Campus & Community

Dogs teach humans new tricks

2 min read

Extension School psych class fetches lots of students

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.