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ISU students are working with Psychology Professor Valerie Farmer-Dougan to transform rescue dogs into foster pets.

ISU students are working with Psychology Professor Valerie Farmer-Dougan to transform rescue dogs into foster pets.

Pet saviors: Students transform streetwise rescue dogs into foster pets

Octogenarian Lois Mann can no longer hear a phone, a knock on the door, or the chirp of a smoke alarm. So she needs Dottie McGee, a rescue dog from Texas, to be more than a pet companion.

In a makeshift Illinois State University classroom at a nearly abandoned outlet mall in Normal, Illinois State student Rosemary O’Shea was working with the 2-year-old poodle mix on how to respond to a smoke alarm. Mann searched her cell phone for the alarm app; the student offered to help. The phone chirped, and the dog responded, running to her owner’s side.

O’Shea is one member of a group of Illinois State psychology students partnering with Pet Central Helps. The Normal-based animal rescue organization removes dogs from high-kill shelters and works to reduce their fears and anxieties, along with teaching them basic commands to make them more adoptable.

For years, Psychology Professor Valerie Farmer-Dougan, an expert in animal behavior, has brought rescue dogs into her psychology laboratory on campus. Two years ago she extended her outreach to Pet Central, teaching students to work with its rescue dogs for her advanced research methods course on behavior and personality. Students learn about canine emotions and behavior, then practice with the dogs twice a week, offering free training to foster parents and new adopters.

“Dogs are like people. They don’t know hate and attack. If you teach them that, that’s what they’re going to grow up knowing.”—Bailey Craig

Lisa Kitchens, Pet Central’s director, said the students were critical in getting the 2-year-old shelter up and running. They have helped with everything from assessments and care of new arrivals to organizing fundraisers and volunteering at adoption events.

“I love working with the students,” Kitchens said. “They’re so dedicated and so smart, and it’s a good learning experience for them too.”

Holly Hedges, a member of Pet Central’s board of directors, credits the students and Farmer-Dougan, who is also a board member, with facilitating hundreds of adoptions of dogs from high-kill shelters, where animals are euthanized after a certain period to make room for incoming animals.

“Because we didn’t have a facility, they worked in any conditions and any environment just to help our dogs,” Hedges said. “Our dogs are pulled from kill shelters, so we’re primarily foster-based. It can be difficult to put those dogs into homes with children and other dogs and cats and unexperienced fosters.”

Farmer-Dougan and her students have never given up on a dog. Hedges recalled a difficult-to-place dachshund-beagle mix with separation anxiety and dominance issues. He was adopted and returned twice before Illinois State students started working with him.

“After three visits, he was a completely different dog,” she said. “He was able to find a successful placement, and he’s been there ever since. Dr. Val, I don’t know what she did, but it was like magic.”

On intake nights, students unload dogs from a van, provide basic care and medications, and microchip them. Mickaela Callender, a senior pre-veterinary major, works with the new arrivals and also joins University of Illinois veterinary students who provide a free spay/neuter clinic.

“Working with Pet Central has opened my eyes to shelter medicine,” Callender said. “It’s a great way to learn the ropes.”

As president of Illinois State’s Pre-Veterinary Association, Callender has motivated her peers to become involved. The association sponsors Dog Days on the Quad, which raises money for Pet Central and has led to some adoptions.

School of Communication Instructor Megan Koch also has her small group communication students collaborate on these efforts. Her students have walked dogs, organized and staffed adoption events, sponsored food and toy drives, and created awareness campaigns.

“The students are learning how groups work together,” Koch said. “And they’re trying to make connections with businesses that might provide ongoing support. Students are only involved so long. They want to make sure those connections exist after they’re gone.”

Psychology graduate student Jenny Gavin is a teaching assistant for Farmer-Dougan’s class. During a lab, she worked with Khloe, a Rottweiler considered too “reactive” to be around other dogs. She was kept behind a makeshift, blanket-covered barrier. The dog wasn’t aggressive; she just wasn’t used to being around other dogs because her owner has arthritis and cannot walk her. Gavin encouraged the students to stay calm around her.

“The first time the dogs come to the lab, they’re so nervous. Maintaining a calm demeanor goes a long way toward getting them to look at you, and listen. If you get them to look at you and you give them treats, they’ll look at you and think, ‘Ah, that person is great.’”

For her thesis, Gavin is researching how dogs respond to computer-generated voices, along with commands from people who show little or no facial movement. Her goal is to find ways owners with disabilities can train dogs to respond to them.

“If the dog can’t see my eyes or my mouth, or parts of my face, how can they respond accurately to a cue? The obstruction and cue differences do make a difference in their ability to listen,” she said.

Bailey Craig works with a foster dog on commands. ISU students offer free training to a local rescue organization as part of a lab on animal behavior.

Bailey Craig works with a foster dog on commands. ISU students offer free training to a local rescue organization as part of a lab on animal behavior.

Bailey Craig also assists with the class. Before taking Farmer-Dougan’s course, the psychology major was considering a career in counseling or law enforcement. Now she is considering becoming an animal behaviorist.

“I found the fit,” she said. “I love these creatures.”

Although Craig has never owned a dog, she hopes to adopt a pit bull, working to change the image of the breed.

“Dogs are like people,” she said. “They don’t know hate and attack. If you teach them that, that’s what they’re going to grow up knowing.”

Senior Toni Berenbaum is working with Pet Central for her research capstone class. She is developing video training for foster parents, in order to have the dogs rehabilitated and adopted more quickly.

During the lab, Berenbaum was helping students with a loose-leash walking lesson. Carrying clickers and bags of treats, students led the dogs outside. Every time the students stopped at an orange cone and clicked, the dog was supposed to stop.

“You have to have confidence,” Farmer-Dougan said, as she walked over to help a student with an uncooperative dog. “Be strict. Don’t go to him. You’ve got to get his attention. Use a happy voice.”

The professor gently tapped the dog’s hind legs with her cane and he quickly sat.

Every week, the professor takes calls from foster parents and new adopters, asking for advice on behavioral issues. She hopes to train a graduate student to do behavior consulting, building toward the 300 hours needed for certification as an animal behaviorist.

If a dog is too aggressive for group training, Farmer-Dougan works one-on-one with the animal. She begins by reassuring the dog that it is in a safe place, and nothing bad is going to happen.

“So many of our older dogs, we don’t know what happened to them,” she said. “Dogs show separation and stranger anxiety at critical periods in their development, and if that doesn’t get resolved, you have issues. A dog’s specialty is to read our emotions and react. If they have an issue, there’s a reason. You have to psychoanalyze them.”

And what are her students learning in her psychology class?

“Behavior,” she said. “It works whether you’re working with a dog, a child, or a horse.”

How to volunteer

Pet Central Helps, an animal rescue organization serving Central Illinois, is in need of volunteers to assist with fostering, grooming/exercising, adoption events, office work, and greeting visitors. The shelter is located on Wylie Drive in Normal. Visit or email for more information.

Kate Arthur can be reached at

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