Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) at Colorado State University

Helen Holmquist-Johnson

Helen Holmquist-Johnson, PhD, is the Director of Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC) at Colorado State University. Her expertise includes designing, implementing, and evaluating animal-assisted interventions (AAI), and support services including training AAI volunteers and clinicians to administer interventions and use data to refine treatments. She has partnered with many federal agencies, private evaluation firms, and county and state departments to design and implement AAI interventions.

I am the Director of Human-Animal Bond in Colorado (HABIC)—and HAI Center housed in the School of Social Work at Colorado State University. HABIC has approximately 150 volunteers who provide AAI with their certified HABIC animals in various treatment settings including schools, hospitals, hospices, mental health treatment centers, and long-term care facilities. HABIC is unique because we provide the training, screening, and insurance required to volunteer in a wide variety of settings. Our volunteer Human-Animal teams typically spend one hour per week working with clients and professionals (i.e., social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, speech therapists) on therapeutic goals. In addition to AAI programs, we are currently creating an online certificate program for people wanting to learn more about the Human-Animal Bond and how to conduct AAI and relevant research.

My path leading to my current position was far from linear. In my early college education, as a lifelong animal lover, I was set on becoming a veterinarian. However, once enrolled in biology and other animal sciences courses, I quickly realized that working with sick animals was, for me, quite emotionally challenging. I knew my path would be different—that I wanted to work with healthy animals. I wanted to combine helping people with healthy animals. It was in that pursuit that I discovered the profession of social work. The core values of social work, specifically the person in the environment and strengths perspective, have always resonated with me.

After graduating with my BS in psychology I decided to explore a master’s in social work (MSW) program. I tracked down the Council on Social

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Work Education Directory of Accredited programs—a list of all potential programs of study. Flipping through the program catalog I saw, for the very first time, three words linked together. Listed under the heading Colorado State University' masters of social work were the words “Human-Animal Bond”. My eyes stopped reading and my fate was sealed. That’s exactly what I wanted to study; so I decided to pursue my' MSW at Colorado State University.

After observing HABIC therapy' sessions as a student, and writing grants in the HABIC office, I decided that I wanted to become even more involved. My husband and I were newly married with our own house so the timing was right for us to get a puppy. I had my heart set on a black Labrador retriever. I carefully' researched pedigrees and breeders with therapy' work, specifically HABIC, in mind. My' husband I were both graduate students at the time, but somehow we scraped together enough money' to make the deposit for a puppy. Several weeks later the breeder called to tell us she had nine yellow puppies. I was disappointed that my' black pup was not in the litter, but we had made our deposit and so reluctantly we went to visit the litter—-just to be sure we wanted to wait for a black pup.

Well, we all know how this scenario ends. Once again my fate was sealed as we brought home Aspen—the yellow pup who stole my heart. She grew into a skilled HABIC dog who craved the attention of children. I have so many stories about those years, but one of our most impactful moments came when a young boy' who was non-verbal and living with autism spectrum disorder spoke his first words out loud to Aspen. We were awestruck!

Words cannot adequately' express how important this work is to me. We, as social workers, know what it means and what it takes to speak on behalf of those who do not have a voice, whether it’s a dog, or people struggling to have agency' in their own lives. I consider animal-assisted therapy work, and the promotion of the human animal bond, to be my life’s work.

Career Options

The career options for social workers who are interested in combining their work with animals have increased dramatically over the last decade. Because AAI is a non-billable service, most of this work is done under the auspices of non-profit organizations; therefore, it is important to gain skills related to non-profit management. These skills include working with volunteers, donors, a board or advisory committee, fiscal management, fund-raising, grant writing, and program evaluation. With passion and in-depth knowledge of your organization you will be capable of attracting donors and community supporters who are interested in partnering with you to fulfill the mission of the organization. The American Evaluation Association ( is a valuable professional association for anyone who is looking to gain skills in the area of program evaluation. Look for degree programs that offer a certificate in non-profit management or give credit for

68 Helen Holmquist-Johnson

electives courses from schools of business or other departments teaching this curriculum.

Some current and exciting career and research opportunities that illustrate the intersection of social work and HAI include: how best to co-shelter people with animals in temporary housing and during natural disasters, grief and loss of pets, training service animals to help people with psychological or physical disabilities, the link between animal abuse and other forms of violence, ensuring welfare for animals providing assisted interventions, and providing support to underserved pet owners or those who are experiencing homelessness. Excellent resources to pursue are: the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) and Veterinary Social Work at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Animals and Society

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