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March/April 2013 Issue

The Human-Animal Connection in Social Work
By Kate Jackson
Social Work Today
Vol. 13 No. 2 P. 6

The strong bond between animals and humans is at the heart of two increasingly popular specialties in social work education: veterinary social work and animal-assisted social work. The former targets the human needs of veterinary professionals and their clients, addressing the hardships that arise from the love of animals and the toll of caring for them, while the latter marshals the transformative and potentially healing power of animals to aid in the therapeutic process.

Veterinary Social Work
The term “veterinary social work” was coined in 2002 at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville by Elizabeth Strand, PhD, to describe services provided by social workers to the university’s Veterinary Medical Center, such as grief counseling for humans facing the loss of companion animals, and counseling, communication coaching, and conflict management services for veterinary professionals overburdened by the stresses and sadness that characterize their daily responsibilities.

A pioneer in the emerging field who helped define the specialty, Strand is the founding director of veterinary social work at the Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee which, in a partnership with the university’s College of Social Work, launched a certificate program for MSW students in 2010. The four core areas of study are the link between human and animal violence, grief and loss, animal-assisted interactions, and compassion fatigue management.

Among the ways in which students put their skills to work in the field include advocating for safe havens for pets in abusive homes, developing pet loss bereavement programs, designing animal-assisted interaction programs, and helping veterinarians manage compassion fatigue. Because of the life span of the animals they treat, veterinarians experience death at a rate five times that of physicians for humans.

“We are client advocates,” says Linda L. Lawrence, LMSW, a clinical instructor at the Michigan State University School of Social Work and the coordinator of the veterinary social work services program, which helps clients of veterinary medicine professionals in a variety of ways, including helping them make and cope with difficult decisions. “We never offer advice but instead ask questions, build rapport, and try to help the clients come to their own understanding about what is best for their companion animals.”

Clarifying Misconceptions
Although the field is gaining legitimacy and becoming increasingly popular, Strand says two misconceptions persist. The first is that veterinary social work is about providing counseling and advocacy for animals. “We do acknowledge the importance, benefit, and the value of animals,” she explains, “but our target is the people, and by partnering with veterinarians and other animal-related professionals, we ensure that the animals are also being attended to.”

Of course, a love of animals might motivate social workers to explore veterinary social work, but Strand advises students who want to put animals first to explore a career in animal welfare and cautions social work students to remember their specialty is addressing the needs of people.

The other misconception is that veterinary social work occurs only in the veterinary clinic. “People have a myopic view of what veterinarians do,” Strand says, but veterinary medicine is practiced in many settings. For example, a veterinarian may be on Capitol Hill lobbying for animal welfare issues. “If the veterinarian and the social worker are working hand in hand, looking at things from a systems perspective both from the human and animal side, we consider that veterinary social work,” Strand says.

Graduates of veterinary social work programs can get placements in all traditional social work settings where they can raise awareness about the human-animal connection. Employed in a human medical setting, for example, they might address the issue of how to provide safe havens for the animals of people who have come to the hospital for treatment and have no one to care for their pets, Strand says. Or they might raise awareness by assessing whether victims of domestic violence are remaining in abusive situations because they have no one to care for their animals and by developing programs to provide such care.

Animal-Assisted Social Work
Think of animal-assisted social work and what may come to mind is a scene that’s become all too familiar in recent months. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as after 9/11, images abound of the sweet corps of golden retrievers dispatched to provide solace to victims and first responders.

But animal-assisted therapy is more than a matter of comforting individuals with the calming presence of a gentle dog. “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 cofounder 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.

Another pioneer in disciplines related to human-animal interactions, Tedeschi coordinates the school’s Animal-Assisted Social Work certificate program for MSW students, a first-of-its-kind program created in 2004 as an outgrowth of an individual course in animal-assisted social work that had been added to the curriculum just a few years before. He also coordinates the university’s Human-Animal Health Online Professional Development certificate program.

In animal-assisted interventions performed to improve the physical or mental health of human clients, the animal essentially is a go-between to help foster a relationship between a social worker and a client that will provide comfort, promote a sense of safety, and engender trust to expedite a therapeutic response.

Social workers often see people who are resistant to trust, perhaps those who have been hurt by others and who may have attachment or other disorders. With such clients, Tedeschi explains, “Animals can often be a very valuable bridge back to establishing a human relationship. They help build trust and can give people the sense that they can have positive relationships again.”

Tedeschi, who first used the term “animal-assisted social work” and created it to define and describe the certificate program at the University of Denver, encapsulates the key concept that makes animal-assisted social work possible: “Animals are among the most powerful motivators of human behavior.”

Because humans are particularly drawn to living things in the form of animals, that bond is one of the strongest motivational tools that can be used when working on the challenges that social scientists face in their intervention work, he explains. “I love the idea that if I need to encourage people with a chronic mental illness to come and get their medications, I can change the dimension of their attendance almost overnight simply by including a dog they can visit when they pick up their medications.”

Tedeschi says animal-assisted interventions are used across the human life span for myriad therapeutic purposes, such as to promote social and normative development, teach socialization skills, reduce isolation in people with illness or disability, fight obesity, combat bullying, battle PTSD, and enhance physical health. Animal-assisted social work skills might be part of the toolbox of social workers in almost any practice setting. That’s not to say each intervention should include an animal, but trained individuals can recognize situations in which animal-assisted interactions might be useful where it’s never been used before and can help train other social workers to do so.

“When our students show up at a new job and discuss their training and skills, employers are very interested,” Tedeschi says, noting that employers quickly realize that such skills become among the most effective strategies in their settings. Skilled practitioners, he says, can learn how to bring best practices into new environments that are unfamiliar with animal-assisted social work and help build “coherent policies and procedures, good safety guidelines, and ethics to support both human safety and therapeutic outcomes but also supporting the benefits to the animals.”

Just as Strand cautions students exploring veterinary social work to remember that the focus is on humans, Tedeschi, when evaluating prospective students, wants “those who want to be social workers first, not just people trying to find a way to bring their dogs to work.” The best candidate, he adds, isn’t the student who claims to like animals better than people; it’s the person invested in providing service to humans.

— Kate Jackson is an editor and freelance writer based in Milford, PA. She has written for Social Work Today on topics such as grief and loss, mental health, compassion fatigue, and the emotional aspects of illness.


For More Information
• Institute for Human-Animal Connection, University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (www.humananimalconnection.org)

• Veterinary Social Work Services, Michigan State University (http://socialwork.msu.edu/outreach/VeterinarySocialWorkServices.php)

• Veterinary Social Work, University of Tennessee (www.vet.utk.edu/socialwork/about/index.php)