UBCO’s B.A.R.K. program reduces student stress with canine assisted interventions

Amid the stressful flurry of academic life, UBCO’s Building Academic Retention Through K9s (B.A.R.K.) program offers a potential solution: support dogs.

The program seeks to bring together students and trained therapy dogs to alleviate stress, address homesickness and loneliness, build interpersonal connections and support student social-emotional health.

B.A.R.K. was founded by Dr. John Tyler Binfet, a professor in the Faculty of Education and a developmental psychologist, who discovered an intersection between his personal interests and research.

Recalling his inspiration for the initiative, Binfet said that when he would walk his rescue dog across campus, students would flock to him saying “As much I miss my parents, I miss my dog more.”

“It was a lightbulb moment, as a researcher … I need[ed] to create [a] program opportunity for students to interact with dogs.”

Twelve years later, with the support of Dale Mullings, UBCO’s associate vice-president students, and Freya Green, the B.A.R.K. program coordinator, 64 volunteer therapy dogs have been recruited and trained to help students reduce stress.

B.A.R.K. hosts weekly activities on campus including dog stations called B.A.R.K.2GO and drop-in sessions. Both are informal opportunities for students to interact with therapy dogs and handlers.

“It was really nice either pre- or post-class, [or if] you had an exam just to destress a little bit and take a breather,” said Mikaela Dahlman, a B.A.R.K. volunteer and graduate student in clinical mental health counselling with a concentration in animal studies, as she recounted her first experiences attending B.A.R.K. activities.

“It’s been a huge part of my stress relief throughout my degree,” said Amelia Willcox, a B.A.R.K. researcher.

Alongside providing canine assisted interventions on campus, the program also pursues research related to canine-human interactions.

To better understand the mechanisms of what makes canine assisted interventions effective in reducing student stress, the program led a study investigating the importance of direct contact with therapy dogs. While touch and direct contact with therapy dogs was more likely to reduce stress and improve mood, spending time with the handlers only was more likely to elicit social benefits, such as feeling more connected and less homesick.

The program has even conducted research on the effects of virtual canine therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Participants shared their experiences after being randomly assigned to either a synchronous Zoom call condition or an asynchronous video condition with or without the presence of a dog. Following four months of sessions, the study found that the presence of a dog in both the synchronous and asynchronous environments improved students’ self-reported well-being more than the conditions with only a handler.

As the B.A.R.K. program has grown, so has its impact on the UBCO student body.

“Sometimes people even come in crying [because] they’re so afraid of dogs, and then they end up being regular attendees,” said Dahlman.

“It’s created this very strong sense of community in a sense that everyone could be brought together with these dogs.”