Up fur de­bate

Are pet dogs on cam­pus work­ers?

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CON­TENTS - Chris.haver­gal@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Lov­able dogs are an in­creas­ingly com­mon sight on univer­sity cam­puses around exam time, with pet­ting and cud­dling ses­sions aimed at help­ing stu­dents de-stress ahead of fi­nals.

The ca­nine en­coun­ters are backed up by se­ri­ous schol­ar­ship: a Cana­dian study pub­lished last month found that such ses­sions can help stu­dents to re­duce their stress lev­els by 45 per cent.

Very lit­tle aca­demic at­ten­tion has been paid, how­ever, to the role of the dogs in such en­deav­ours – un­til now, that is.

At the an­nual con­fer­ence of the Bri­tish So­ci­o­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion, held at Northum­bria Univer­sity from 10 to 12 April, aca­demics were set to ask a ques­tion that is prob­a­bly yet to oc­cur to most hu­man at­ten­dees of on-cam­pus pooch par­ties: are the dogs tak­ing part pets or work­ers?

To an­swer this, Nickie Charles, di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of War­wick’s Cen­tre for the Study of Women and Gen­der, and Carol Wolkowitz, reader in the in­sti­tu­tion’s so­ci­ol­ogy de­part­ment, ob­served ther­apy dog vis­its and car­ried out 16 in­ter­views with dog own­ers, stu­dents and li­brary staff.

Their con­clu­sion? “They are work­ing,” Pro­fes­sor Charles told Times Higher Education. “[The dogs] have to be­have in a par­tic­u­lar way, which in­volves ef­fort.”

The im­pli­ca­tions of this find­ing might not mean much for the dogs’ em­ploy­ment rights, apart from a bumper help­ing of doggy bis­cuits. Their own­ers are vol­un­teers, af­ter all. Pro­fes­sor Charles and Dr Wolkowitz found that sev­eral of the dogs they stud­ied got ex­cited when they saw their “uni­form” be­ing read­ied or ar­rived on cam­pus – although they also dis­cov­ered that the dogs found the ses­sions quite tir­ing.

But Pro­fes­sor Charles ar­gued that at­tempt­ing to un­der­stand pet­ting ses­sions from the “dogs’ point of view” as well as the stu­dents’ could of­fer a “more multi-faceted un­der­stand­ing of the in­ter­ac­tion that’s tak­ing place”.

“There’s an ap­proach that says that an­i­mals are just there for us to put to work. It’s time we started to think more care­fully about that,” she said.

There is a les­son here not just for stu­dents and univer­si­ties or­gan­is­ing puppy pet­ting, Pro­fes­sor Charles ar­gued: her aca­demic col­leagues should take note, too.

“So­ci­eties wouldn’t be the way they are if an­i­mals were not part of them – and so­ci­ol­o­gists for a long time ig­nored that,” she said. “I think it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand the con­tri­bu­tion an­i­mals make to fully un­der­stand what so­ci­ety is about.”

Ruff guide ca­nine en­coun­ters can help stu­dents re­duce their stress lev­els

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