How I Got Started
Wittenberg University had borrowed a professor, Dr. Henry Cross, from a large university. Hank had studied with Harry Harlow back when "love" was studied with "real" and "wire-clothed" monkeys. We were told we were very lucky to have a class from him as undergraduates. There were four of us in the class, and our assignment was to design and carry-out a study that would provide an answer to a research question with the use of animals as subjects. After the endless reading assignments in the first two weeks, we decided we were going to study tropical Platyfish. In nature they maintain their own strains, yet in captivity (e.g. your home aquarium) they readily hybridize. We wondered if they could recognize their own strain. The advantages of being at a small liberal arts college became immediately clear. Hank had arranged for us to use the new biology building, equipped with a "wet" lab, complete with 20 or so aquaria that belonged to a zoology professor; he arranged for a psychology professor to help us construct the equipment we needed. The course and the research project were so exciting that I did an independent study the following term to replicate and extend our study. We got it published in Psychonomic Science, a real psychology journal!
Two weeks after word had reached us that the manuscript had been accepted for publication, a number of us psychology majors attended our first psychology conference, the Midwestern Psychological Assn. Meeting. One of our professors, Dr. Jerry Eimer, agreed to take us because he felt that our exposure to professionals "at work" was an important part of our education. Jerry introduced us to a number his colleagues and some advanced grad students who learned of our publication on fish behavior. I was not aware that people would take our publication so seriously. We kept getting sideways glances from the advanced graduate students, and after all, it was about fish, and not people. By the end of the day, the reason for the sideways glances became obvious. Most of the grad students we met had not yet published anything, and they were doubtful that any undergraduates from a small liberal arts college could really have gotten something published already. Candidly, I probably would have never figured out that this was quite and accomplishment for a college junior if one of the doctoral students had not revealed that it was. Along with Dr. Eimer's congratulations, he asked me what graduate school I was going to next year.
The thought of graduate school had not crossed my mind before. I was concerned with the money but then I learned that most students accepted into doctoral programs receive an assistantship - a remission of tuition and a stipend (which pays for rent and lots of chili) in return for helping a professor conduct his/her research.
After working two years at Miami University with Dr. E.D. Simmel on behavior genetics research, I completed a masters thesis on aggressive behavior in genetically different mice. Then, following a less-than-happy time spent satisfying my comprehensive exam requirements, I took a "Large Mammals" seminar and became interested in canids (wolves & dogs) and felids (cats).
Although my initial plans for a doctoral dissertation involved rearing wolf pups, I had to switch species to something "that might approximate wolves."
Apparently, Miami’s animal research committee was concerned that the surrounding community (mostly rural folks, lots of farmers and AG people) wouldn’t be wild about rearing wolves so close to their livestock. That made sense, but that required that I learn about domesticated cats and dogs before proposing my revised doctoral research. After much study, I conducted a 12-week "pilot" on puppy social behavior in the summer of 1974, tightened up the experimental design and collected the dissertation data in the summer of 1975. Three weeks later, I drove a U-Haul to my first real position at Berea College (KY), just two weeks before classes started – "ABD" (All But Dissertation).
Conducting behavioral research with puppies (birth through 12 weeks of age) was an extremely gratifying and fun endeavor, but it was also very demanding. For seven consecutive years, I trained undergraduates to assist me in doing the research, sometimes twice in a single year. For each litter, I arranged to use a dog – a mother-to-be that was "expecting" – that we could observe daily, along with her litter, for 12 weeks. The expectant dog was owned by someone in the community. I agreed to provide food, care, veterinary check-ups and shots for the mother and her puppies, and also agreed to help the owner place the puppies after the 12-week study was completed. Most owners remarked the latter offer was a real advantage, because placing a puppy tended to be easier if a potential adoptive parent knew the litter had been reared by "pet psychologist," or was a subject in a "psychological study."
My dissertation and the five years of research my students and I conducted at Berea College provided a nice segue for entry into applied animal behavior in 1979. An article that had been recently published in the American Psychologist on "Animal Clinical Psychology" legitimized the practice of applied animal behavior for experimental psychologists. I began communicating by letter, phone and at conferences with the few animal behaviorists who had already presented papers or published articles on applied animal behavior. Most notably, I visited Dr. Peter Borchelt, an animal behaviorist and Director of the Behavior Clinic at The Animal Medical Center in New York City. We went on several house-calls in New York City and enjoyed numerous lively discussions on dog and cat behavior problems.
My on-the-job training in Berea included helping friends and colleagues resolve problem behaviors in their cats and dogs – gratis, of course. I needed access to a larger population if I was really going to "practice" applied animal behavior. I wanted to change my focus on animal behavior from basic research to applied research and practice. Could an experimental psychologist, formally educated and experienced in the science of animal behavior apply that knowledge to help straighten out the problem pets? Who would be crazy enough to let "pet psychologist" come to their home for a couple of hours for the purpose of "diagnosis and treatment of dog and cat behavior problems?"
My 3-year stint at Clemson University enabled me to refocus my research efforts to two new "applied" areas, one dealing with solutions to pet behavior problems, the other with identifying risk factors associated with dog and cat bites, especially those of a serious nature. My practice was growing in Atlanta, so much that I was beginning to make trips to clients’ homes on both Saturdays and Sundays. The two-hour plus drive each way quickly became too much, as did a 7-day work week. I began looking for an academic position close to Atlanta at a college smaller than Clemson. When Mercer University called me for a job interview, I jumped for it.
My interview at Mercer was with Dr. Rich Metzger, newly hired Chair of the Psychology Department, who had himself, arrived on campus just two weeks before our interview. After I presented the requisite research colloquium to interested parties, Rich and I drove to Bennigans for spirits, dinner and what I had hoped would be spirited conversation. We talked into the night about academia, pedagogical concerns, and doing research at an undergraduate institution. Our backgrounds and philosophy of education were quite similar. As we talked it became apparent that at Mercer "departmental" and "professional" responsibilities would not compete, but complement one another. I could contribute to the Department and continue to grow professionally at the same time. I could also recapture what I missed after leaving Berea College – satisfaction of involving students in the process of doing research.
Perhaps the most notable and, I believe, important professional contribution I initiated since arriving at Mercer involved assessing the aggressive behavior of several dogs implicated in a fatal attack on a 4-year old boy. Dr. Randall Lockwood, Director of Field Investigations for the Humane Society of the United States, and I were asked to develop a behavioral test battery to determine the likelihood that a dog will exhibit aggressive behavior in the presence of a non-threatening stranger. At a time when "pit bulls" were accounting for the majority of fatalities to people annually, we had provided a tool the legal system and animal control could use to assess "vicious" canine behavior. Pete Borchelt and I have continued to develop the assessment tool, and have recently conducted workshops on its use, sponsored by the National Animal Control Association.
The media picked up on the "pet psychologist" angle of our work with dog and cat aggression. In the last few years, interviews on CNN and other television networks have continued, along with interviews published in "popular" magazines such as Discover, Reader’s Digest, Women’s Day, and Cat Fancy. Each time something was published, Mercer received some publicity - strange publicity, perhaps, but publicity non-the-less.
My stay at Mercer has been all that I expected. It is probably one of the ONLY places in the nation whose Psychology faculty are independent enough to have their own active research programs. We get along well enough pedagogically and personally to spend 3 days together on the retreat each fall in North Georgia, planning and fine tuning our major program. Since 1983, we have created 10 laboratory courses that emphasize the research process within some psychological content area. Students are encouraged to participate in a Psychology faculty member’s research – all 5 of us enable students to get hands-on experience with some aspect of our research programs – and we have added an Honors Course in psychology for students who wish to spend their last year conducting supervised independent research.
We have found the graduate schools in psychology and other post graduate schools (e.g. law, medicine, etc) value the program we have put together. Our students continue to be accepted into graduate schools in their areas of interest (ie., I/O psychology, clinical, counseling, etc) regardless of the specific content of their research experience. For example, Patricia Kelley and Alfred Montalvo co-authored a paper with me on the Dallas cat and dog bite study, yet they were accepted into graduate programs in I/O, and general experimental psychology respectively. In the past year, Maria Asiapzu and Jaime Flannagan have participated in a kitten adoption study we’re doing with the Broward Co (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) Humane Society. Maria, who we are proud to announce has recently been selected as an American Psychological Association Minority Undergraduate Student of Excellence, plans to go to graduate school in I/O psychology (Jaime is still a junior). Susan Moss is the only student who has actually gone on to grad school in animal behavior. She is also one of only two research assistants since 1983 to have published her research in a peer reviewed journal (Anthrozoos). So, it’s the research experience that adds substance to our Psychology major, that sharpens student's skills in critical thinking, writing, and oral communication. These interactions with students, on this level of learning, that continues to be exciting to me. Here’s to the future! Thank you, Mercer University.