It is all about puppy love Friday afternoons at UBC Okanagan when some special pooches arrive.
“It is like the greatest thing in the world,” said one smiling student as he stroked one of 17 therapy dogs hanging out on campus for the weekly B.A.R.K. drop-in labs.
“B.A.R.K. Stands for Building Academic Retention through K9s and it a program here on campus to support the social and emotional well being of students, primarily around stress reduction and home sickness,” explained B.A.R.K. director Dr. John-Tyler Binfet.
“The dogs do work people can’t. You can’t replace dogs with people and get the same affective emotional reaction, so our job is to just create a sense of community in the lab for people where they feel cared about, and the dogs help us do this.”
For Binfet, this whole program is almost paradoxical as he has a fear of dogs, but personally witnessed the soothing impact they could have once he connected with his own rescue pooch.
“I would go across campus to get coffee and I would be besieged by students who would barely look at me and start interacting with the dog. Eventually, they would look up with these tear-filled eyes and they’d say ‘You know as much as I miss my parents, I miss my dog more’ and I thought, OK, there is a need here to develop a program to provide access to therapy dogs.”
Several dozen students joined in the most recent therapy dog lab on Friday with big smiles on their face.
“I love it so much — why have I not come before?” said one student.
“It really helps,” said another.
“It is a really nice stress relief,” said one more. “It is relaxing.”
Started in 2012, B.A.R.K. now boasts 70 volunteers, 45 therapy dogs and is used by 30 per cent of the student population.
“It is a way I can give back in helping students get that puppy love again,” said B.A.R.K. dog handler Heidi Maddess. “She (her pup) is doing awesome, she loves it. She feels so special when she puts on her vest and comes to work.”
A sentiment shared by another dog handler.
“You can just see that Oscar absolutely loves it,” said B.A.R.K. Dog handler Michael Bandyo. “As soon as he puts the vest on, he takes it as a job. The kids come and they pet him and they call him by name and I think he is a bit of a celebrity on campus now!”
While student welfare is key for the program, Binfet ensures the dogs are enjoying themselves as well.
“I look at dog stress. I want to ensure it is a good experience for the dogs, that their welfare is at the forefront too,” said Binfet. “We actually sent a dog home tonight who wasn’t settling. My job is to ensure everyone is OK, including the student clients, the dog handlers and the dogs themselves.”
Binfet said he is also working to break the image that only golden retrievers can be therapy dogs as he works with a local rescue to provide dogs in all shapes, colours and sizes.
In fact, more than 60 per cent of the therapy dogs in the program are from Paws it Forward Dog Rescue.
“Pure bred golden retrievers certainty can be great therapy dogs, but the mutt off the street or off a reserve or a second-hand dog can do wonderful therapeutic work,” said Binfet.
“The people will come to the lab and they will go to the dog that reminds them the most of their childhood dog and that is tough to predict. So, we have a lot of diversity.
“It is all about adopt don’t shop.”
To learn more about the BARK program head to barkubc.ca.