II Academic—With Clinical Work

Insights From a Late Bloomer in the Field of Human-Animal Interactions

Bloomer in the Field

of Human-Animal

Interactions

John-Tyler Binfet

John-Tyler Binfet, PhD, is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus. He is a leading researcher on school kindness, and his work strives to uncover how children, adolescents, and educators understand kindness in school and what they do to demonstrate kindness. In addition to his work on kindness, John-Tyler is the Founder and Director of UBC’s dog therapy program “B.A.K.K.”

I have, perhaps, an unusual trajectory to landing a job in academia at a research-intensive university where 1 am a researcher in the fields of human-animal interactions (HAI) and child development. At the ripe age of 48, I began a tenure-track position at the University of British Columbia (UBC), having completed a Ph.D. as a young person but having had my career take a backseat to that of my spouse. As a former public school teacher and counsellor, I was well versed in all things education and having a Ph.D. in educational and counselling psychology' and special education helped me in landing a fast-paced job at an age when many folks are beginning to wind down their careers. Trained in adolescent moral development, little did I know the freedom I had to carve out new and innovative research topics as a new faculty member. Now, as a tenured, associate professor I maintain two research streams: 1) exploring the effects of canine-assisted interventions (CAIs) on undergraduate student well-being; and 2) exploring children and adolescents’conceptualizations of kindness at school. I publish almost equally on both topics and run an alternate cycle whereby one year I submit a grant on one topic and conduct a study on the other topic and then switch the following year.

Having been a community handler with my own therapy dog back in California, I was familiar with CAIs and the ins and outs of volunteering with my dog. Upon arrival to UBC, I’d bring my dog with me to the office and as I’d walk across campus to get coffee each morning, I would be besieged by students—students who, for the most part, barely acknowledged me—but immediately began talking to and interacting with my dog. These students would eventually look up and with tear-filled eyes tell me that as

62 John-Tyler Binfet

much as they missed their parents, they missed their dog more. I knew then that there was a strong need for a canine program on campus to meet students’ social and emotional needs.

This was the beginning ofUBC’s “Building Academic Retention through K9s” or B.A.R.K. program (www.barkubc.ca), a robust on-campus program with over 60 credentialed dog-handler teams. We now have two different weekly in-person programs to support student well-being, a virtual canine comfort program, and a program at the local police detachment to support officer and staff stress reduction. The B.A.R.K. office employs a part-time program coordinator and several research assistants, and offers mentorship to 30 undergraduate student volunteers each year.

In my role as the Director of B.A.R.K., my time is spent overseeing operations and the delivery of programs, supervising personnel, and designing and running studies. As UBC runs on a semester system, B.A.R.K. programming is especially busy in the fall and winter after which we turn our attention to the screening and training of volunteer dog-handler teams. We credential our own teams using a rigorous process developed in B.A.R.K. that involves a handler orientation, practice training sessions, a formal assessment, and an internship before teams can be accepted for work on behalf of B.A.R.K. We do no recruitment of volunteers and typically have a waitlist of potential handlers seeking to participate in our screening process.

The most rewarding aspects of my job are grounded in the interactions I’m privileged to witness and be a part of each day—interactions where a psychologically fragile student who is withdrawn comes to life during interactions with the B.A.R.K. dogs. Post-hoc notes or emails, sometimes long after a student has graduated, telling me of the role the dogs played in their life remind me of the important work I'm doing. Challenges in running a large program include preventing overcrowding in sessions, monitoring student and canine welfare, and running studies whose findings hold potential to advance our scientific understanding of the role dogs play in promoting well-being.

Who Is Well-Suited to Doing This Kind of Work?

One of the challenges for researchers working in the field of HAI, especially for those who investigate the effects of interactions between humans and animals, is that they must have expertise and scientific proficiency in both human and animal domains. The complexities of designing and running interventions studies require straddling two distinct, yet mutually-informing worlds. One must have a keen interest in, and strong foundational knowledge of both humans and animals, and this may not be necessarily easy to cultivate or come by. In addition, researchers must also have in-depth knowledge of research methodology (typically initiated in one’s undergraduate and graduate coursework). Last, I feel strongly that researchers working in HAI must have a sense of what it is like to be a volunteer in a program

Insights From a Lite Bloomer in HAI 63 (e.g., a canine handler in a CAI) so they are able to understand the nuanced behaviors and interactions that can inform policy guidelines around program delivery.

Undergraduate students keen on working in the field of HAI are encouraged to gain experience through volunteering—whether on-campus or in community-based programs. Both undergraduate and graduate students are also encouraged to volunteer for research projects conducted on their campus, either as volunteers or as hired research assistants.

 
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