Watch a video of Cocco in a psychology 101 class.
Chantel Prats psychology 101 class was in for a surprise the other day. The syllabus simply listed a lecture on learning, but a guest lecturer gave them a whole lot more.
The guest, who answers to “Cocco” (short for Coccolina, “snuggly” in Italian), is Prats 4-year-old 23-pound mutt. Who better to teach Pavlovian conditioning, you might say, than an actual dog?
Prat, a UW assistant professor in psychology, started bringing Cocco to class last year as a way to demonstrate learning. Her students liked it so much that Prat decided to bring Cocco again this quarter.
Cocco, who resembles a small black lab, is “the worlds best dog,” Prat told the 440 or so students in her class. But “shes a little bit shy.” Prat then explained that they would try a few training exercises to help Cocco be more brave.
The first learning exercise Prat did was clicker training, in which Cocco learned to associate a sound – made by Prats “clicker” training tool – with getting a treat, a cube of cheddar cheese. This way if the pup was doing something else, like chasing a ball across the Kane Hall lecture room, she would return to Prat when she heard the “click.”
After the clicker training, Prat moved on to working on Coccos social skills. Prat led six student volunteers through some training exercises in which Cocco got cheese for standing next to students and eventually letting them pet her. The last trick was luring Cocco into the rows of students by using Coccos favorite toy – a stuffed fake chicken – fastened to a slingshot as bait.
Students laughed and “awwwed” their way through the demonstration.
Behind the scenes, Prats husband, Andrea Stocco, a research scientist at the UWs Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, brought Cocco to campus for the 10-minute demonstration. Then Stocco whisked the dog away and Prat continued her lecture on animal learning, blending in examples of Coccos behaviors.
For instance, since at first Cocco shirked away from students, she had to practice standing close to them. After a few tries, the dog became more comfortable and began to let students touch her. This demonstrated positive reinforcement and a learning process called shaping, which is “progressively rewarding behaviors that get closer and closer to the behavior you actually want,” Prat told the class.
In a different lecture on learning, Prat talked about other practical illustrations of learning, such as study tips and how to “train” significant others, parents, children and roommates. “I try to bring in as much real-world material as I can to keep students engaged,” she said.
Prat had one student last year who was afraid of dogs, but relaxed once she realized that Cocco was well-behaved and afraid too. Still, Prat does think about how not all students might like Cocco as a guest in class, even though dogs are ubiquitous in dog-friendly Seattle.
If students are afraid or allergic, they probably wont volunteer to come up close to Cocco in front of the class. “On the other hand, many fears are learned and perhaps with some positive exposure we can actually work on reducing their fear of dogs, whereas avoiding dogs just reinforces the fear through negative reinforcement,” Prat said.