SRU’s animal-assisted intervention programs gaining more than just emotional support
A golden retriever named “Hamish” joined Slippery Rock University faculty and students recently at an animal-assisted intervention event for seniors at the New Castle Public Library, as participants interacted with specially trained therapy dogs.
April 11, 2022
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Tales of dogs rescuing people might not seem so waggish now that health care providers, schools and other organizations are realizing the benefits of animal-assisted intervention and therapy. Just ask Nicole Osgood, a medical social worker for the Butler Health System. Osgood earned two degrees from Slippery Rock University and a certificate in animal-assisted social work, all while learning the impact of the human-animal bond through her classes and experiences with community outreach programs.
"I was able to see how using therapy dogs implemented with social work interventions can really benefit different populations," said Osgood, '15, '21M, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in social work at SRU. "I got to see how much people changed after a day, how excited people became, and all these positive outcomes reported by administrators. I'm convinced that I should implement this in my own community and in my job."
In addition to the certificate that students can earn through the social work master's program, SRU offers undergraduates the opportunity to minor in animal-assisted interventions through the recreational therapy program.
Animal-assisted interventions is a broad term commonly used to describe the use of animals to benefit humans physically, cognitively, socially or emotionally in variety of settings and with various populations. AAI can be applied as part of crisis response for trauma victims, in prisons for inmates experiencing stress or anxiety, or as therapeutic treatments for hospital or nursing home patients.
"It is huge right now," said Yvonne Eaton-Stull, associate professor of public health and social work. "(AAI) is a growing specialization for social workers, and we're seeing agencies wanting to hire students who have this background so that they can then implement a program in their particular practice. There's definitely more need with mental health effects from the pandemic."
Eaton-Stull is a licensed clinical social worker, who, prior to becoming a professor, was the director of an outpatient mental health agency in Erie. She was charged with creating more group activities for clients, so she tried animal-assisted interventions and found success with the practice. A turning point in her career came in 2007 when she responded to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech by visiting the campus in Blacksburg, Virginia, with her yellow Labrador retriever, Maggie, to provide interventions for students coping with the crisis.
Shortly after that experience and having more people see the impact she made via news reports, Eaton-Stull was hired as the director of the counseling center at Allegheny College, where she incorporated regular animal-interventions with students there.
After joining the SRU faculty in 2015, Eaton-Stull helped implement the animal-assisted interventions minor, which now has more than 50 students, as well as the graduate certificate program that was first offered last year and includes approximately 20 students.
Students can take three of the four graduate-level animal-assisted classes to earn the certificate, which includes classes specifically designed for animal-assisted social work with different demographics, such as kids or seniors, as well as a crisis response course. SRU is one of only two colleges in the country to offer an animal-assisted interventions social work certificate.
"It's been very interesting to learn the amazing therapeutic benefits that come from the animal-assisted interventions," said Victoria Spreng, a graduate student majoring in social work from Valencia. "These interactions, whether in group sessions or for individuals, have proven to decrease stress levels and anger, improve social interactions, and (regulate) heart rate and blood pressure. We learn about all these benefits, but also how we can be incorporate (AAI) in different areas of social work or therapy."
SRU professors and students have developed and conducted outreach programs that are part of course assignments. They've hosted interventions at George Junior Republic, a residential school and treatment facilities for at-risk youths, as well as at senior care facilities and at other schools and agencies. They recently hosted a community event for seniors at the New Castle Public Library.
Spreng plans to incorporate animal-assisted interventions in her work as the executive director of The Lighthouse Foundation, a Christian outreach organization serving impoverished families in Allegheny and Butler County.
Eaton-Stull has also involved students in recent years with studies that have used animal-assisted interventions in local prisons, measuring the effects of group sessions on inmates, both male and female, who are diagnosed with anxiety, experiencing stress or susceptible to self-harm, as well as those coping with loss. She's completed four studies with a fifth on the way after it was delayed because of limited access during the pandemic.
"We're building the evidence base to demonstrate that the therapy dogs really do make a difference in people's lives," Eaton-Stull said. "For a long time, the only research that's been out there was just anecdotal things, but now we're starting to see more of that research measuring (holistic) change, and I'm just hopeful that we can continue to demonstrate that animal-assisted intervention is something to be taken seriously."
An area that creates skepticism is emotional-support animals, particularly with people trying to take their pets or exotic animals on airplanes and into other areas that cause disruptions. According to Eaton-Stull, there are three major categories of animals: 1.) service animals, which are federally protected and specially trained to perform tasks to help a person who has a disability (they are, with rare exceptions, permitted to go anywhere with their owner); 2.) emotional-support animals are used with written permission by a mental health provider, but there are no laws allowing them anywhere outside of a person's residence; and 3.) therapy animals, which, like service dogs, are specially trained, but they provide psychological or physiological treatments to individuals other than their handlers in a variety of settings.
"Some airlines might have allowances for an emotional-support animal because flying could be anxiety provoking, but people have pushed the envelope and are abusing the system," Eaton-Stull said. "(Whereas) therapy dogs, and specifically crisis-response dogs, must be trained and their owners certified. In crisis-response situations, the dogs need to be comfortable with sirens and crowds and all sorts of environments that can be overstimulating to untrained dogs."
Four SRU students earned national certification through HOPE Animal-Assisted Crisis Response, joining an elite team of approximately 300 people in the U.S. who are certified to respond to crises and disasters by providing animal-assisted comfort and support to people impacted.
In addition to using Eaton-Stull's black lab/beagle mix, named "Chevy," SRU students have used trained therapy dogs from the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, an organization that provides testing, certification, registration, support and insurance for members who volunteer with dogs to visit hospitals, schools, nursing homes and other facilities.
Osgood, who as an SRU student was a self-proclaimed cat lover, is now "100% a dog person" and she recently become the owner of a pitbull/dachshund mix named "Howie" that is currently going through training to become a therapy dog.
"SRU is great because it's one of the only schools in the country that offers a certificate in animal-assisted interventions," Osgood said. "I'm confident that I received the best education that I can and it puts me ahead of others (who work in the field of social work)."
Osgood is in the process of getting approval to use animal-assisted therapeutic intervention at Butler Hospital. She previously had Eaton-Stull and crisis-response dogs come to the hospital during the pandemic to help with nurses and staff coping with stress and anxiety.
"That was a big eye-opener for administration to see the benefits that it could have, and we do have a therapy dog in training right now that is working at the outpatient center," Osgood said. "But we have a lot of other patients, especially those who suffered strokes and often deal with depression, and just implementing a dog with therapy, like having patients holding a leash or throwing a ball to a dog, can boost their confidence."
Eaton-Stull continues to see the practice grow and gain acceptance, which bodes well for students in the program, providers in the community, and, most of all, people who benefit from the animal-human bond.
"Whenever schools or what whatever agency sees animal-assisted interventions put into practice, they're sold on the benefits," Eaton-Stull said. "It never fails to amaze me."
More information about SRU's animal-assisted social work certificate and minor in animal-assisted interventions is available on the University's website, or by contacting Eaton-Stull at 724.738.2619 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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