The Psychology of Dogs: Explorations Course Seeks to Understand Man’s Best Friend

Eager to get to the bottom of this relationship, juniors Parker Killenberg and Jordan Sclar have created an Explorations course, Man’s Best Friend: The Psychology of Dogs for first-year students this Fall.
Left: Parker Killenberg and Murphy -- Right: Jordan Sclar and Lucky

Killenberg and Sclar have plenty of expertise to offer: they are both doting Goldendoodle owners and have pursued coursework centered in psychology. As a Clinical Psychology and Community Health double major, Killenberg became interested in investigating the intersection of dogs and their relationship to humans. After seeing advertisements to design and teach a course through the ExCollege, she found a teaching partner in her good friend and fellow dog owner Jordan Sclar, a Psychology major and ELS and Child Studies minor. As Killenberg recounts:

“I remember seeing the little cards in the dining hall talking about teaching an Explorations course and that made me think about what I am interested in and what I thought other students would want to learn. My friend Jordan and I both love dogs and are psychology majors, so it was a perfect match! It was also a great way to explore a different part of psychology that I hadn’t yet gotten into.”

The peer teachers guide students through three main units. “For the first part, we learned about human cognition and how dogs can affect the human brain and behaviors,” Killenberg says. “The second unit is animal cognition, so we delved into what goes on in a dog’s brain - canine neurobiology. For the third unit, we are focusing on ‘helping dogs.’ For us that means we will learn more about service dogs, therapy dogs, emotional support dogs, and K9s.”

Through a range of formats such as film, in-class discussion, and articles, the class reflects on these main topics as the semester progresses. Not only will students gain an in-depth understanding of the intersection of human and dog psychology, but the goal is to improve their critical research and analytical skills. The content in Man’s Best Friend is variable and relatable, from “Why Dogs Love Us,” a TEDx talk by Dr. Gregory Berns, to the film “Homeward Bound: The Journey Home.” 

In addition to the wealth of knowledge that their own backgrounds provide to the class, the instructors have brought in several guest speakers, including Ali Qadri, a Tufts faculty member who spoke to the class about human cognition and the influence dogs may have over that, and Dr. Terri Bright, a dog behaviorist. While these are only a few of the speakers brought in, a diverse range of experts in human and dog psychology offer this group of first-years a one of a kind experience.

The class is structured so that students write short reflections on their assignments throughout the semester that other students can respond to. Scattered throughout the length of the course is a paired project, where groups choose a piece of media relating to dog psychology and have the opportunity to present this media to the class, along with discussion questions. In true ExCollege creative fashion, for final projects students can opt to make either a seven to ten-minute podcast or an extensive research-based poster connecting to dog psychology.

Killenberg and Sclar have also sought to provide a space for first-years to cultivate a sense of community. The transition to a socially distanced semester has called for modifications. Though both teachers would have liked a more intimate classroom setting, the two have taken the adaptation to a larger lecture hall setting in stride. Through trial and error, they have experimented with what teaching style and group activities work best within the restraints of public health guidelines. Still, little has changed from the original syllabus and the class is still finding ways to connect and come together. The care and involvement that Killenberg and Sclar have taken to ensure an engaging and enjoyable course in the midst of such a challenging time is commendable.

Note: If you’re a student who is interested in receiving counseling in the presence of an emotional support or therapy dog, Tufts CMHS has their own in Angel, a registered therapy dog. Learn more about Angel and the benefits of therapeutic dogs.

Photo: Pictured left: Parker Killenberg and Murphy | Pictured right: Jordan Sclar and Lucky


Written by Grace Prendergast, Class of 2024
Published on December 7, 2020