What does it take to be a BARK dog-handler team?

Photo by Adam Lauzé
Photo by Adam Lauzé

A special B.A.R.K. (Building Academic Retention Through K9's) session was held on Sunday, October 6, 2019, where students were invited to help evaluate new dogs and handlers.

This session was held in the Innovative Learning Centre, EME 1123, and formatted just like the regular drop-in sessions, but the tone of the event was different. For new dogs and handlers, it was an opportunity to meet UBCO students for the first time.

The four assessment sessions are structured at the start of each school year to help dogs and handlers integrate smoothly into the B.A.R.K. program. The fourth session, which is the mock session, is a fantastic opportunity for regular B.A.R.K. visitors to contribute to the program by providing feedback about the new dog-handler teams.

Throughout the four sessions, typically held in September and October, the dog-handler teams are rigorously assessed by experienced raters based on B.A.R.K.’s assessment criteria. Dogs who show potential spend their training practicing key scenarios and learning what it takes to be a therapy dog.

After passing through assessment and training, the new dog-handler teams go through a four to eight month internship period where they attend abbreviated visits of regular drop-in sessions.

Photo by Adam Lauzé
Photo by Adam Lauzé

Freya Green, the coordinator of the B.A.R.K. program, told The Phoenix that an important part of the assessment process is ensuring that new dogs can handle the B.A.R.K. environment without feeling distressed. Even after dogs pass through training, they are continually monitored for signs of stress throughout their time at B.A.R.K.

Green commented on the goal of the B.A.R.K. program:
“Here at B.A.R.K. one of our main roles is to support student wellbeing, but we also really want to have a program wherein everyone – students, staff/faculty, dogs and handlers – can thrive and feel welcome.”

Currently, B.A.R.K. has 60 dog-handler teams. Each year, students, staff, and community members apply to become B.A.R.K. handlers. Green, who already has a waitlist for next year’s intake, says that meeting all of the new handlers, dogs, and students is one of her favourite parts of her role as coordinator.

B.A.R.K. has a holistic approach when it comes to selecting new dogs and handlers for training. This means that there is not a set list of breeds or an age cutoff that they follow. Instead, they are focused on the aptness of teams and the needs of the program.

B.A.R.K.’s training and assessment model is different than traditional training models. It ensures that the most suitable dogs are selected, which is part of the reason why the program is so successful at UBCO.