British Columbia

UBC study suggests dog therapy may help students with homesickness

A UBC study found that students who completed eight weeks of dog therapy reported greater reductions in homesickness and greater increases in satisfaction with life compared with homesick students who did not get dog therapy.

Severely homesick first-year university students are more likely to drop-out, according to researchers

A new UBC study finds that dog therapy can help intensely homesick first-year university students. (CBC)

Hanging out with a dog can help first-year university students battle intense homesickness, according to a new UBC study.

After several sessions of dog therapy, first-year students at the UBC Okanagan campus reported lower levels of homesickness, according to the study co-authored by John Tyle Binfet.

"A little bit of homesickness is a good thing. It's a catalyst to facilitate new connections and the building of new communities," Binfet told CBC's Radio West host, Audrey McKinnon. 

"But left unchecked it can really derail kids, especially around their learning, and it can contribute to isolation."

Binfet is an assistant professor of education at UBC's Okanagan campus. He also runs the campus's Building Academic Retention Through K9s (BARK) program.

UBC Okanagan assistant professor of education, John Tyler Binfet, and his dog, Francis. (Matthew Grant/UBC Okanagan)

In his study, students who completed an eight-week dog therapy program reported greater reductions in homesickness and greater increases in life satisfaction compared with homesick students who did not get dog therapy.

The findings were recently published in the journal Anthrozoos.

Binfet said he knew anecdotally that there are benefits to having dogs around.

"But, there were few sort of rigorous, randomized control trials looking at the effects of dogs, and none on homesickness," he said.

Binfet took 44 first-year students who identified as homesick and gave them a survey to measure the intensity of their homesickness, their life satisfaction and how connected they were to campus.

Half of the students were then given dog therapy while the others were told they would get the therapy in eight weeks.

Dog therapy involved attending 45-minute weekly sessions where students interacted with the dogs and their handlers, as well as with other students participating in the study.

When the eight weeks were up, students in both groups were given the survey again.

Homesick students more likely to drop out

Binfet said it's important to find ways to help students cope with homesickness because students who are intensely homesick are three times as likely to drop out while others underperform academically.

"We know that students who are settled in their happiness and appreciate being on campus actually learn better and they engage in their communities in different ways."

Binfet said that when it comes to selecting therapy dogs, not just any dog will do. He looks for dogs who aren't overtrained, have strong personalities and have a strong drive to work with people.

He said in his program, the wellbeing of the animals is at the forefront. "Dogs have good days and bad days and we'll stop sessions if the dog doesn't want to work."

With files from CBC Radio's Radio West

To listen to the segment, click on the link labelled Dog therapy helps students with homesickness, says study