrains from jumping on people.

Ø      Knows basic obedience.





A Good Dog  Owner/Guardian

Ø      Provides basic needs like good nutrition and fresh water, along with exercise and mental stimulation.

Ø      Sets aside time everyday for fun and attention.

Ø      Teaches the dog good manners.

Ø      Gives the dog clear and consistent commands, e.g. rewards good behavior, and discourages bad behavior.

Ø      Always properly disposes dog poop.

Ø      Understands that getting a dog is a lifetime commitment.


IMPORTANT: Any dog can bite.  If you choose to interact with the dog, you assume all risk. CCSF and Karin Hu are not liable for any injury



Dog-Human Communication

Non-verbal communication, i.e. body language, includes tone of voice, facial expression, posture and gestures. In human-to-human communication, approximately 80% of the message is non-verbal. In human-dog communication, almost 100% of the message is non-verbal. Understanding the body language of a dog can improve your communication skills. Below are some examples of how to interpret a dog’s body language. (From: “How to Speak Dog” by Stanley Coren, Psychology Dept., Univ. of British Columbia.)