Dr John Binfet On B.A.R.K At University Of British Columbia

Kieran Beckles
By Kieran Beckles
Updated on 26 January 2021

B.A.R.K is an active research hub at the University of British Columbia looking to examine the impact of therapy dogs sessions on students.

Dr John Binfet created B.A.R.K in 2012 after he had previous experience working as a volunteer in a pet therapy program.

Interested in the potential benefits of therapy dog sessions to students, Dr Binfet decided to establish B.A.R.K with help from UBC’s Student Support Services.

B.A.R.K’s website explains that 60 certified dog-handler teams look to “reduce stress, combat homesickness, foster interpersonal connections, and promote the overall social-emotional well-being of students”.

With the coronavirus pandemic prompting change around the world, B.A.R.K are currently experimenting with Virtual Canine Comfort modules to learn about their potential effectiveness.

We spoke to B.A.R.K founder and UBC researcher Dr Binfet to learn more about the success of the program as well as the potential benefits. You can read more about B.A.R.K here.

1) How did the idea of BARK first come about at UBC?

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

I established B.A.R.K. in 2012. As a researcher at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan Campus, I had prior experience as a volunteer in a pet therapy program that brought therapy dogs to a facility for adolescents with traumatic or acquired brain injury. Upon my arrival to UBC, I would walk across campus with my dog Frances and would be besieged by students. Students would immediately begin interacting with Frances and would eventually look up and with tear-filled eyes say “As much as I miss my parents, I miss my dog more.” It was at that moment that the idea to offer a canine-assisted visitation program was born.

2) What steps did you have to take to see the idea come to fruition?

The idea of bringing 50+ therapy dogs to a university campus to interact with students can be met with skepticism! Working with Student Support Services, I was able to procure funding for a small pilot study to ascertain IF spending time with therapy dogs would be beneficial to students. After the success of this first study, B.A.R.K. has subsequently been an active research hub examining the impact of therapy dogs on university students’ well-being. B.A.R.K. runs largely on donations and to keep programs running, B.A.R.K. has a “DONATE” button on its website.

One obstacle that had to be overcome was to figure out how to assess dog-handler teams who would be suitable for the work undertaken in B.A.R.K. I have written about this and readers curious to learn more can consult the following resources:

Binfet, J. T. & Struik, K. (2020). Dogs on campus: Holistic assessment of therapy dogs and handlers for research and community initiatives. Society & Animals: Journal of Human-Animal Studies, 28(5-6), 489-509.

Binfet, J. T. & Hartwig, E. (2019). Canine assisted interventions: A comprehensive guide. New York: Routledge.

The assessment and evaluation of dog-handler teams at UBC is an involved and multi-step process. The entire team (>30 individuals) all participate in the assessment process and vote on each dog and each handler. At times, dogs can pass however handlers are deemed to be poorly suited for the work undertaken in B.A.R.K. and the entire team will not advance. Once the preliminary screening is completed, dog-handler teams participate in a semester-long internship to further determine their suitability for working in B.A.R.K. The dogs working in B.A.R.K. are constantly monitored to safeguard their welfare. We are mindful in B.A.R.K. to create optimal conditions for ALL stakeholders and restrict the length of time therapy dogs work in any given session and the number of visitors to a session.

3) What is involved in the average therapy dog session at (before COVID)?

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

Readers curious to learn more about the different programs offered by B.A.R.K. at UBC can learn about our on-campus and community-based sessions by visiting the B.A.R.K. website at www.barkubc.ca.

On campus, we offer a drop-in session and a BARK2GO session in 3 different buildings across campus. Off campus, we routinely participate in school visits, in an after-school Boys & Girls Club program titled “Building Confidence through K9s”, and a stress-reduction program at the local police detachment to reduce officer and staff stress.

4) How did the students react to their therapy dog sessions (before COVID)?

B.A.R.K.’s Year-End report, available on the B.A.R.K. website, tallies the total number of visitors to sessions and B.A.R.K.’s Drop-in program can see over 4,000 visitors each year. Within the B.A.R.K. lab at UBC, several studies have been completed that have assessed how spending time with therapy dogs impacts students and been published in peer-reviewed journals. Studies run in B.A.R.K. support findings indicating that spending time with therapy dogs can reduce self-reports of stress and homesickness and increase students’ sense of belonging or community on campus.

5) Did COVID-19 prompt these sessions to be moved online? If so, what are some of the challenges involved?

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

B.A.R.K. is currently experimenting with Virtual Canine Comfort modules and the randomized controlled trial to assess the effectiveness of this type of intervention is almost complete. Before offering or varying the format of how students interact with therapy dogs, we need to know that it offers benefits (or conversely, causes no harm). As a research-informed program, B.A.R.K. follows best-practices that are grounded in the science of Human-Animal Interactions and Animal-Assisted Interventions.

6) What is involved in the average Zoom session now?

We hope to offer a series of Virtual Canine Comfort modules to the public very shortly. This way, visitors far and wide can spend time with a B.A.R.K. therapy dog and handler to boost their well-being. We anticipate the modules being available via YouTube.

7) How have the students reacted to this new medium for dog therapy?

Our current study has just over 400 participants.

8) How many therapy dogs/therapy dog handlers does BARK currently have?

B.A.R.K. has 60 certified dog-handler teams currently participating in sessions and does a New Dog Intake each Fall to assess new potential dog-handler teams.

9) Finally, do you believe this is something all universities and educational institutions should consider?

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

The B.A.R.K program at UBC (Photo: B.A.R.K)

We know that university students who are socially and emotionally supported tend to do better academically and spending time with certified therapy dogs and handlers is a known way to help boost well-being. Having a therapy dog program on a college or university campus helps create a sense of community for students and provides a low-barrier and low-cost way for students to take care of themselves. Students who are wanting to advocate for a canine-assisted visitation program on their campus might liaise with a faculty researcher who has interest in the field of Human-Animal Relations. A good resource for those interested in learning more about canine-assisted interventions is to visit the website of the International Society for Anthrozoology or the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin. These aim of these organizations is to advance our understanding of how humans and animals interact and can serve as rich resources for curious readers.

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