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Creature Comforts: UBC Okanagan program gets therapy dogs into classroom environment

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Philip Struthers recently found himself up against the "greatest stress" he's ever known.

School pressures were mounting, and the third-year engineering student was staring down a long list of life-changing decisions that soon had to be made.

He wasn't open to much, but someone new, with scruffy hair, exhaling gusts of hot breath in his direction broke through that hardened mindset.

They were impossible to ignore, and when Struthers sidled up and started stroking their mane, the anxiety he'd been holding in started to release.

The stress-alleviating relationship was forged with one of the dogs at a UBC Okanagan program titled Building Academic Retention through K9s—or BARK, for short.

Each Friday 15 BARK certified dogs along with their trainers are brought into a room in the university's engineering building, and they work with students to combat homesickness, foster interpersonal connections, and promote overall social-emotional well-being.

For Struthers—who had taken part in BARK twice as of last week—the dog days of university life were almost immediately cast in a softer light.

"They make us fill out a form explaining our stress level when we come here, and there was a big weight on me that day…I was a 10 out of 10, on the scale," he said, while petting Nicky, a six-year-old pooch with a demeanour that all but demands affection.

When he walked away from that initial encounter, his stress level had dropped to a five.

"It was from the simplicity of being around the dogs," he said. "I didn't have to think… When I'm here, I'm mentally here to connect with the dogs, learn their personality and just hang out. It takes me away from the complexity and stress of my life."

That two hour escape had lingering effects, too. Struthers walked away that day more able to positively frame his everyday life and connections. He didn't maintain the level-five stress rating, but it never rose to the the boiling point it had on the day he found the program, and that's helped him move forward through the decision making process he'd been dreading, with a slightly rosier view.

"You're never at your best when you're stressed," he said.

Struthers's reaction is exactly what professor Ty Binfet was looking for when he started the BARK program.

While there's a seemingly limitless supply of anecdotes highlighting positive outcomes of canine-human therapeutic relationships, Binfet realized UBC Okanagan could do with its own creature comforts when walking through the university grounds two years ago.

"I'm from California and I brought a certified therapy dog to school with me," he said. "I couldn't walk across the campus without being besieged by students who wanted to talk about dogs."

Gleaning there were more to students' talking points than an interest in his four-legged friend Frances, Binfet started upon the process to fill the need that had presented itself.

Ian Cull from the AVP student office helped fund the initiative, and Binfet went to the St. John Ambulance to find an initial batch of dogs and handlers.

Together they worked to address the question whether students grappling with home-sickness would be helped by a dog session.

"Dogs increase a sense of support and reduce feelings of home sickness," he said.

The program started with an eight-week intensive program.

"We have students who are new to campus in the fall, who self-identify as homesick," he said.

"Then they express interest in the program so they're assigned to control group."

Throughout eight 45-minute sessions, the students spend time with therapy dogs and handlers.

"The handlers are trained to ask open ended questions and offer prompts to illicit engagement," said Binfet. "The dogs are a social catalyst."

"When the students first start with the study, they rush in the room and gush over the dogs, then the dog takes a back seat...dogs are social lubricants."

Regular Friday sessions are a little less formal, although within moments of walking into the room Binfet's theory takes shape.

Gathered in little pods around pooches and their handlers, students speak freely about everything from the dog who's preening under their touch to the ins-and-outs of everyday life.

And no one is shy about sharing what makes the experience both unique and worthwhile.

Shawn Martineau was introduced to the program by two of his friends. He is part of a trio who not only take part in the sessions, but also volunteer to stay afterward and clean up for Binfet.

UBC Okanagan is a long way from Martineau's Manitoba-home, and the BARK dogs offer canine consolation.

"I have dogs back home, and being here…it's nice to spend time with dogs again," he said. "It's relaxing and you get to talk with lots of people."

His friend Carson McKay added that it's simply enjoyable to take part.

"It's a good atmosphere and everyone is happy and having fun," McKay said.

It's not just students reaping the rewards from the BARK initiative.

For some handlers, and their four-legged side-kicks, the experience is well worth the time spent in training.

There's no shortage of affection and attention doled out to Moira Urton and her goldie, Bailey.

The blonde dog squints his eyes in ecstasy as familiar hands reach up and dig in behind his ears. With a little coaxing, he flops onto his back for a tummy rub, while students who are clearly keen on the loveable creature, strike up conversation with Urton.

"Bailey loves people," she said. "He absolutely loves this."

Urton learned about the BARK program when she was at a local dog park with a friend.

"There were quite a number of people there and about 20 dogs or so," she said, adding that she was very pleased with the fact she was chosen.

"It's about the students and how they relate to the dog, how they feel when they get here and how they feel when they leave. The dog is just a good ice-breaker."

Binfet explained that the selection process has to do with more than just having a stellar dog, like Bailey.

"We do a holistic assessment, look at the startle reflex, public behaviour and the relationship between the handler and the dog," he said. "Both the handler and the dog have to pass. A lot of time we have a fantastic dog, but the handler isn't suited."

Of course, as everyone knows, "dog people are good people."

That idea has been reinforced countlessly since Binfet arrived to the valley.

"The Okanagan has readily welcomed us with open arms," he said. " What I love about UBC and my job is that I'm encouraged to be a creative researcher."

And he gets to express that creativity alongside his best friend.

"Frances is the star of a lot of what we do. She loves interacting with people, but like a lot of BARK dogs, she's an exceptional dog. BARK dogs love to welcome new people," he said.

"There are times when I'll be downtown with Frances, and people ask me 'are you her handler?' She even has a Facebook page."

While Binfet's star may look a little less bright when contrasted to Frances's, his research is a stand-out at the uni.

Having dogs on campus, he's said, is one way of getting everyone to reconsider things like how people feel accepted in classrooms, in dorms, and what a community can look like with the addition of four-legged companions.

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