Civic Engagement of Students Through Human-Animal Interactions
Alina Simona Rush
Alina Simona Rusu is a biologist and psychologist who received her PhD in natural sciences from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Currently, Alina is an associate professor at the Department of Special Education (School of Psychology and Sciences of Education, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania), where she teaches several classes. Alina is also the main coordinator of the postgraduate program “Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities for Persons with Special Needs”, which is currently the only existing academic program in the field in Romania.
I am an associate professor in the Special Education Department, School of Psychology and Sciences of Education at Babes-Bolyai University (BBU), located in the North-Western part of Romania. I have a double degree in psychology and biology and a PhD in natural sciences (animal behavior) from the University of Zurich, Switzerland. While doing my PhD research on the social behavior of wild house mice from 2000 to 2004, I had the chance to come across the field of Animal-Assisted Therapy by interacting with one of the professors in the Department of Animal Behavior, Dennis C. Turner. At that time, Dr. Turner was the President of the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations (IAHAIO) and Founder of the Institute for Applied Ethology' and Animal Psychology, Switzerland.
It was a Friday evening in 2003, when, while in the lab collecting behavioral data on mice for one of my studies, I heard the sound of many dog paws and cheerful human voices heading toward the seminar room of our Animal Behavior Department. I soon discovered that those eight people and their fluff)' dogs were attending a workshop on applied values of humananimal interactions. At that time I had no idea that animals can be included in clinical or educational practice, so I returned to my mice, but I did not stay with them too many years after that Friday. Something had definitely changed in me that day in terms of professional interests and trajectory.
Ten years later, back in Romania, after I completed an online training on Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities offered by Pet Partners in
Civic Engagement of Students Through HAI 51 collaboration with University of North Texas, US, I became the main coordinator of a postgraduate program “Animal Assisted Therapy and Activities for Persons with Special Needs”, hosted by BBU. This program is currently the only form of animal-assisted intervention academic training in Romania. Since 2013, the program has attracted more than 500 graduates from various professional fields such as: veterinary medicine, psychology, special education, physical rehabilitation, social work, primary and gymnasium education, and human medicine. In addition to this program, I also teach an animal psychology course for undergraduate students in psychology. Following the example of good practices offered years ago by Dr. Turner, in my animal psychology class, I encourage students to include their companion animals in the class activities and we always reflect in a meaningful manner on the benefits and risks associated to animal presence in the educational context. Veterinarian specialists are often invited to our classes, as well as accredited animal-assisted therapy teams, dog trainers and feline behavior counselors, so the students have the possibility to discover various animal-oriented professional directions. Even if they do not become themselves experts in animal-assisted interventions, students become aware that they can collaborate with the existent practitioners, researchers and educators in the area of human-animal interactions.
Ongoing Projects and Recommendations
While an impressive body of research exists supporting the psychophysiological benefits of human-animal interactions (HAI) on several aspects of human quality of life, I was happy to discover that there are studies indicating that the civic skills and prosocial attitudes, which are important components of social health, can be enhanced by positive HAI, especially by Humane Education programs (Komorosky & O’Neal, 2015; Arkow, 2015; Rusu, 2017). Programs that are addressing community needs in terms of HAI, such as prevention of abuse toward animals and promoting responsible ownership, have been reported to positively impact the level of empathy toward animals and toward humans of students involved in these programs (Tedeschi, Fitchett, & Molidor, 2005; Rusu & Davis, 2018). Empathy is considered a crucial component of civic engagement (Komorosky & O’Neal, 2015). I do consider that being aware of this type of research is important in building the social awareness of students and facilitating valuable networking with colleagues around the world working with volunteers and animals. Therefore, in my interactions with my students, whenever we are involved in community-oriented activities promoting the responsible ownership or targeting the awareness towards the benefits of animal presence in various institutions (special education schools, hospitals, penitentiaries etc.), I do encourage the usage of reflective practices that are based on compassion and empathy building, i.e. empathy towards people, animals and environment. In line with this, like other colleagues in the field, I support the idea that the
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inclusion of animals (from animal presence to animal-assisted therapy and social veterinary medicine) in service-learning activities has the potential to provide an enhanced educational environment for civic involvement, personal growth and development of social competencies not only in students in animal-related professions, but also in other professions focusing on helping others.
Arkow, P. (2015). Animal therapy on the community level: The impact of pets on social capital. In Handbook of animal-assisted therapy. Foundations and guidelines for animal-assisted interventions (4th ed.). Cambridge, MA: Elsevier.
Komorosky, D., & O’Neal, K. K. (2015). The development of empathy and prosocial behavior through humane education, restorative justice, and animal-assisted programs. Contemporary Justice Review, 18, 395-406.
Rusu, A. S. (2017). Constructing healthy experiences through human-animal interactions for autistic children and their families: Implications for research and education. In J. Yip (Ed.), Autism—paradigms and clinical applications (pp. 269-290). London: Tech Publisher, ISBN 978-953-51-5013-8.
Kusu, A. S., & Davis, R. (2018). Civic engagement of students through human-animal interactions: Ideas for an interdisciplinary service learning-based curriculum. CIEA 2018 Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Adult Education, Iasi, Romania, pp. 583-590.
Tedeschi, P., Fitchett, J., & Molidor, C. E. (2005). The incorporation of animal-assisted interventions in social work education. Journal of Family Social Work, 9, 59-77.