Sit. Study. Fetch.
Fetch a bachelor’s degree, that is.
I was amused by the blurb an American university, the State University of New York in Cobleskill, was using to promote a new degree program they have: a Bachelor of Technology (BTech) in Canine Training and Management.
The Inquirer picked up the story and featured it on the front page the other day with a cute title, “Arf and Science.” I thought, initially, that it was a degree program for animal behavior in general; after all, a bachelor’s degree takes four years, which is a lot of time for, well, sitting and studying before fetching a degree.
Think of your dog trainers who go through short courses for a few weeks, learning more often by apprenticeship to an experienced trainer. Then think of the six years to get a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) degree, which prepares you to handle more than a dozen different animal species, including, I like to joke, humans. (I’ve been asked if my veterinary training helps me in my work as a university chancellor, and I answer, half in jest: Yes, it prepared me for the most difficult animal species—humans.)
Back to this BTech degree, which I have to say is an impressive title in itself. In India, engineering graduates get a degree in BTech or BEngineering, showing how demanding the course work can be.
Now we have this BTech degree devoted to handling dogs.
But it does make sense. In today’s world, we need more than dog trainers to handle the increasingly complex field of service dogs. Here’s a short—note, short—list of the kinds of service dogs we have today: bomb and explosive sniffers, drug sniffers, contraband sniffers (for Customs sections when you enter a country); then there are the search-and-rescue animals, which the Metro Manila Development Authority has been training on weekends in UP Diliman, preparing especially for earthquakes.
You also have companion animals for the blind and the disabled. There are all kinds of therapy dogs, including emotional support animals for people with mental health issues like depression, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lately, there have been even more specialized therapy dogs—for example, dogs that can detect an increase in blood pressure with their humans, and signal them to take medication. Similarly, there are dogs trained to accompany people with seizure disorders, with diabetes, with autism—to provide companionship as well as first responses.
I’m sure I’ve missed out on other types of service dogs, but the list shows we’ve come a long way from having to get trainers for what is called “obedience training”: the sit, shake, roll-over routines.
Don’t underestimate those forms of training, though, which are the foundation for more specialized training from bomb sniffing to emotional support. At UP Diliman, where we’ve started an emotional support animal program, the dogs need first to learn good manners and right conduct before they can become huddle and cuddle animals.
Obedience training itself is not as simple as it sounds. On its way out are the old barbaric choke training procedures, where an animal is punished for not “obeying.” The “Dog Whisperer” program of
Cesar Millan on TV is built on the idea that dogs are pack animals, who will listen to you if you assert yourself as an “alpha” dog.
Another type of training uses clickers, little gadgets that, as the name implies, you click when you bark out an order, together with a reward. With time, even without the clicker, an animal responds to your “request.” The woman who developed this clicker training wrote a book once about how humans, husbands especially, need that kind of training—more of being rewarded than scolded or nagged.
It makes sense, then, that you need four years of college to get an understanding of animal psychology, plus canine health, nutrition, genetics. In some ways, the BTech program sounds almost like a specialization, like the ones in medicine: pediatrics, geriatrics and so on.
Like engineering training, a BTech degree, which I think we should explore for the Philippines as a track different from BArts or BScience, emphasizes hands-on training or internships.
SUNY Cobleskill says its program is the only one of its kind in the world. But don’t be surprised if we see variations of these programs cropping up in the near future. After more than 12,000 years of humans coevolving with dogs, we live in a world now where dogs are an integral part of human existence.
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