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December 08, 2005

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Bruce Blumberg iwth Scuppers, Katie
It's not clear whether instructor Bruce Blumberg is researching or relaxing as he hangs out at his Concord home with his dogs Scuppers (foreground) and Katie. (Staff photos Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)

Dogs teach humans new tricks

Extension School psych class fetches lots of students

By Louise Miller
Special to the Harvard News Office

With 82 students registered, "The Cognitive Dog: Savant or Slacker" is the second-largest Extension School psychology course this semester. When Bruce Blumberg proposed the course to Assistant Dean of Continuing Education Mary Higgins, her first thought was: "wacky idea." However, upon investigating it further Higgins realized it "could be a great course" because it would reach out to students who might not otherwise sign up for a cognitive development course. Despite her early misgivings, Higgins says now that she's not surprised at all by the class's popular success "because it seemed to have all the right ingredients." Higgins adds that the number of dog owners in the area as well as the substance of the class both contribute to this popularity. "It seemed like a perfect match to me," Higgins said, though she admits she personally "hates dogs."

Suzanne Spreadbury, assistant dean of undergraduate degree programs, is a bit surprised. "I knew it was going to be popular but I didn't think it would be comparable to 'Intro to Psychology,'" which has 84 students registered. "It had all the trappings of an interesting class as far as a narrow subject area," she says, adding that "people could come to the table with their own experiences and engage in the material in their own way and I think that always sets the tone for a great discussion."

The age range of students - from 19 to 77 - is testimony to the subject's wide appeal. As an academic adviser to students of the A.L.B. program, Spreadbury found "students were very curious ... . Every semester there's the top three or four courses that people are interested in and want to talk about and ask more questions to the advisers about - this was definitely one of them."

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate, teacher Blumberg currently works by day in Waltham at Blue Fang Games, an animation company "interested in figuring out how you can build animated creatures that have the everyday common sense and ability to learn that animals such as dogs have. So we studied dogs." Blumberg has three dogs himself: Katie, a 12-year-old collie; an 8-year-old silky terrier named Sidney; and a border terrier, Scuppers, who is 2 years old.

Sydney and Scuppers
Instructor Bruce Blumberg has plenty of real world experience with the animals he studies. Two of his best friends are Sydney (left) and Scuppers.

Blumberg taught the course last year as a seminar to a small collection of graduate students composed of dog trainers, computer people, and anthropologists at the MIT Media Lab. When Blumberg left MIT to go into industry, he approached Harvard Extension School as a way to continue teaching.

Blumberg says of his class, "The first purpose is [to get students] to understand their dogs better. Also, I'm very interested in using dogs as a way of thinking about how you understand ... what's going on in the brains of other creatures. So we're using dogs as models, but often the topics will be general issues - what you need to be thinking about when you're thinking about how other creatures think." Among those things you need to think about: genetics, evolution, development, and motivation.

In the course description, psychologist Paul Blum predicts that "for psychologists, dogs may be the next chimpanzees." Blumberg explains his use of the quote: "In the last couple of years there have been a number of scientific studies ... on certain social problems involving humans, [and] dogs seem to be better able to perform the task than chimpanzees. For example, using pointing gestures to find hidden food is something the dogs respond to better than chimps." Blumberg adds that, "A dog has been shown to learn words really, really quickly based on one or two repetitions, they are able to associate a novel word with a novel object. This is something never seen in chimps."

Another boon companion is the rough coated collie Katie.

Dogs, continues Blumberg, "in a sense represent a simpler model and live in a human environment; the environment the chimps live in is very, very different from the human environment. Genetically, chimps are close to us, but the kinds of problems chimps have to solve are very different."

How does Blumberg feel about teaching the diverse crew of Extension School students after working with MIT graduate students? "It's great! It's an exciting opportunity for me and I'm really enjoying dealing with the wide range of interests and questions. In some ways it's much more challenging to find ways to make it relevant and comprehensible. It's fun for me and I'm appreciative of Harvard Extension School for letting me do this."

Teaching assistant Carolyn Barney, certified pet dog trainer and the owner of five dogs, attended Blumberg's class last year at MIT. Barney, a canine behavior and obedience trainer for more than 20 years, owns a dog training center in Littleton, Mass., and has been competing in canine events for almost 25 years.

Reflecting on last year's class, Barney says, "It's a fantastic course ... [full] of wonderful information to make you think even more about dogs and show you that you really know even less than you thought you knew; it's amazing." Barney's interests lie in how the dog's brain works, specifically how it's hardwired. "This class," she says, "is helpful in learning a little bit more about that and how it affects the dog and human relationship. Working with people and their dogs helps you understand a little bit more about where dogs are coming from."

The class is not only a mix of ages but a mix of people, too - dog walkers, trainers, people with therapy dogs who visit the sick and elderly, volunteers at canine shelters, people who want to get some insight into their "best friend," and people who are interested in dogs in general. About three-quarters of the students have dogs, estimates Blumberg.

Among them is Polly Ellison, owner of Lobo, a 3-year-old German shepherd. Ellison is taking the class for multiple reasons - to get back into a degree program, to aid her in training her dog, and out of sheer interest. Ellison gives the class high grades: "I've loved it. It's exciting to learn were the dogs came from, why they're acting the way they do. The reading is fascinating."

Blumberg says that he "hopes someone coming out of the course will turn around and want to take more psychology classes, because what could be more fascinating than studying about the brain and behavior? If people go into a psychology course and look at it from the perspective of understanding how dogs think and behave ... it will give them a new perspective on psychology."

Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College