Kelowna Capital News

Therapy mutt helps students learn

A mutt named Frances from the streets of Los Angeles has found her calling as a teaching assistant.

UBC education professor Ty Binfet rescued the female dog just over a year ago and put her through extensive training to become a highly skilled therapy dog.

Animal-assisted therapy promotes social and emotional well-being in individuals through animal contact.

It is designed to calm clients, facilitate social interactions, build confidence and can bring individuals out of their shell.

Binfet and Frances arrived in August at the UBC Okanagan campus, where the dynamic duo provides education students with a unique classroom learning experience.

“I use Frances in my behaviour management and childhood development classes in both an active and passive way. It is a progressive way of teaching, and one that I’ve found to be very effective,” says Binfet.

For instance, in Binfet’s behavior management class, education students strategize and plan a behaviour exercise to teach Frances, and then attempt to do so within a set amount of time in front of their classmates.

This challenge provides a safe and honest training ground for students to learn about approximations and shaping of behavior, explains Binfet.

“We draw parallels between Frances and kids in classrooms,” he says.

“I am in no way saying kids are like dogs, but there are a lot of commonalities in how, as teachers, we might manage our approaches and guide the development of desirable behaviour. Frances is a very compliant participant who allows students a living lesson where they can assess their own delivery of skills, as well as practice and hone their skill development.”

In addition to his innovative classroom work with Frances, Binfet will begin a research project this February by examining how animal-assisted therapy impacts feelings of homesickness and sense of social isolation in first-year university students living in residence at UBC’s Okanagan campus.

“Thanks to Frances and funding that has come our way, we’re looking at the use of animal assisted therapy by matching 10 St. John Ambulance volunteer dog handlers and dogs with homesick students here on campus,” says Binfet.

His job is to empirically assess whether the use of these dogs on campus can increase a sense of belonging and institutional affiliation to combat some of the loneliness, social isolation, and home sickness students can experience during their first year of university.

The project, which will run for eight weeks, is called Building Academic Retention with K9s (BARK), and is supported by the Office of the Provost and Vice-Principal.

“There’s a lot of information available about animal-assisted therapy but very little rigorous, empirical work, so that’s my contribution to the field.”

Binfet is quick to note that he does not advocate everyone bringing their dog to work, and wants to remind people that Frances has advanced behaviour certification and university approval.

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