Mutual Rescue: From Multiple Sclerosis to Working With Therapy Dogs in Education

Diana Peiia Gil

Diana Pena Gil graduated with an MS in pedagogy from the Complutense University of Madrid, and is currently working on her PhD as a research staff in training at the Faculty of Education. Diana also collaborates with different companies in the design and evaluation of programs of animal-assisted interventions to improve the quality of life of people.

It is curious how I began to be interested in the effects that animals, specifically dogs, can have on people. I was 19 years old at the time, scheduled to take the competency test needed to obtain my credentials to do canine assisted search and rescue work in the mountains. One afternoon, however, I started feeling dizzy and seeing double. Two weeks later I got the diagnosis: I had multiple sclerosis. This diagnosis nullified the possibility of entering the rescue association, so I found myself without a future and with a disease that I knew little about.

It was during this low time that my parents decided to give me the opportunity I had long desired: let me adopt a dog. I had always wanted a dog, but my parents always refused saying it was a big responsibility to have a well-trained dog. Over the years, I have come to understand and appreciate their decisions.

Visiting animal shelters, looking for my dog, fate intervened and Skot appeared. He was my first therapy dog, a mix breed of German shorthaired pointer and Great Dane who radically changed my life. The first months were what marked my destiny. I realized how Skot impacted me, making me more social, cheerful, and even more physically healthy. As a result, I started reading books and researching.

I decided to return to the academic world and study pedagogy and the benefits of human-animal interactions (HAI). I also took advantage of other forms of training including dog-assisted therapy, dog behavior, and animal welfare—learning and deepening my appreciation for the HAI field. It was during this time that I discovered Skot s potential as a therapy dog. He had always loved being surrounded by people, and his size and temperament were perfect for the job.

70 Diana Peña Gil

Together with Skot, I began volunteering at animal shelters and dog-assisted therapy programs. After that, I had my first HAI-related paying job opportunity. I formed an association of dog-assisted interventions with some colleagues and for a year we facilitated HAI programs in nursing homes, schools, and special education centers. But I needed more; I wanted a deeper understanding of human-animal interactions. I returned to the university, and after completing a master’s degree in educational guidance I began working on my doctorate degree in education. I am currently about to finish my PhD, and am proud to be the first person in Spain to include therapy dogs within university classrooms.

My day-to-day schedule involves teaching every morning, accompanied by my new therapy dog (Skot retired in 2019). In my classes, I encourage students to see human-animal interactions as an educational possibility. In the afternoons I work on research and train dogs. It is a fantastic schedule, although sometimes it is exhausting.

I love my current position. I have been able to successfully combine the two things that I like most in the world—education and dogs. However, not everything is positive, and there are significant challenges. Spain is a country that, although advancing in the field of human-animal interactions, still has a long way to go. Bureaucratic struggles, financial problems, and job stability are three prevalent challenges.

When people ask me about career decisions, I always answer them with another question: will the proposed path reward and satisfy you? It is not an easy question and it varies according to each person. If someone wants to find out if the area of human-animal interactions is something they should pursue, my recommendations are the following:

  • • Research the subject and reach out to the people in the field who interest you. You will be surprised how many people will respond positively.
  • • Volunteer for an animal shelter and in an animal-assisted intervention program. You will find a different vision.
  • • Take time to think about what you could do every day of your life without getting tired or bored and if it includes animals.
  • • Do not give up; realize that the road can be hard, but the rewards can be plentiful.

Getting in the HABIT: Bringing Animal Assisted Interventions to Victims of Crime

Bethanie A. Poe

Bethanie A. Poe, PhD, LMSW, graduated from the University of Tennessee s (UT) College of Social Work’s PhD program and was a fellow in UT’s Veterinary Social Work program where she helped to develop the Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program for concurrent and post-graduate students. Bethanie is currently the Middle Tennessee Coordinator for UT’s Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee (HABIT) program where she helps offer animal assisted interventions to victims of violence, abuse, and neglect.

Human-Animal Bond in Tennessee (HABIT) is a volunteer-based animal assisted intervention program sponsored by the University of Tennessee (UT) College of Veterinary Medicine. Started in 1986 by veterinarian Dr. John New, HABIT coordinates volunteers with medically and behav-iorally screened dogs, cats, and rabbits with agencies that want visits from therapy animals. HABIT volunteer teams routinely visit hospitals, schools, courts, assisted living facilities, and many other types of agencies; we even have volunteers who visit accountants during tax season! As of this writing, HABIT has over 600 volunteer handler-animal teams and approximately 300 facilities that receive HABIT visits.

While HABIT thrived since its creation, it had been limited to East Tennessee. That changed in 2018 when the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs (OJCP) approached HABIT with an interesting proposition. OCJP wanted to bring the potential benefits of animal-assisted interventions into agencies that serve victims of crime, specifically survivors of domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse in Middle Tennessee. To accomplish this goal, a Middle Tennessee HABIT coordinator position was created, funded through the Crime Victim’s Fund established by the Victims of Crime Act.

It turned out that I was uniquely qualified for this job which requires knowledge of not only animal assisted interventions but also victims’ related services. I earned my master’s and PhD at the University of Tennessee with a focus in veterinary social work. Veterinary social work is a specialized area of social work practice that branches into four general practice areas: animal

72 Bethaiüe A. Poe related grief and bereavement; animal-assisted interventions; compassion fatigue and conflict management; and the Link between human and animal violence, which became my area of expertise. At this point in my career, I had experience working in child welfare and domestic violence, including employment with a statewide coalition, which meant I have a good working knowledge of the victim services agencies available. Conveniently, I was also living in the geographic area targeted by the grant and was able to hit the ground running.

As the Middle Tennessee HABIT Coordinator, I am responsible for the day-to-day development and administration of the program in that part of the state, which means I don’t have “typical days”. Recruitment of volunteers with suitable animals as well as agencies who would like to have HABIT volunteers visit has been my greatest priority. I regularly host information meetings for potential volunteers and agency representatives, table local events, attend professional meetings, and speak at conferences. Evening or weekend events are common so people who work during the day are able to attend, leading me to flex my time. Comfortable weather is needed for local pet-related outdoor events so late spring and early fall are particularly busy.

Once I have recruited new volunteers, I observe their animal evaluations and, assuming they pass, their first visits. 1 spend quite a bit of time driving, mostly around Nashville and the surrounding counties. Then, there’s the paperwork. The HABIT program itself requires several forms including volunteer applications, behavior profiles, medical forms, registry check, and forms acknowledging duties as mandatory reporters of abuse as a way of documenting suitability and allowing the volunteers to be covered by our liability insurance. Meeting state and federal grant funding requirements entails a great deal more, and I am responsible for our data management and meeting quarterly reporting deadlines.

Growth of HABIT in Middle Tennessee has been steady, but slow. While HABIT has the advantage of name recognition in East Tennessee due to its longevity and good reputation, that is not the case in this region of the state. Networking, marketing, and publicity are a much larger portion of my job than I anticipated. Additionally, while most victim service agencies recognize the potential benefit of having therapy animal visits, many find the idea of adding another project on to an already full plate to be overwhelming. Bringing agencies on board often involves several meetings with different levels of agency staff and administration and a lot of back and forth communication to make sure the program is implemented as smoothly as possible. Communication skills, both oral and written, are absolutely crucial in this position as well as comfort with public speaking.

While the HABIT program has been in Middle Tennessee for a relatively short period of time, we can already see the impact we’re making. Our HABIT teams have helped a client come out of a panic attack which let them continue talking to an advocate; listened to the child of a homicide

Getting in the HABIT 73 victim talk about her “mommy who is in heaven;” and calmed angry teenaged boys living in residential group homes. Our HABIT dogs’ ears have soaked up the tears of people who are having the worst day of their lives and helped them move forward with a smile.

To practice ethically and to advance the field, we need practitioners who are educated in evidence-based AA1 practices and who can contribute to that evidence base through research. UT Veterinary Social Work ( started the first veterinary social work certificate program, and other universities are developing programs like it. It is my hope that as the field becomes more recognized, AAI programs will be considered an essential part of a well-rounded, trauma-informed approach to working with people.

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