[Cover photo: “Students connecting during CREATE this year with B.A.R.K. handler Linda and therapy dog Chloe,” Photo credit Madisyn Szypula.]
Over at B.A.R.K. (Building Academic Retention through K9s), a dedicated team of volunteers have been working hard since the beginning of September 2023 to assess whether a new cohort of therapy dogs and their handlers “are suitable for, and would thrive in, B.A.R.K. programs on campus and in the community,” said Program Coordinator Freya Green.
This innovative program, founded by Dr. John-Tyler Binfet in 2012, is a “research-driven therapy dog program designed to support the emotional well-being of university students grappling with challenges around homesickness, social isolation, and integration into the university community.”
Green explained that B.A.R.K. depends on handler-dog therapy teams who are “dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers from the community,” and “have expressed interest in supporting the wellbeing of others through therapy dog visitation.”
“Handlers apply on the B.A.R.K. website via an online application form, which includes questions about canine behaviour, health and well-being, volunteer availability, and prior experience in therapy dog programs. Suitable candidates are then invited to participate in B.A.R.K.’s four-stage assessment process, which includes a handler orientation, two assessment sessions, and a mock session.”
Throughout all four stages of therapy dog assessments, B.A.R.K. aims to answer two underlying questions about each dog: “Does the dog want to do this work?” and “Does the dog enjoy meeting new people?”
“In a program like B.A.R.K., it is critical that the dogs enjoy participating in the program,” stated Green. “Just like we all aim to enjoy the work we do, we want the dogs to enjoy their new job and thrive within a therapy dog program.”
“Strong therapy dogs are those who demonstrate a keen interest in physical contact with friendly strangers, have a calm and friendly demeanour, are indifferent to meeting other dogs, and have a secure and trusting relationship with their handler.”
In addition to assessing B.A.R.K.’s therapy dogs, Green said that their handlers are also assessed for their suitability. Handlers must have “strong interpersonal skills” and “great awareness and proactive management of their dog.”
“A therapy dog handler must be able to connect well with students and effectively manage several key stakeholders including individuals attending the session, their dogs, program volunteers/staff, and themselves,” she said.
Green explained that “all of B.A.R.K.’s assessments are evidence-based,” and may slightly differ from other therapy dog programs:
“Each therapy dog program has its own individuality, so while many assessments have common elements, it is also important to assess the specific skills that may be unique to the specific context that the dogs work within.”
After successful completion of all four stages in the assessment, handler-dog teams move on to an internship phase, where they will participate in short visits to B.A.R.K. sessions. “Our assessments are designed to provide opportunities for training and ongoing assessment as well as a gradual introduction to therapy dog work.”
Green appreciates all the teamwork that goes into making the assessments run smoothly.
“We are fortunate to have a wonderful team of highly experienced and enthusiastic volunteers who help us conduct the assessments,” said Green. “It takes a large team to assess prospective B.A.R.K. teams, and we’re so grateful to the team of 25+ student volunteers and seasoned handlers who make this possible each year.”
Mikaela Dahlman is one of B.A.R.K.’s student volunteers, with experience as a member of the assessment team. Dahlman stated that in a past assessment event, she “helped run the ‘mini drop-in session’ station” which put her “knowledge to the test.” As an experienced assessor, she was responsible for “assessing both the handlers’ communication skills and the interest of the dog to interact with a small group of new people.”
“As animal-assisted interventions is the field of study I am pursuing, the opportunity [to assess canine-handler teams at B.A.R.K.] is greatly appreciated,” added Dahlman.
“I’ve been attending B.A.R.K. sessions since my first year at UBCO, and have been a volunteer for around 3 years. The mentorship they’ve provided over the years has been invaluable to both my education and future career. Not only have the handlers and dogs themselves been instrumental to my well-being, the entire B.A.R.K. team has helped me pave a path for my future. I have been fortunate enough to be able to participate in all types of B.A.R.K. sessions, and have firsthand seen the benefits the program brings to the students of UBCO.”
Students who want to learn more about B.A.R.K. can find all the information they need on B.A.R.K.’s online platforms.
“Students can follow our Instagram (@barkubc) or Facebook (BARK UBCO) to receive regular updates, learn more about the work we do, and see photos from sessions,” said Dahlman. “Students can find information about special events, Wednesday BARK2Go sessions, and our drop-in sessions on Fridays. Students are also always welcome to talk to B.A.R.K. program staff and volunteers at our sessions!”
For more information on assessing therapy dogs for work within programs like B.A.R.K., check out the book Canine-Assisted Interventions: A Comprehensive Guide to Credentialing Therapy Dog Teams. This book, written by Drs. Binfet and Kjellstrand Hartwig (Texas State University), covers principles of training, assessing, and monitoring therapy dog-handler teams, and provides guidance on evidence-based methods for welfare, training, and assessment in therapy dog programs.
UBCO students are invited to attend B.A.R.K.’s mock session — the last stage in the canine-handler teams’ four-stage assessment process — on October 15, 2023, at 10:30 a.m. in EME 1123. The mock session will allow students to get to know the new dogs and their handlers