Ten years ago, a rescue dog named Frances was given a new “leash” on life—and a new job.

Frances was rescued off the streets of Los Angeles by Dr. John-Tyler Binfet an Associate Professor who researches kindness and student success with UBC Okanagan’s School of Education. The pup was put to work to provide Dr. Binfet’s students a unique classroom learning experience. For example, the students would teach Frances a behavioural exercise in front of their classmates.

While Frances has since retired, Dr. Binfet recalls it was her impact on students that sparked a pilot project called Building Academic Retention through K9s (B.A.R.K).

“We couldn’t walk down a hallway without being stopped by students,” he says. “They would eventually look up at me from petting Frances and say, ‘As much as I miss my family, I miss my dog more.’”

Using those experiences as inspiration, Dr. Binfet began B.A.R.K. to examine how animal-assisted visitation can impact feelings of homesickness and a sense of isolation in first-year university students. The program started modestly in 2012 with 12 dogs and has grown significantly.

B.A.R.K. now has more than 60 in-house handler and dog teams—all UBCO volunteers—and reaches thousands of students each year. Each session generally has 10 to 13 dogs and handlers, 15 student volunteers and more than 100 student visitors. BARK2Go, mini sessions offered around the campus, was introduced a few years later and last year the program offered 25 drop-in and BARK2GO sessions each for a combined total of more than 4,000 canine visits.

The program has also spread with and into the community through several different partnerships including the Okanagan Boys and Girls Club and the VEDA Exclusive Student Living buildings.

“We’re thrilled to be celebrating 10 years on campus and are excited to see how the program continues to evolve and move forward,” says Dr. Binfet.

Not only has the program evolved, but it’s come full circle with a number of former students now volunteering as trained B.A.R.K handlers.

“When I first got to campus in 2017, I was extremely nervous and didn’t know what to expect,” says Sierra Adamow, now a UBCO alumna. “During my first week, I noticed the B.A.R.K. program, and it allowed me to make new friends, feel calmer, put a smile on my face and leave me ready to enjoy my university experience. Now in 2022, I volunteer with my dog to help other students feel welcome and included.”

In addition to providing comfort to students, more than 15 peer-reviewed research papers have been published based on the program. Dr. Binfet and his team, including graduate students, have led a number of studies on canine-assisted interventions such as measuring the impact of stress reduction on students and law enforcement members, the importance of canine cuddles and effects of virtual dog therapy.

The program continues to have a lasting impact on many, including Emma Kneller, who became involved as a handler when the program first started.

“B.A.R.K. has created a community full of laughs and joy for students, volunteers and handlers alike,” says Kneller. “B.A.R.K. has changed my life and I am sure many others as well. The joy to share my dogs with people is indescribable and I know, by watching the faces of our students, a little pat, or a scratch behind a dog’s ears goes a lot further than just making my dogs feel good.”