Warrior Canine Connection
Photo courtesy of Warrior Canine Connection.
by Barbara Trainin Blank
It has been said that Sigmund Freud used to take his dog into sessions to encourage trust. But no matter how perceptive the father of psychoanalysis was, he probably didn’t anticipate the use of animals in social work practice.
More social workers are finding that animals are good assistants in the therapeutic process. Veterinary social work is a growing field. Additionally, social workers are being called upon to work in settings where animals and people are in crisis.
The beneficial effects of animal-assisted therapy (AAT) have been recognized since 1945, when therapy dogs were first trained to provide comfort and motivation to injured World War II soldiers. Service dogs have been reported to help people experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder with patience and better impulse and emotional control.
Animal-assisted therapy can mean many things. Social workers, counselors, and therapists may include animals to aid in a psychotherapy session. Cats, goats, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, and even rats have been used, but dogs are the most common.
Animals are sometimes taken into hospitals and hospices to lift people’s spirits. In a program like Therapy Dogs International, many of the children chosen to participate have difficulties reading and resulting self-esteem issues. They are often self-conscious in front of other classmates. But in front of a dog, the child relaxes, pats the attentive dog, and focuses on the reading. Still other reading programs use dogs—usually golden retrievers—in libraries.
Versatility of AAT
AAT can be beneficial with patients suffering from acute symptoms of disorders such as schizophrenia, personality disorders, and anxiety; in hospices to improve the quality of end-of-life care for patients; and in work with children with disabilities. It can alleviate pain in youngsters and decrease loneliness in older adult patients.
Animal-assisted interventions also can be a useful tool for social workers to teach socialization skills, combat bullying, and enhance physical health, among other therapeutic goals.
Golden retrievers were sent to provide comfort after Hurricane Sandy, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and 9/11. But animal-assisted therapy is more.
“Even the most highly trained dog is still a dog and doesn’t necessarily have the ability to pull off a therapeutic intervention,” says Philip Tedeschi, MSSW, LCSW-CO, executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, where he also is a clinical professor.
The animal essentially acts as a go-between to foster a relationship between a social worker and a client, which promotes comfort and a sense of safety to expedite the therapeutic response. “Animals can often be a valuable bridge back to establishing a human relationship,” Tedeschi says.
The Animal-Assisted Social Work Certificate offered by the University of Denver is the first of its kind in the United States. It explores the therapeutic use of animals in many types of social work practice.
AAT at NIH
The nation’s biomedical facility, National Institutes of Health, has sponsored a canine-assisted animal therapy program since 1989. Once a week, therapy dogs accompanied by their owners visit patients with life-threatening illnesses, says Ann Berger, M.D., chief of pain and palliative care at NIH’s Clinical Center. Patients who are “imminently dying“ are permitted visits from their own pets.
“Animal-assisted therapy makes a huge difference for a lot of patients,” says Berger. “It’s part of a larger program to normalize life for and add to the quality of the life of patients.”
The Children’s Inn at NIH, a residence for children undergoing treatment for life-threatening illnesses at the NIH, also has a therapy dog.
“Our mission is to reduce stress and promote healing,” says Jennie Lucca, MSW, CEO. “While NIH is taking care of the children’s medical needs, we’re taking care of their heart, soul, and spirit. A real therapy dog is a real benefit to residents.”
AAT With Veterans
Animal-assisted interventions are increasingly used with veterans. The Warrior Canine Connection piloted in 2008 at the Palo Alto Veterans Administration and has spread.
“It’s meant to be two things,” says Rick Yount, MS, LSW, executive director of the program in Brookeville, MD. “Training a service dog for a fellow Veteran with physical disabilities provides a valuable opportunity for a Warrior suffering from psychological injuries such as PTSD to reintegrate into civilian life.”
As part of their training, Warriors have the responsibility to teach the dogs that the world is a safe place. In doing so, they must convince themselves of the same. Warriors participating in the program have reported that employing positive emotions to praise their dogs has significantly improved their family dynamics.
The Warrior Canine Connection uses Labradors and golden retrievers bred for service dog work. “Professional trainers work with the vets,” says Yount.
Moreover, the vets volunteer to participate. “We explain what the dog is being trained to do and who it’s for,” Yount adds. “The vets are not going to say no to a fellow vet, even though it’s not easy training the dogs—who will be doing such difficult tasks as opening a refrigerator or riding the Metro with a disabled vet.”
Human beings have long had a love affair with horses. Maryland Therapeutic Riding (MTR), located on a 26-acre farm in Crownsville, MD, is one of many programs that tap into their “therapeutic power,” says Kelly Rodgers, program director.
MTR seeks to improve quality of life and conquer physical, developmental, and emotional health challenges—such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, ADHD, neuromuscular disorders, post-traumatic brain injury, autism, and cognitive disorders. Riders experience improved self-confidence, strength, balance, coordination, attention span, and social skills.
In the therapeutic riding component, instructors use the horse as a tool to teach riding skills and reach the rider’s individualized goals, such as increased self-esteem. Hippotherapy refers to treatment aided by a horse in a structured, one-on-one therapy session under the guidance of an occupational, physical, or speech therapist. Hippotherapy is used with people experiencing PTSD, depression, or anxiety, as well as for physical disabilities and people on the autism spectrum.
Animals and People in Crisis
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Cruelty Intervention Advocacy (CIA) program addresses situations in which owners can’t care for their animals adequately because of limited financial resources or circumstances, including domestic violence, housing restrictions, animal hoarding, lack of transportation, and medical or mental health issues.
“Our team works to resolve situations through a holistic approach, addressing the human and animal components to assist pets and pet owners,” says Caroline Jedlicka, LMSW. “In the five years since the program began, we have assisted thousands of animals and people with services, including access to spay/neuter surgery, emergency veterinary care, and pet supplies.”
Two social workers in the program work alongside animal-response professionals.
“Pet owners served by CIA come from many different and unique circumstances,” says Jedlicka. “If pet owners need linkage to social services, I make referrals to agencies, including Adult Protective Services, Child Protective Services, legal assistance, elder care, case management, and domestic violence providers.”
The Mayor’s Alliance in New York City is a public-private partnership launched in 2002 because so many animals were being placed in shelters and not coming out. It consists of more than 150 nonprofit animal shelters and rescue groups.
Recently, the Alliance published an online “toolkit” specifically created for social workers who work with people and pets in crisis—in situations of domestic violence, hoarding, homelessness, illness, and mental illness, among others.
“This is the first such resource of its kind in the nation,” says Jenny Coffey, LMSW, the toolkit’s creator. “The Alliance has already assisted in more than 1,000 cases. Fewer animals are now entering shelters, and those that do get surrendered (or abandoned) have increasingly great outcomes, including adoption.” The Helping Pets and People in Crisis Toolkit is available at: http://www.helpingpetsandpeoplenyc.org/
Veterinary Social Work and Other Educational Programs
The term “veterinary social work” was coined in 2002 at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville by Professor Elizabeth Strand, Ph.D., LCSW, founding director of the program by that name at the Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. The term describes an area of social work that attends to human needs arising in the intersection of veterinary medicine and social work practice.
Services provided by social workers to the university’s Veterinary Medical Center include grief counseling for people facing the loss of companion animals and counseling for veterinary professionals experiencing stress and sadness, possibly because they experience the death of patients frequently.
The College, in a partnership with the university’s College of Social Work, launched a certificate program for MSW students in 2010 with four core areas of study: grief and pet loss, animal-assisted interactions (in therapy), the link between human and animal violence, and compassion fatigue and conflict management. Social workers in this field must be competent in all areas, Strand points out.
“At first, the concept of veterinary social work was a foreign notion,” she says. “But just giving it a name started the process of legitimization.”
People sometimes misunderstand this field of social work, which, she points out, is “about human intervention, not animal welfare.” Her research is focused now on the high rate of suicide among veterinarians compared to the general population.
In the 1980s, researchers discovered the presence of animal abuse in the histories of renowned serial killers. Now research has expanded to look at such abuse as a form of family violence. “Individuals who are being abused delay leaving the situation to protect their pets, which have become a leverage point,” Strand says. “Moreover, where there’s abuse of animals—such as animal fighting—there tend to be other illegal and anti-social behaviors.”
There aren’t many academic veterinary social work programs, but they are growing in number and impact. The Michigan State University Veterinary Social Work Services (VSWS) program is a collaboration between the School of Social Work and the College of Veterinary Medicine.
VSWS provides emotional support and educational and referral services for clients, veterinarians, medical staff, and support staff of the MSU Small Animal Clinic, Oncology Center, and Large Animal Clinics specializing in equine, bovine, and exotic animal treatment. The Veterinary Teaching Hospital provides treatment in the same fields as human medicine.
A support group for the loss of a companion animal serves people from all over Michigan who are experiencing intense grief over the loss of a pet. The Veterinary Hospice Care provides in-home, veterinary-supported palliative care to pets so they can maintain a good quality of life until natural death or euthanasia occurs.
The Veterinary Social Work Initiative, the first of its kind in Canada, offers social work support to a range of people at the regional veterinary college and its veterinary medical center—including animal owners, clinical faculty and staff, and veterinary students.
The program, launched by the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Regina Faculty of Social Work, teaches veterinary students, interns, and residents how to incorporate social workers into their practice. The Initiative includes a large- as well as small-animal clinic.
Erin Wasson, BSW, MSW, RSW, the Initiative’s first social worker, counsels stressed clinicians; helps families deal with the death of a pet; and manages cases of traumatic grief, surprising deaths, and end-of-life decisions.
“The value of the program is that it provides services not only to people experiencing a deep relationship with their animals, but also to the veterinary community, which experiences extraordinarily high rates of empathy fatigue and of suicide,” says Wasson.
The Veterinary Wellness and Social Work Summit is an annual conference sponsored by the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (this year on November 2-3). The summit is convened by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) in response to a growing body of evidence that veterinary students experience excessive levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, which negatively affect productivity, longevity, and professional enjoyment.
The interdependence between animals and humans, as evidenced by the drawings in the Caves of Lascaux, France, and the Bible, goes back centuries. Social work is increasingly recognizing and addressing that link, to the benefit of all of us.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC, area.