Who doesn’t want to pet puppies during stressful times? Luckily, for UBCO students, there is a program that specializes in just that. The Building Academic Retention Through K9’s (B.A.R.K.) program hosts drop-in events at the Engineering, Management, and Education (EME) building. Founded in 2012 by associate professor in the Okanagan School of Education, Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, B.A.R.K. will shortly celebrate its 10th year on campus. During drop-in sessions, students rate their stress levels before entering the “lab” with all of the dogs, spend time connecting with the therapy dogs for as long as they want, and then rate their stress levels after leaving the session.
The B.A.R.K website offers research statistics from 2013-2014, and “it was found that students’ stress levels were significantly reduced from an average rating of 4.47 on a five-point-scale to 1.73 on the same scale after being with the dogs from B.A.R.K.” But, what about more recent data? B.A.R.K.’s program coordinator, Freya Green, offered The Phoenix some insightful information. She explained, “we’ve conducted several different studies over the years and continue to find that interacting with therapy dogs can boost university students’ wellbeing in a variety of ways including, but not limited to: reducing stress, homesickness, loneliness, and increasing connectedness, happiness, and a sense of belonging.”
Green continued, “B.A.R.K. researchers recently conducted a study exploring whether the act of physically touching the dogs was important in boosting students’ wellbeing. The findings revealed that there were significant reductions in stress and loneliness for students who spent time with the dogs, even for those who did not pet the dogs. The key finding, however, was that the participants who engaged in direct contact with the therapy dogs showed significantly greater reductions in stress, homesickness, loneliness, negative affect and significantly greater improvements in positive affect, connectedness, and happiness compared to their peers who did not engage in direct contact. In short, we know that in order to get the best out of your time at B.A.R.K, petting the therapy dogs is a surefire way for students to feel better!”
B.A.R.K has also been involved with other studies outside of the university setting. Green added:
“Research in the B.A.R.K. lab has often concentrated on the benefits of therapy dogs for undergraduate students, but recent B.A.R.K. M.A. researchers Freya Green (’21) and Nicole Harris (’20) turned their attention to explore the benefits of programs like B.A.R.K. (known as canine-assisted interventions) on first-responder wellbeing and the development of social and emotional skills in children aged 5-12.
The study conducted at the Kelowna RCMP detachment revealed that therapy dogs are not only great at improving wellbeing of students on campus but are also wonderful for reducing stress of police members! What we know is that spending as little as 10-minutes with a therapy dog can significantly reduce members’ stress levels and that, by having a program like B.A.R.K. in their detachment, members are more positive about their working environment.
Nicole Harris explored the benefits of therapy dogs in improving social and emotional skills in children aged 5-12. This program, which collaborated with the Okanagan Boys and Girls Club, saw children attending workshop sessions at UBC Okanagan and focused on the development of key skills such as introductions, meaningful compliments, self-reflection, awareness of others, and self-regulation. Harris’ research indicated that the canine-assisted social and emotional learning workshop was enjoyed by students, that the addition of the therapy dogs was meaningful, and that the program provided unique benefits. Participating children reported learning specific social-emotional skills as a result of the program, including the ability to take another person’s perspective, to self-reflect, to demonstrate leadership, and to be more confident interacting with others. Harris added, ‘Interacting with the therapy dogs improved the children’s moods and increased their engagement.’”
Additionally, the program started B.A.R.K2GO in 2015 in order to comply with the growing population of students at UBCO and the increasing demand for more access to the program. These shorter sessions, run by the volunteers, happen in the Charles E. Fipke Building, the Library’s Flex Space, and the second floor of the UNC.
For those who live in VEDA or who have friends who live there, the B.A.R.K program also hosts sessions in the Apex and Lakeview clubrooms. Green would like to give a shout out to Veda for their financial support. She stated, “VEDA has been a champion of B.A.R.K. from our early days and many of our current programs are offered because of VEDA’s generosity.”
Have you ever wondered how the therapy dogs are chosen? The handlers first have to fill in an application form to provide information about, according to the website, “canine behaviour, health, and wellbeing, volunteer availability, and previous volunteer experience,” as well as specific criteria that the program is looking for. Afterwards, they are put on a waitlist. If chosen, the prospective handlers and dogs are required to attend four training sessions where both the handler and their pets’ skills will be assessed and evaluated to determine whether they fit the B.A.R.K session environment. Green said, “handlers and dogs are assessed as a team. Both must pass in order for the team to move forward to the next stage of assessment/internship.”
When prompted to answer whether the handlers have also experienced reduced stress while volunteering for B.A.R.K, Green responded, “we actually conducted a study exploring our handlers’ experience in volunteering (Rousseau et al., 2020). What we learned is that handlers report a lot of benefits as a result of participating in the B.A.R.K. program. These benefits include, but are not limited to, having social interactions with students, finding it rewarding to watch the impact that their therapy dogs have on students, swapping stories with students, and feeling like they are helping others. The handlers also reported learning a lot about themselves and their therapy dogs, including feeling more in-tune with the needs of their dogs, knowing more about their body language, and understanding more about their dogs’ strengths and weaknesses.”
Moreover, students can volunteer to work for B.A.R.K as they have a variety of positions. The website states that “Being a B.A.R.K. volunteer is a great way to develop leadership skills, establish connections across the campus, and learn about applied research.” However, the application is quite competitive. I had the opportunity to interview Amelia Willcox, a volunteer, about her experiences with B.A.R.K.
Madeline Grove: What is it like volunteering for B.A.R.K.?
Amelia Willcox: B.A.R.K. is a warm and welcoming environment for people from all types of backgrounds. You are always encouraged to share your unique skills and interests to help build your resume and contribute to the program. When volunteering for B.A.R.K., I often forget I'm working because I’m always surrounded by great people and adorable dogs!
MG: Do you notice your stress decreasing when working with the therapy dogs and with B.A.R.K.?
AW: Absolutely, I always feel better after a long week when I see the dogs! Even being in the B.A.R.K. room with my co-volunteers puts me in a good mood.
MG: When working, do you notice other people’s (both coworkers and participants) stress decreasing as they connect with the therapy dogs?
AW: Yes! The volunteers have a few minutes with the dogs before the session starts and it always sets a great tone for the rest of the evening. As more students come through the session, the energy always relaxes and the students seem to follow suit.
MG: What is your favorite thing about volunteering for B.A.R.K. (besides the dogs, of course)?
AW: My favorite thing about volunteering for B.A.R.K. is the diversity. Every student who is part of the program is encouraged to be themselves, and to use their individuality to strengthen the program.
MG: Is there anything you would like to add?
AW: Volunteering for B.A.R.K. has been one of my favorite experiences at UBCO. I would recommend to anyone who loves dogs, or is interested in the program, to come to our drop ins!