Photo by Maggie Wilson/ The Phoenix News
Photo by Maggie Wilson/ The Phoenix News

B.A.R.K is a relatively new program at UBCO and focusses on reducing stress in students and awareness in pet ownership

The common case is that when adopting or buying an animal, people want a young puppy or kitten, and not an older pet and that’s why they turn to breeders or a pet store. The reality is that many pet stores get their animals from puppy mills or breeders. Millions of animals are put down at adoption centers and shelters every year because they were not adopted, shelters have many puppies and kittens that have been rescued from off the streets, bad situations, or owners surrendered them, and they all need a good home. Many pets that end up in a pet shelter are domesticated adult dogs or cats that have already been trained, which make the perfect companion, and there are animal health care providers at shelters such as the BCSPCA that ensure the pet is in good health before you take it home.

Now that you know that the animals in shelters and adoption centers are just as adoptable the same as the ones in the pet store, you can decide what industry and initiative you would rather support.

The pets at the adoption shelters are scared, lonely, probably missing their previous owner and human companionship, and just want to go to a good home. There are too many perfectly healthy, adoptable animals that are being put down every year because of ‘mass-producing’ animals. If you are searching for a particular type of dog there are shelters and rescue centers for certain types of animals, and databases where you can search for your perfect fit.

On campus we are lucky to have the option to interact with dogs if we aren’t able to have one of our own or are missing yours back home. You’ve undoubtedly seen Dr. John-Tyler Binfet and his lovely dog Frances around campus. Dr. Binfet is the Director of a program here at UBCO called B.A.R.K. and is a faculty member in the department of Education. B.A.R.K. stands for Building Academic Retention through K9’s, and Dr. Binfet’s research examines the effects of animal-assisted therapy on stress and homesickness. He is also known for his research on kindness, and works with local school districts to better understand how students and teachers enact kindness in schools.

I was able to interview Dr. Binfet about his thoughts and experiences, and the responsibilities that come with owning a dog. When asked his thoughts about taking home a pet by adoption versus breeder/pet store, Dr. Binfet answered, “My views on this topic are strong and are informed by years working with dogs and regular trips to high-kill shelters, where perfectly adoptable dogs are euthanized because homes are unavailable. Many folks make assumptions around behavior, and think buying a purebred or designer dog will ensure fewer behavior issues. That’s certainly not the case in my experience, and one of the things we’re doing at B.A.R.K. is showcasing the wonderful temperaments of mutts, many of whom were rescued rather than purchased”.

Dr. Binfet conveys that sharing your life with a pet favorably impacts individual’s physical and mental health, as well as their social ‘connectedness’. He has seen this in the randomized controlled trials done in B.A.R.K. where, from pre-to-post-test, students report significant reductions in stress and homesickness and significant increases in their ‘campus affinity’.

I asked Dr. Binfet if he would recommend students adopting a pet of their own, and he answered, “This is a tough one. I always had a rescued dog and cat as a student, and it was not always easy I’ll admit. Though the rewards can be pretty fantastic, the responsibility for students, especially financially, can be daunting. Certainly a pressing challenge would be to juggle one’s schedule, as long hours in classes and the library isn’t conducive to having a pet. The solution isn’t to bring your dog to campus either or leave them in your vehicle while in class.”

If your lifestyle isn’t appropriate just yet to adopt a dog, B.A.R.K. offers time for students to interact with dogs without any of the commitment. The B.A.R.K. dogs here at UBCO, seen wearing their red therapy vests, have all undergone assessments to ensure that their temperament is well-suited to public work.

Here at UBCO, we are fortunate to have upper administration who support innovations such as B.A.R.K. “When I arrived from Los Angeles and pitched that I wanted to bring 40 therapy dogs to campus, you can imagine that I was met with not just curious glances, but outright opposition. B.A.R.K. is now in its 4th year, employs undergraduate and graduate research assistants, draws over 45 community members and their dogs to campus each week, and provides support to students seeking to reduce stress and feel more connection to the campus community” answered Dr. Binfet, when asked how B.A.R.K. was started.

Last year, over 2,500 students made use of the Drop-In and BARK2GO programs. “I regularly hear from students ‘How can I volunteer with B.A.R.K.?’, and as the director of B.A.R.K. I realize how fortunate I am to have simply outstanding student volunteers who give countless hours to helping organize and run programs.” The best way to become a volunteer, Dr. Binfet explains, is by attending B.A.R.K. sessions, getting to know folks in the B.A.R.K. community, and to let your intentions to join the team be known. “B.A.R.K. is a great launching pad with volunteer students moving on to honors work, graduate studies, and medical school. One of B.A.R.K.’s former volunteers is interviewing this week for entry to veterinary college!”  The best way to find out about B.A.R.K. is to follow them on Facebook, BARK UBCO, and to visit their website for updates.

If adopting a pet is something you are seriously considering, and want to support a rescue or adoption centre, Dr. Binfet has some organizations he recommends. “We’re fortunate in Kelowna to be home of a wonderful rescue group called Paws it Forward,, who facilitate the adoptions of countless at-risk dogs from high-risk situations e.g., neglect, and high-kill shelters. Many of the dogs who work in B.A.R.K. were adopted through Paws it Forward and the BCSPCA. Students thinking of adopting a dog might consider starting with these groups.