Canines, Equines, and Social Work

Heather White

Heather White, LMSW, is the owner of AIM HAI, LLC, an animal-assisted interactions consulting company. She is a professional dog trainer and mental health professional and was the Director of Programs and Training and an executive trainer at The Good Dog Foundation for several years. Heather holds a certificate in Animals and Human Health and Equine-Assisted Mental Health through the University of Denvers Institute for Human Animal Connection, a certificate in Treating Animal Abuse through Arizona State University, and a certificate in Veterinary Social Work through the University of Tennessee.

I’ve been an animal lover for as long as I can remember; little did I know this childhood love would grow into my current professional journey. I began a career in the field of human-animal interactions first as a professional dog trainer, followed by studies in Social Work. Social Work offered me the ability to combine my interests in social justice, equality; and of course, humananimal interactions. I was afforded the opportunity to advance my skills in both dog training and human-animal interactions in my work at a therapy dog organization while completing my master’s degree in social work through Hunter College. During that time, I also completed the Animals and Human Health Certificate program through the University of Denvers Institute for Human Animal Connection, a thorough and well-developed foundation program. From there, 1 completed a program through Arizona State University, becoming familiar with the AniCare and AniCare Child models of working with those who have abused animals. Each opportunity' for learning offered reinforcement and motivation for me that I had found a field that matched my interests and values.

My next step was completing the University' of Tennessee’s Veterinary Social Work (UT VSW) certificate program. This training pertains to multiple aspects of human-animal interactions, including Animal-Assisted Interactions, the link between human and animal violence, mediation and managing conflict, and compassion fatigue involved in human-animal interactions. UT’s VSW program also focuses on animal-related grief and bereavement. It was during this coursework, that I began working at a local equestrian center focused on therapeutic riding and ground-based activities and was introduced to the myriad of methods, training, husbandly, and considerations involved in working with equines in a therapeutic capacity.

After completing my coursework in the VSW program, I came across the University of Denver’s Equine-Assisted Mental Health Practitioner Program (EAMH). In this program, I gained a deeper understanding of equine ethology, animal welfare, the importance of trauma-informed care, professional competencies, and a greater picture of the field of professional mental health practice incorporating equines. I appreciated the carefully curated content and delivery focused on interpersonal awareness alongside ethological awareness. I also became involved with several other equine-assisted certifications and trainings and while I enjoyed many of them, the university-based programs have been the most beneficial educational experiences for me. It was in the EAMH program that the mental health practitioner aspect came full circle for me and re-engaged my desire to pursue additional education and experience in psychotherapy and Social Work.

In working towards my doctorate in social work and furthering my own knowledge base, I offer consultation and professional educational services to agencies, organizations, and individuals in the health and human services professions who are looking to incorporate human-animal interactions programming. The focus of these programs is always on mutually beneficial outcomes for the humans as well as the animals involved.

The best and most rewarding aspect of the jobs I have had is that no two days are ever the same. Its wonderful to have the opportunity to engage in interactions that are beneficial for all involved. It’s also a great benefit that often times working with animals brings us outside of traditional work environments to a much more expansive outdoors work environment.

When it comes to workload and work/life balance, my workdays tend to be longer and involve non-traditional hours. Weekends easily become workdays, which feed into work weeks and before I know it, I’ve worked 20 days straight without a day away. You can definitely take this type of work home with you, planning ahead for tomorrow, emailing or texting with coworkers during off-hours, etc. I have worked remotely during vacations, and many nights on a laptop in an airport, hotel, or conference. An incredibly important aspect of any healthy work-life balance is to make sure to make time for yourself—something with which I still struggle. Finding an employer who understands a healthy work-life balance and follows it themselves is essential.

Other advice I would offer is to go to HAI related conferences and join networking groups to learn more and get involved. It’s important to continue the journey of learning, not solely within one organization, but understanding human-animal interactions on a global scale.

As the field grows, there continues to be a well-defined separation between animal-assisted activities vs. psychotherapy practice incorporating

Canines, Equines, and Social Work 185 animals. A correlating challenge is establishing competency standards for individuals involved in the field, guided by the ethics, education, profession, licensure, etc. of the specific discipline.

The field of human-animal interactions continues to expand at a rapid pace with professional roles within psychology, physiology; and education beginning to become more well-defined and organized. There is room for professionals from all lines of education and training to be involved in HAI work. It has truly been a pleasure to work within this growing field and meeting so many truly talented, educated, experienced people along the way. If it weren’t for these individuals with immense vision, the field would not be what it is today. As long as humans and animals walk this world together, we will continue to evolve and grow in countless ways—we’re interconnected.

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