Out of the Box & In the Pasture by Angela Fournier, Jennifer Laitala & Elizabeth Letson

Angela Fournier
From left to right: Angela Fournier, PhD, professor in the Department of Psychology at Bemidji State University; Elizabeth Letson, MS, owner of Eagle Vista Ranch & Wellness Center; and Jennifer Laitala, BA, author, photographer, and equine specialist.

“This is just like my life,” the client[i] said, as she pulled on the lead rope in an attempt to get the horse to move with her through the obstacle course. The tall brown horse didn’t move. A few minutes later, she let go of the lead rope and stood quietly in front of the horse.  “I’m stuck. I can’t get this horse to move. He doesn’t want to go,” she said as she looked toward the facilitation team.

The facilitators (a mental health professional and an equine specialist) stood in the outdoor arena during the client’s equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) session and held the space while she worked on her activity.  At that moment, though, the client quietly stood next to the horse and looked toward the two facilitators like she was waiting for an answer to an unasked question.  After a long pause, the mental health professional asked, “What’s happening?”  The client responded by gesturing toward the horse and saying, “This is my courage.”

The client was a woman who came to the facility on a weekly basis to work through a traumatic event that had left her feeling anxious and depressed. A few months earlier, she had heard about a therapy practice that involved horses. She loved animals, but had never spent time around horses. In fact, she mentioned that the large animals scared her a little bit. Nonetheless, she was curious and wanted to give EAP a try.

The client spent a few of her first sessions outside in the pasture watching the horses from a distance. Anger. Fear. Triggers. All were present those days. A few of her goals were to be able to write or journal about the trauma, to work through triggers, and move forward with her life.  As the sessions progressed, she spent more time out in the pasture, grooming the horses and writing in her journal. One day she shared her story with a horse, the tallest and biggest horse in the herd.

“This horse represents my courage, because I feel stuck and I can’t seem to get started,” she said in response to the facilitator’s question. The client stood next to the horse she named Courage. She held the lead rope in one hand and a crumpled piece of paper in the other.  The client’s goal for the current session was to work on letting go.  She had journaled about some past events in her life that she felt were preventing her from working through her recent trauma. She had torn that particular page from the journal, and was ready to “put it in the past.”

ANGELA FIG 1When asked what it might look like to heal from her trauma, she built an obstacle course with three barrels, a small wooden bridge, orange cones, and at the end of the course was an orange bucket (see Figure 1). She labeled the barrels trust, fear, and family; the bridge was healing; and the bucket was the past.  Her task was to bring a horse along with her as she navigated through the obstacles and drop her journal entry into the past.

Figure 2For several minutes, the client stood in silence. Behind her was a representation of her life and the past bucket. In front of her was Courage, tall and still. While the two stood “stuck” at the beginning of the course, a small brown horse and a small white horse walked through the course and in the direction of the past. They stopped at the fears barrel. Courage began moving through the course, stopping at the same barrel. Seeing all three horses at the barrel, the client began to cry. She explained that the two small horses were like her worries, always there, sneaking in, nagging at her, feeding her fears and holding her back. Specifically, she worried about being good enough – good enough at work and at home, good enough for her family and her friends. She looked at the small horses – her Worries – and noticed Courage had begun nudging at them.  She started to smile and pointed out that Courage was larger than both Worries combined (see Figure 2); Courage could push the Worries away if he wanted to.

 The client approached Courage, unclipped the lead rope, took off his halter, and dropped it on the ground.  After a moment, Courage moved toward the Worries. The client stood with the crumpled paper in her hand as Courage nipped at the Worries, which moved quickly, and shuffled out of the course completely. Courage continued through the course to the past. He stuck his head into the past and tipped it on its side.

Fig 3

The client walked toward the past, moving steadily through trust, fear, and family.  As she approached the past, she paused for a moment.  She set the past upright, dropped the crumpled paper in, and walked away. When processing with the facilitation team, she noted that each time she had visited the ranch previously, she had focused on getting closer to Courage. She hadn’t even noticed the Worries in the pasture, even though they had always been there, following her around. She realized the Worries had been with her even before the trauma and were impeding her path to healing. She set a goal to spend time with the Worries in her next session, hoping to better understand them and get them under control. As she was talking, she looked at her course and noticed that from a certain angle, everything was lined up behind the family barrel, and she couldn’t even see the past (Figure 3). She smiled.

Thinking Outside the Box in Psychotherapy

This is an example of EAP, following the model of the equine-assisted growth and learning association (eagala). A mental health specialist and an equine specialist partner with horses to help clients find their own solutions. Engaging with horses in ground-based activities results in metaphors; the horses, props, and surroundings become symbols in the client’s story (eagala, 2015; Thomas & Lytle, 2016). Rather than talking explicitly about internal factors (e.g., thoughts, feelings), the client engages authentically with the external environment and internal factors become evident. EAP is an out-of-the-box way to inform and engage the therapeutic process. Clients can become aware of influencing factors (e.g., the Worries) and enact change (e.g., reframe the Worries as much smaller than Courage). This treatment can be a powerful modality for the therapeutic process. The client in this story could be undergoing cognitive-behavioral therapy, with adjunctive eagala sessions aimed at identifying and working through maladaptive thought and behavior patterns. In this way, the client participates in an empirically-supported treatment (i.e., cognitive-behavioral therapy) supplemented with an animal-assisted component. EAP is an out-of-the-box way to inform and engage the therapeutic process.

Developing the Evidence Base

The evidence base for EAP is still developing. Reviews of the literature indicate equine-related treatments can result in positive outcomes (e.g., Selby & Smith-Osborne, 2013). Meta-analyses on animal-assisted therapies in general reveal moderate effect sizes, suggesting therapy incorporating animals has beneficial effects (Nimer & Lundahl, 2007).  However, the research has a variety of limitations that must be addressed through more rigorous means (Anestis, Anestis, Zawilinski, Hopkins, & Lilienfeld, 2014).

While research has been conducted using experimental methods to test a specific EAP treatment with a specific patient population (e.g., Nurenberg et al., 2014), the literature is largely based on descriptions of applied research; investigators gather data on an EAP program happening in the real world (e.g., Kaiser, Spence, Lavergne, & Vanden Bosch, 2004; Trotter, Chandler, Goodwin-Bond, & Casey, 2008). Such real-world experiences offer limited opportunities for experimental manipulation and control. In fact, a recent meta-analysis found that most studies on EAP had no control group (i.e., Anestis et al., 2014). Furthermore, most studies to date have examined the outcomes of the treatment (e.g., did symptoms improve? did behavior change?). Concerns about developing the evidence base also call for theory development; we need to understand the therapeutic process itself. This requires looking more broadly, at human-animal interaction (HAI) in general, rather than focusing solely on the outcomes of anima-assisted therapies. Therefore, we are calling for researchers to get creative and think outside the box when studying animal-assisted therapies.

Figure 4Shift toward basic research. We are studying the short-term effects of brief, unstructured interactions on healthy undergraduate psychology students. Yes, laboratory research with healthy adults is quite different than animal-assisted therapy with a real client and thus has certain limitations to external validity. But in return, we can control for some of the threats to internal validity that hinder research in our field. Once the basic phenomena are understood, we can test them in more generalizable situations. Figure 4 shows researchers observing and recording volunteer participants while interacting with a dog in the laboratory. The laboratory has worked well to study HAI with smaller companion animals; we’ve worked with dogs, cats, rabbits, rats, and even a hedgehog named Whimsy.

Pasture as laboratory. For larger animals, the confines of a traditional laboratory are FIgure 5inappropriate. So we’ve partnered with Eagle Vista Ranch & Wellness Center, a local private practice incorporating EAP. On days when there are no clients booked, we turn the pasture into a laboratory, studying the basic phenomena of HAI with horses. Figure 5 shows student participants in a pilot study being observed by a researcher. Using the pasture as a laboratory to study healthy student participants in their interactions with horses allows us to control for some of the myriad of variables that differ between an office session and an eagala session. Beyond interaction with horses, this therapy includes an outdoor setting, experiential approach, two facilitators, and novelty, each of which can contribute to any differences found between eagala sessions and traditional psychotherapy.

HAI as a continuous variable. In both Figures 4 and 5, the researchers are recording human and animal behavior using the Human-Animal Interaction Scale (HAIS) (Fournier, Berry, Letson, & Chanen, 2016; Fournier, Letson, & Berry, 2017), which is connected to a second limitation of HAI research to date – the field is limited by HAI being studied as a categorical variable. Clients or patients who receive animal-assisted therapy are compared with those who do not (e.g., Klontz, Bivens, Leinart, & Klontz, 2007). But perhaps there can be varying quantities of HAI and those varying quantities could have differential effects. The HAIS is an instrument designed to measure the amount of interaction that occurs in a given time period. We have used it to determine whether there are particular kinds of interactions that are associated with outcomes (e.g. do participants who pet an animal leave in a better mood than participants who just watch an animal?). We have also tested whether an overall amount of interaction is associated with outcomes (e.g., do participants who experience a greater quantity of interaction with the horses leave in a better mood than those who experience less interaction?). We can distinguish between human behavior toward the animal (e.g., the human petted, groomed, and fed the animal) and animal behavior toward the human (e.g., the animal sniffed and licked the human), as well as whether one is more closely associated with outcome variables than the other (e.g., which has a greater effect on human mood – what the human does during the interaction or what the animal does?).


There are many questions to be answered about HAI and its effects. The field will benefit from researchers studying this construct from multiple perspectives. This may mean measuring it as a continuous rather than categorical variable. Our certainty about HAI’s effects will rely in part on our ability to move beyond correlational or quasi-experimental design and use rigorous experimental methods. The field needs explanatory theory, which requires investigations of the process, not just outcomes. Understanding the interaction between two or more complex organisms is challenging and developing the evidence base is a tall order. We need to be both creative and curious when studying HAI.  It’s critical that we understand, with certainty, if and how interacting with a horse named Courage impacts human health and well-being.


Anestis, M. D., Anestis, J. C., Zawilinski, L. L., Hopkins, T. A., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2014). Equine-related treatments for mental disorders lack empirical support: A systematic review of empirical investigations. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70 (12), 1115-1132.

Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (2015). Fundamentals of the EAGALA model: Practice untraining manual (8th ed.). Santaquin, UT: EAGALA.

Fournier, A. K., Berry, T. D., Letson, E., & Chanen, R. (2016). The human-animal interaction scale: Development and evaluation. Anthrozoös, 29 (3), 455-457.

Fournier, A. K., Letson, E., & Berry, T. D. (2017). HAIS: Human-Animal Interaction Scale and manual. Bemidji, MN: Angela Fournier.Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B. (2007). Animal-assisted therapy: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoös20(3), 225-238.

Kaiser, L., Spence, L. J., Lavergne, A. G., & Bosch, K. L. V. (2004). Can a week of therapeutic riding make a difference?—A pilot study. Anthrozoös17(1), 63-72.

Klontz, B. T., Bivens, A., Leinart, D., & Klontz, T. (2007). The effectiveness of equine-assisted experiential therapy: Results of an open clinical trial. Society & Animals15(3), 257-267.

Nuremberg, J. R., Schleifer, S. J., Shaffer, T. M., Yekllin, M., Desai, P. J., Amin, R., Bouchard, A., & Montalvo, C. (2014). Animal-assisted therapy with chronic psychiatric inpatients: Equine-assisted psychotherapy and aggressive behavior. Psychiatric Services in Advance, October 1, 1-7.

Thomas, L., & Lytle, M. (2016). Transforming therapy through horses: Case stories teaching the EAGALA model in action. Santaquin, UT: Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

Trotter, K. S., Chandler, C. K., Goodwin-Bond, D., & Casey, J. (2008). A comparative study of the efficacy of group equine assisted counseling with at-risk children and adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health3 (3), 254-284.

Selby, A., & Smith-Osborne, A. (2013). A systematic review of complimentary and adjunct therapies and interventions involving equines. Health Psychology, 32 (4), 418-432.

Could we be creating stress for therapy dogs? Amy Johnson


I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, as animal lovers, the thought of an animal being mistreated would make any of us angry. But, what if we were mistreating our animals inadvertently? How would we know?

How do we know, for example, when we bring our therapy dogs to our client sessions that we are not causing them undue stress? When bringing dogs (or any animal) into the therapeutic milieu, considering the dogs’ welfare has to be a top priority. When we look at the treatment triad of client, therapist, and animal, equal weight on each corner of the triangle is critical.

Animal assisted therapy is different from art therapy, music therapy or play therapy in that crayons and drums are not living, sentient beings. A sandbox can sit in a room all day with kids scratching figures on it without it ever once needing a drink of water. The dogs we bring need much more. There will be days when they do not feel good, days they do not want to go to work and clients they are not comfortable being around. Paying attention to what our dogs are telling us ensures that the animal assisted intervention (AAI) sessions are not only successful, but that we are not neglecting our dogs for the sake of our clients.

Our dogs/animals did not ‘sign up’ to be a part of the therapeutic process. Dogs are not “humans with fur,” as many like to describe them. They are dogs who do dog things. They sleep…a lot. They like to play. Chew on toys.

Bentley on his way to the office

I do not have a therapy dog; I have a Bentley. He is a rescue pug/poodle mix with an under bite and does not always communicate very effectively; who loves (and that is an understatement) to ride in the car and go to the office with me. How do I know? Being a dog trainer (CPDT-KA) helps me read his body language, but the basics are pretty simple; and in the simplest of terms, it is based loosely on the Pleasure Principle. We seek pleasure, avoid pain. Dogs….animals…do the same.

Does my dog willingly do something or do I have to ‘encourage’ him? When I bring Bentley to the office, he willingly runs to the garage door, dances next to the car, hops right in, trots to the door of the building and speeds ahead of me down the hall to the office. He knows the door and stops at it, looking back at me, tongue lolling out, and panting (ok, maybe because he is a bit ‘chunky’). Once we are ‘at work,’ he greets guests at the door and lays at their feet (or on the square of light coming in from the window on the floor) during sessions.

But, he is not a therapy dog, nor will he ever be. He can be cranky and has poor communication skills. He hates to be pet on top of the head, which he will tell you with a low growl, but he will move in for more when his chin is scratched or chest rubbed (research supports that most dogs experience less stress with a chest scratch than any other part of the body). Reach for his belly and if he feels comfortable, he will roll over, but not for everyone; and everyone who comes in knows this and they respect his boundaries.

For many of my clients, he offers quite a few benefits. Research also supports the efficacy of AAI with populations such as children who often feel fewer anxiety symptoms while interacting with [registered therapy] dogs, which allows them to increase engagement with adults (Friesen, 2010; Prothmann, et al, 2006). Bentley shows many of my young clients, who do not always know what their body language looks like to outsiders, how to objectively see their own behaviors. Because it seems like he might not like everyone, when he does “go in for the scratch,” the young clients express that they feel special and privileged that Bentley trusts and likes them. My clients learn how to meet Bentley where he is, at which point we can talk about doing the same with people.

He coaxes my teen clients to sessions even when they do not want to be there. We can talk about how past people have treated Bentley and why he acts the way he does today, just like many of them. I am sure none of this surprises you. You have probably seen the same. But what we always have to do in this process, is maintain our dogs’ well-being. A client who does not have good impulse control or one who stims (self- stimulatory behaviors) wildly, might make contact with Bentley in a way he does not like or makes him uncomfortable, so I let him have his quiet time away from the session.

I do this because within the animal human partnership, it is my ethical responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of my dog. This means balancing not only the values of our profession and operating within our scopes of practice, but having a solid understanding of my dog’s needs. We have to be able to objectively review every interaction with welfare in mind (Horowitz & Bekoff, 2007). If a client is upset and really wants to hug a dog, but the dog is moving away from the client or hiding behind the therapist’s legs, the dog is sending a clear signal that he is not comfortable with the interaction. Conversely, if the dog is offering distance increasing signals (anything from tongue flicks to head turns), respecting the dog means honoring his wishes. Forcing our dogs to interact or accept a hug anyway suggests that his well-being is less important, and worse, could put him in a position where he might bite. We are the only advocates our dogs have.  And why would we want to mistreat our best friends? Instead, we can use the opportunity to discuss with the client why our dog might be uncomfortable. It demonstrates to the client that we do indeed care about everyone’s welfare.

Most practitioners depend on the principles of the human animal bond (HAB) when bringing AAIs into practice. The HAB, as defined by the American Veterinary Medical Association, is “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and other animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both” (AVMA, 1998 as cited in NG, et al 2014). The key is mutually beneficial relationship, which means the animal must benefit from the interaction as much as the humans.

O’Callaghan (2008) posited that most practitioners who practice professional therapy use AAIs with the intention of augmenting the therapeutic relationship by building rapport, increasing trust and facilitating feelings of safety. If our dog is uncomfortable or stressed, what message is that sending to our clients?

I have often heard…or seen…well-intentioned people who adopt traumatized dogs and turn them into therapy dogs because of the similarities between clients who have experienced trauma and the dogs. For some, this can work very well; however, if the dog has been traumatized and fears people, or likes to remain at home, that should be honored. Dragging him to an office where there is a lot of activity, kids reaching out to pet him or other overstimulating environments can further traumatize the dog. This is the case with a practitioner I encountered who adopted such a dog and as the dog sits in her office with an open door and a baby gate, the dozens of people who pop by each day cause the dog to tremble, bow his head down, pull his ears back, and drool excessively. It does not take a dog trainer to know that this dog is afraid. This was her way of ‘socializing’ him, by flooding him with stimuli. Obviously, this is not acceptable treatment.

A study conducted by Ng, et al (2014) showed that an hour long visit with college students in a dorm setting did not cause an increase in stress-related behaviors in registered therapy dogs. However, King, et al (2011) found that salivary cortisol levels in registered therapy dogs were higher than baseline after a 60-minute visit in a hospital setting, meaning those dogs experienced increased stress. While the reason for these differences is not yet fully understood, it is likely that the hospital environment was less predictable during the activity compared to college dormitories. Not being able to predict what might happen next is often unsettling and anxiety-provoking for humans, and most likely in dogs as well (NG, et al , 2014). Social interactions can be some of the strongest stressors for dogs (McEwen and Wingfield, 2003; NG, et al, 2014). What this means is that therapy dogs show more stress responses when interacting with strangers in unfamiliar settings, when forced into positions, and when experiencing inappropriate or harsh training methods (Glenk, 2014). Added stressors are being hugged by strangers, especially in an unfamiliar setting. Additional studies show that dogs who have been practicing therapy dogs, are over two years old, who have been visiting the same place and interacting with the same people do not show increases in their cortisol levels during interactions (Ng, et al, 2014).

But beyond the studies, it is simple really. When you love and respect your friend, you do not want to mistreat them. And taking that a step further, you want to ensure that he is content, or even happy. Being aware, and objective, will keep our dogs happy….and allow everyone to benefit from AAI.

Canine Eye Tracking Equipment Seeks to Determine if Dogs Read Our Emotions the Way We Think They Do by Phyllis Erdman, Ph.D.

PHYLLIS ERDMANDr. Phyllis Erdman talks about her experience in the Neurodiversity Lab at Washington State University.

We were excited to have access to the Neurodiversity Lab to create the canine eye-tracking equipment based on models that have been used on humans. When Winter, my honor’s student, first thought about this study, we wanted to see if the left gaze bias was really present in dogs in the same way it is in humans. However, we really did not have an accurate way to measure this. We knew we had human equipment and software to measure this in humans, but did not know if dogs’ eyes worked the same as humans.

So we first consulted with a veterinarian who specialized in canine ophthalmology, and she concurred that their eyes worked pretty much the same as humans. But of course, getting an eye tracking device on a human face and one on a dog are two very different processes. First we had to determine if a dog would allow a “doggle” to be placed on him, then we had to mount tiny cameras in front of the lenses so the computer could read the eye movement. So the dogs had to be comfortable with a doggle on, and a camera sticking right in front of their eyes. They all tolerated it beautifully. Their owners sat in front of them while the dogs eyes moved and the computer software picked up and measured that movement. The canine subjects were real troopers. Not only did they sit quietly for a few moments while the computer read the movements, but they all looked so cute in their doggles, hooked up to the laptops. Now that we have determined the equipment will work, and we determined that there does seem to be the left gaze bias, future studies need to help understand what that means. Are they really reading our emotions the way we think they are?

Read more in the Washington State University magazine.

Riding in the Moment: An Equine Assisted Activity for Institutionalized Persons with Dementia

FieldsBeth-200Those with dementia are still people and they still have stories and they still have character and they are all individuals and they are all unique. And they just need to be interacted with on a human level.” – Carey Mulligan

Or, would it help to meet them at an animal level?

After pouring more than 400 national and international journal articles on equine-assisted activities or therapies for her research assistantship, Beth Fields found just one that addressed people with dementia and equine assisted therapy (Dabelko-Schoeny et al., 2014).

“Adults with dementia are often disengaged, depressed and lose functional abilities,” said Fields. “I wanted to see if quality of life could be improved for institutionalized adults with dementia through the use of animal assisted interventions (AAIs)…specifically, equine assisted interventions.”

The National Alzheimer’s Association asserts that there are more than 5.4 million individuals with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. (2016) with that number expected to increase three-fold by 2050. Caring for loved ones with dementia can be heartbreaking and even unsafe if they are prone to forgetfulness, wandering or aggressive outbursts. As a result, many caregivers rely on day treatment programs or residential assisted living facilities to provide more experienced care.

Fields began with studies related to AAIs for institutionalized adults with dementia, all of which incorporated dogs in the intervention. Many of these studies showed that persons with dementia participating in AAIs experienced reductions in agitation, irritability, depression, anxiety and sleep disturbance as well as increases in social engagement and communication (Berry et al., 2012; Bernabei et al., 2013; Friedmann et al., 2015; Kanamori et al., 2001).

“If these benefits can be obtained from working with dogs,” Fields wondered, “what about working with horses?”

Fields worked with one other Ph.D. student and one M.S. student on the study that described the influence of an AAI program entitled Riding in the Moment (RM) on the lives of institutionalized adults with dementia. With funding from the Carl and Caroline Swanson Foundation, the team worked under the guidance of Wendy Wood, Professor of Occupational Therapy at Colorado State University who is also the Director of Research at the Temple Grandin Equine Center.

In addition to the canine assisted intervention literature related to persons with dementia, Fields also searched for theories and information related to occupational science, environmental gerontology and psychology, and quality of life.

The study was conducted in August, 2016 and ran for eight weeks. The team collaborated with Seven Lakes Memory Care and Hearts and Horses Therapeutic Riding Center in Loveland, Colorado. She instantly loved both programs and knew this would be a great match.

The study was a mixed methods exploratory study that used direct behavioral observation and a quality of life indicator called Activity in Context and Time developed by her mentor, Wood, that examined the participants’ involvement in activities within the facility as well as with horse interactions.

Fields looked at elements like engagement, gaze, position and movement, communication, apparent affect and agitation during in-facility activities and during the Riding in the Moment program. She also conducted interviews with staff from both facilities to gather staff perspectives of equine-environmental influences on quality of life. She wanted to know if there was a significant association between positive quality of life indicators and the Riding in the Moment in comparison to other typical activities offered in residential assisted living facilities such as music and exercise groups. She is currently in the process of analyzing the findings and finalizing her dissertation. Preliminary findings suggest that Riding in the Moment is conducive to positive quality of life experiences for older adults with dementia. Ultimately, she hopes that the findings will advance knowledge of equine-environmental influences on quality of life for older adults with dementia and guide enhancements to programming that foster unique opportunities to maximize functioning and optimal well-being for institutionalized adults.

She does not intend to stop here. Her future interests are related to functional outcomes in older adults, equine-assisted occupational therapy and with individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. Who wouldn’t benefit from interactions on an animal level? Fields intends to find out.


Do Dogs Help Men Become More Relational? By Chris Blazina, Ph.D.



“We talk of men keeping dogs, but we might often talk more expressively of dogs keeping men.” Charles Dickens –The Uncommerical Traveller– (1859)

I am one of those people that found the study of human-animal interaction as fortunate consequence of pursuing another line of inquiry. My career as a psychologist and professor has been spent focusing on the psychology of men. This involves the culturally conditioned ways males are taught to think, feel, and act. Too often, the rules for being a man lead to internal and interpersonal difficulties, impacting health and wellness. By comparison to the themes of masculine-conflict, I have also heard men share various kinds of personal anecdotes about the importance of canine companions in their lives. These are heartfelt accounts about their dogs, large and small. Sometimes they begin with regret, other times humor, and even a sense of nostalgia. I think the animal companion stories are special in part because they involve a genuinely caring recollection of man’s best friend.  But what is also striking is how men also share a part of themselves not always seen, a more relational side. That is the part involving the need for making and sustains connections – a pronouncement contrary to what many deem as an essential quality of mature masculinity – being alone.

It is important to note even now, I do not pretend that the aforementioned masculine difficulties are not directly relevant within my own life. That being the case actually makes it easier to feel a certain sympathy if not empathy, for male clients and friends falling prey to similar masculine maxims. My own experience in striving to become more relational has multiple sources but I would rank my bond with animal companions as being among the most influential.

I have had a long personal history with canine companions stretching back to being a boy. I grew up in a blended working-class family of eight kids and two often frustrated parents. There were numerous sources of stress– financial, emotional, and interpersonal. In stark contrast to those familial themes, I found a consistent source of support from our dog. I would set on the back steps of our little house and share with him the current events from the other side of the brick wall. He seemed to be present in a way that no one else could muster. These interactions created a hope that the bond with animal friends could be a different and more perhaps fulfilling connection than most others I knew.

As an adult, I have had two special animal companions. Kelsey was a golden retriever that I adopted from a shelter when I was in graduate school living in Texas. She was my portable family and best friend through those years and a portion of my early career. She left a sizable hole in my life when passing away nearly thirteen years ago. Fortunately, I had another shelter dog named Sadie who profoundly impacted me as well over the sixteen and half years we shared. Her eyes changed color to a lighter shade of brown when staring at me in her concerned way. My wife says that Sadie’s special gaze was reserved only for me. I am not sure that was accurate but her presence in my life did makes me feel cared for in a unique way.  This summer, I said goodbye to Sadie. Her last six months were marked by declining health which left us both awake through much of the night. Sometimes as we sat outside in the darkness, I would stare up at the constellations in the night sky. I do not think I will ever look at the Dog Star in the same way again.

Part of what I have learned in regard to the importance of the human-animal bond in my life, is that is a complicated part of my own personal narrative that carries a distinct meaning. One of the ways I have tried to comprehend the bond’s significance is through the psychological concept of being an attachment figure.

In its original usage, an attachment figure was defined by psychoanalyst John Bowlby as a caregiver with whom a child forms a deep and lasting emotional bond.1 More specifically, an attachment figure offers a special type of connection that is exceptionally important, involving qualities that seem irreplaceable. While a meaningful tie can be made with a number of friends, teachers, and family members, the place of an attachment figure is unique in our lives. The first element of what an attachment figure provides is referred to as a secure base from which children can explore the world.  This aspect of an attachment figure helps one’s personality mature and take on new, previously unrealized dimensions. As children we try to make new friends, take in novel experiences and after falling down in many endeavors, dust ourselves off, and get back up.  None of this comes easily, so it helps having someone in our corner challenging us to get back out there. Another facet of an attachment figure involves providing predictable comfort in stressful times. This is referred to as being a safe haven. Bowlby talked about the important hardwired aspect of the human need to find safety when threatened or in danger. Instead of burrowing into a den like other mammals, the preference is to nuzzle into the arms or care of an attachment figure. Needless to say, this quality is something everyone seeks with a caregiver as a child, and then later as adult, with a human significant other or a close friend.

Over time, the attachment figure concept that originated as a description of the caregiver-child relationship has been expanded and now is also applied within adult romantic relationships and the bonds many of us share with animal companions.2 Across all these scenarios, our attachment figures represent a lifeline providing a source of comfort when in distress and the encouragement to grow when facing difficult life challenges.

Would the aforementioned attachment figure concepts also apply to the bond between man and dog? Recent research suggests they do for both boys and men alike. New studies conducted by friends and colleagues that appear in “Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man’s Best Friend”3 found evidence that males across the lifespan perceive their canine companions as offering a special type of emotional support as well as offering a challenge to become better parents, partners, and friends. At-risk boys participating in various forms of dog training programs (usually with hard to adopt dogs from the shelter) became more relationally proficient. Findings included increased Emotional Quotient (or EQ), better self-awareness, and decreased externalizing behaviors usually associated with being part of the adjudicated juvenile system. There are also studies that found middle-aged men reporting being more attached to their dogs than younger men. Likewise, men of a certain age conveyed how their animal companions acted as a sort of psychological multi-tasker, performing various functions like instilling hope, expanding social network, and being a source of comfort. Perhaps key to note is how these various safe heaven and safe base roles performed by dogs were associated with decreases in what has been referred to as Normative Male Alexithymia4 —the difficulty dialing into what one feels and being able to convey it to others—the quintessential male conundrum that keeps many of us alone.

There is much more work to do in understanding the significance of the bond in men’s lives, but I feel like I have some company now as I untangle more of why the bond has been so impactful both for others and myself. I would go so far as saying my canine companions changed the course of my life.  There is not a singular reason for that impact, looking for that one all-encompassing explanation was the thing that kept me puzzled for many years. Instead there are multiple complex reasons involving the intersection of attachment issues, male socialization, and perhaps others factors waiting to be discovered that help account for the importance of our bond.

Attachment theory argues that humans are hard-wired to form and sustain attachments with others across the life span. Ironically much of traditional male psychology flies in the face of that pronouncement, needing others is a violation of traditional masculinity. Yet, there are exceptions to the restrictive rules that many men experience when in the presence of animal companions—in this case, those dogs that by definition are like friends or family members and perhaps are best classified as attachment figures. Going for a walk, playing in the backyard, and sensing we are being attuned to when having a bad day, are all disarming encounters lulling us into letting our guard down. There are a series of physiological and psychological changes that occur as we interact. These can include an increase in the bonding hormone oxytocin when we share a mutual gaze, a decrease in our blood pressure when we stroke a dog’s fur, and a sense that someone is in sync with our current emotional or physical state. These are all attachment cues prompting us to perceive that an animal companion offers a viable and safe attachment bond. The positive impact a dog has is based on an encounter that temporally renorms years and years of male training about the do’s and don’ts of being a man. Many of us feel the grip traditional male gender roles begin to ease when in the company of animal friends, even if for only a few precious moments.

My wife tells me I am a more accessible and perhaps a more understanding person around animals, even seemingly troubled and difficult ones, giving them the benefit of the doubt when would-be human friends, family, and colleagues  may not receive the same treatment. When I begin in earnest talking or writing about my experiences with dogs, I literally feel myself passing through the protective layers that do a good job of keeping others at a safe distance.

I turned 50 years old recently and with the lead up to that event,  I have found myself looking inward thinking about poignant questions like what my life has been and where it is going, including discerning more about my own attempts at attachment. I married late in life after 45 years as a bachelor and am a first time father of a three year old son. For these and other important reasons, I find myself stretching my relational repertoire. But complicating matters is that this is the first time in distant memory that I have had to go-it-alone without a canine companion in my life. Yet, there is another aspect of being an attachment figure that comes into focus when I think about recently saying goodbye to my dog Sadie. It involves what is referred to as a continuing bond.

In attachment theory, a continuing bond is a new way to sustain a connection after an attachment figure passes away.5 There are many ways to find this new type of bond with human or animal companions.6 Some grief experts focus on what is referred to as posttraumatic growth – the possibility of positive psychological change as a result of struggling with challenging life circumstances. There is also the option with animal companions of finding meaning in the loss, such as fighting for cures to diseases, in the form of social activism for animal rights, or fostering shelter dogs. Some choose to create a memorial – naming a kennel after a lost animal companion – or honoring their memory through plaster paw prints. Rituals can also be enacted when special anniversaries come to mind, and are subsequently celebrated. Some form a continued bond by being part of a community where stories are shared in person, on the internet, or in the privacy of one’s own journal. The new bond can even exist by calling on a memory of an animal companion to provide a moment of togetherness, support, and guidance.

It may not come as a surprise that research suggests men may have more difficultly forming a continued bond with animal and human companions.7 The difficulties are in large part related to the stringent forms of traditional male gender roles. They can include the difficulty working through intense emotions such as grief, anger, vulnerability, and isolation. These challenges do not mean men cannot grieve or form a continued bond, rather, for some men the skillset needed to do so may need further development. Key to this personal development is reframing various forms of grief as not unmanly, which in turn gives males permission to push forward toward new levels of growth.

The continued bond I forged with my first dog Kelsey came with a significant emotional effort. It involved an intense archeological undertaking lasting many years as I uncovered and gained insight into the forces shaping my early life and beyond, those that made me a natural fit with animal friends. The process of forming a continued bond also helped me grasp how my two animal companions transformed my notion of being a man, altering it toward more relational ways of being. My inclination to lean away from others seems to melt away a little easier now because of the influence of my animal friends.

What stands out for me from recent attachment and loss research findings regarding the human-animal bond is that men do not necessarily love their dogs more or less than others. Rather, animal companions have the potential to take on a different meaning in men’s lives. If men have smaller social networks, with fewer truly close bonds, then those who are counted on carry heavier emotional connotations, and are sorely missed when gone. This may be especially true when the bond in question provides a reliable respite from the 24-7 dealings of being a man. When other life stresses are added to the already strained condition involving being a man, the result is a cumulative challenge to mental health and well-being. Situation-specific stressors can include a difficult attachment/ loss history, chronic economic strife, lack of social support, being a male with a history of incarceration, or experiencing intense military service in war-torn areas. Taken together, males’ lives become a much more complex, nuanced narrative that needs to be understood.  For many of us, if the right dog comes along, there is hope.

Our animal friends can help create a special place of connection rarely seen by others, which allows some of our personal issues to be worked out, or at least provides a companion while wandering around, making sense of our inner landscape. This emotional space and the one who helps form it are not necessarily meant to be exclusionary by design. Rather, an animal companion helps many of us find the resolve to reach out and invite someone else in.


Chris Blazina is a psychologist and professor at New Mexico State University. He has published six books including his most recent efforts, “When Man Meets Dog” which was awarded the 2016 National Indie Excellence Award for Men’s Health. His other recent book, co-edited with Lori Kogan is “Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man’s Best Friend.” It is the first academic book to examine the bond between males and their canine companions.

  1. Bowlby, J (1999). Attachment and Loss: Vol I, 2nd Ed. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Kurdek, L A (2009). Pet dogs as attachment figures for adult owners. Journal of

Family Psychology, 23, (4), 439-446.

  1. Blazina, C. & Kogan, L. (2016). Men and Their Dogs: A New Psychological Understanding of ‘Man’s Best Friend. New York: Springer.
  2. Levant, R F (2001). Desperately seeking language Understanding, assessing

and treating normative male alexithymia. In G R Brooks and G Good (Eds). The

new handbook of counseling and psychotherapy for men (Vol 1, pp 424-443). San

Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  1. Klass, D., & Silverman, P. R. (1996). Introduction: What is the problem? In D. Klass, P. R.

Silverman, & S. L. Nickman (Eds.), Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. New

York: Taylor & Francis.

  1. Blazina, C. (2016).When Man Meets Dog. Dorchester: UK: Hubble & Hattie.

Packman,W.,  Bussolari, C.,  Katz, R.,  and Carmack, B.J. (2016). Continuing Bonds Research with Animal Companions: Implications for Men Grieving the Loss of a Dog. In C. Blazina & L. Kogan (Eds)., Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of ‘Man’s Best Friend.  New York: Springer.

  1. Sochos, A, & Bone, A (2012). Attitudes Towards Continuing Bonds, Attachment Vulnerability, and the Moderating Effects of Gender. Journal of Loss and Trauma International Perspectives on Stress & Coping, 17, (3), 260-270.


Meet Lauren Varner, Member-At-Large

lauren-varnerHi! I’m Lauren Varner, Member-at-Large, focusing on social media communications for the governing board of the Section on Human-Animal Interaction under Division 17, Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association.

I am a second-year student in the Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy program at Regis University in Denver, Colorado, a COAMFTE-accredited program. I am not a counseling psychologist or even a therapist yet, but I am so proud to represent the both the Section and the many peers I have come across since beginning my studies — fellow students who are studying counseling, social work, psychotherapy, clinical psychology, psychiatry, and other fields, all with the hope of harnessing the powerful bond between humans and animals to improve mental health and further overall wellness for both the humans and animals involved in the interaction.

I have learned that at present, there really is no one, distinct career path or field of study one should take if they are interested in working in the field of human-animal interaction. For me, the path has been varied and full of zigs and zags. After earning my bachelor’s degree in journalism, and spending about a decade working in marketing and communications, I knew I was ready for a change, and felt a pull to listen to an intuition that told me I should be working with animals somehow to make the world a better place. But it was challenging to figure out how to act upon my instinctual knowledge that the bond between humans and animals can be, and is, transformative. I knew this from my own experiences as a pet owner, lighting up and feeling a bit lifted out of depression whenever I spend time with my girls Luna (a 6-year old English Shepherd) and Lily (a 9-year old calico cat.) I thought about becoming a dog trainer, owning a specialty pet supply store, or working for a dog walking company… Nothing quite fit. But when a friend mentioned an interaction she witnessed between a therapy rat and a young client with self-esteem struggles at the animal-assisted therapy ranch where she works, something clicked. Animal-assisted psychotherapy! The idea of working with animals in the context of mental health made so much sense to me. So, I began volunteering at Animal-Assisted Therapy Programs of Colorado, a wonderful oasis in a suburb of Denver, home to three cats, two mini horses, a quarter horse, two goats, three rats and two bunnies, plus several certified therapy dogs who belong to individual clinicians working at the ranch. That summer, I also began my graduate program at Regis, studying Marriage and Family Therapy with plans to earn certificates in AAT and play therapy after graduation to further specialize in the field.

We all know life is full of stress, anxiety, sadness and for many, even serious trauma. Mental health services are critically important, and these services will be accessed by most of us at some point in our lifetimes. However, “going to therapy” is a scary proposition for many people. Some don’t want to, or can’t, open up to a therapist in a traditional counseling setting with two chairs, a box of Kleenex, and a clock ticking down from 55 minutes. But the idea of adding an animal, with their innate sensitivity, intuition, warmth and goofiness to the interaction between therapist and client made so much sense to me. Why not work with the powerfully magnetic energy between human and animal that we see throughout our lives in so many ways? When we see a cute dog walking down the street, many of us feel a bit like children again, just wanting to pet the doggie. When a colleague shows us a video of a goat doing something ridiculous on YouTube, we laugh with lightness and silliness that we don’t always experience every day. And when we come home from work to our loyal pets, so happy to see us, we feel a comforting sense of value and importance in an often-overwhelming world.

These are just lighthearted examples of what the human-animal bond looks like in everyday life for many people, but the work goes far beyond that. Researchers, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists, marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors, social workers and more, many who are members of this Section, are out there doing cutting-edge work and studies that are advancing the depth of the field of human-animal interaction studies every day. Our Section is a friendly “hub” for this work, connecting professionals from across many different disciplines, all united by a fascination and an excitement about better understanding how interactions with animals help people live better, more connected, more authentic and more peaceful lives. And students like myself are welcome here, too.   There is much to learn about how the bond between humans and animals works to improve our health, but it is very exciting to be a part of such a burgeoning field that is sure to impact people’s lives exponentially in the coming decades.

So, please spread the word! You’re receiving this email because you’re already interested in human-animal interaction, and perhaps already working or studying in the field. But there may be people in your orbit who aren’t familiar with the academic and professional accomplishments being made in our field every day. Or, they may not even know human-animal interaction is a specific field of study, but they themselves have pets, or have always loved horses, or love sharing cute animal videos on Facebook. These are the folks who already know intuitively that the human-animal bond is incredibly powerful and valuable. Help them understand our work by inviting them to follow us on Facebook and sign up for this newsletter, which you’ll be receiving a few times a year.

Clicker Training Shelter Cats by Lori Kogan, PhD. and Cheryl Kolus, DVM


Clicker training is a positive, humane method of training that’s been used successfully with a wide variety of animal species including marine mammals, primates, dogs and horses (Gillis, et al., 2012; Fjellanger et al., 2002; Williams, et al., 2004). Clicker training involves the use of a specific sound when an animal performs a desired behavior. The “click” sound marks the correct behavior and serves as a bridge between the desired behavior and the animal’s reward. This bridge is extremely helpful in helping trainers clearly and precisely communicate with an animal (Pryor, 2004). Although use of clicker training is common with many species, there has been very little attention given to the possibility of clicker training cats.

Training of shelter dogs has been found to lessen the stress of the shelter environment, increase chances of adoption, and make the dogs’ transition to a permanent home easier (Thorn, et al., 2006). It is suggested that these same benefits might apply to cats. For these reasons, this study was designed to assess the feasibility and impact of clicker training on adoptable shelter cats.

This study was conducted within a non-profit program designed specifically to assess the implementation of a clicker training program for cats residing in a nearby limited admissions cat shelter. The first stage of this study was a pilot conducted between January and March 2016. During this time, cats were temporarily housed at the training center for two weeks and underwent clicker training 2X/day for 5 minutes per training session, 4X/week. The training first focused on target training (teaching the cat to follow a target stick), an important first step in shaping other behaviors. After this step, cats were trained to perform several behaviors including ‘high-five’, spin, sit, ‘shake hands’, and ‘go to a mat.’ A clicker training manual (written by co-presenter Kolus) contained the protocols used for training. All training was conducted by two certified trainers. All cats were admitted to the facility on Fridays and given the weekend to acclimate. Training began on Mondays and was conducted Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Two training sessions (11am and 4PM) were conducted each of the four days. In addition, each cat was petted and/or played with 10 minutes a day.

Reported preliminary results are based on 44 cats that completed training (some cats were removed from training early due to being placed in medical isolation, being adopted, or being unable/unwilling (unmotivated?) to interact with a trainer). All behaviors were assessed on a 5 point scale with 1= Just started teaching this behavior; has a long way to go before fluency; 2 = Learning the behavior well, but still has some problems with it; 3 = Able to ask for and get the behavior, even if not fluent, about 80% of time, 4= Able to ask for and get a fluent behavior about 80% of time or more, and 5 = Able to verbally ask for and get the behavior fluently 80% of time or more (on verbal cue). Many of the cats demonstrated the ability to perform desired behaviors: 88.4% of cats scored at least a 4 for target training indicating fluent ability, 40.7% for ‘high-five’; 28.6% for spinning; 20.8% for sitting, 66.7% for shaking hands; and 33.3% for going to a mat. These results suggest that a significant percentage of cats can be clicker trained in a shelter environment in relatively short periods of training over the course of two weeks.

Given the fact that dog training has been identified as one way to reduce shelter environment stress and potentially increase adoption prospects, these results are encouraging. They suggest that cats may be able to be trained as well, perhaps thereby sharing some of these positive benefits. Shelters may be able to offer similar experiences to cats. Additional data will be gathered to further assess these preliminary results. This data will be analyzed and discussed, along with ways to implement similar training programs at other shelters.

HAI Paths in the Nonprofit Sector by Maya Gupta, PhD

maya-photoMany of us who love animals, and are fascinated by the power of the human-animal bond, initially thought we should become veterinarians. After all, if you wanted a career involving animals—especially companion animals—that was what you did, right?

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve talked to over the years who have said something like, “If only I had known there were other paths. I realized vet school wasn’t for me, so I gave up on the world of animals and became an accountant.” I’m guessing some of you have had similar experiences—or can relate directly! (If you did become an accountant but you’re nevertheless reading this newsletter, there’s still hope. Keep reading!)

Fortunately, the growth of the area of Human-Animal Interaction within the field of psychology and other social science and human service disciplines has opened up career possibilities for those of us interested in working at the intersection of people and animals: teaching, research, clinical practice, business, and many others. Since I don’t have time to review them all in this article, I’ll focus on the arena in which I have the most personal experience: the nonprofit sector.

The question I’m often asked is, “As a psychologist, what are my options for finding work in a nonprofit organization that focuses on human-animal relationships?” Let me begin my answer by telling you a bit about my own trajectory. When I was in my graduate program in clinical psychology—a classic Boulder model program that produced approximately equal numbers of academics and clinicians—my answer to the question of whether I wanted to go into research or practice was, “No.” While I hold great respect for those of you who have taken these tracks, I know that I’m far too impatient. Like many of us, I chose to study psychology because it held the promise of making positive changes in the world. But after spending six years researching the links between animal cruelty and domestic violence, and doing supervised clinical work with both victims and perpetrators of violence, I was champing at the bit to get out into the world and develop programs that provided direct solutions to the problems I’d been grappling with. “I want systems-level change, and I want it now!”

That was how I became involved with Ahimsa House, a Georgia-based nonprofit that provided emergency pet shelter, veterinary care, transportation, and other services to help the human and animal victims of domestic violence reach safety together. Research and clinical experience told us that abusers often harmed pets as a way to terrorize human family members and coerce them into remaining in the relationship. Yet there were few domestic violence shelters that allowed people to bring their pets with them, and little attention was given to other potentially vital aspects, such as providing legal aid to victims whose abusers tried to gain control of the pets via the courts. Ahimsa House’s founder, who had personally experienced the loss of a pet in her quest for safety, created the organization as a direct response to these needs. Now that was right up my alley! After volunteering with the organization during graduate school, I was recruited to the board to provide subject-matter expertise and to help with outreach to domestic violence professionals. That role eventually morphed into a paid full-time position as the first Executive Director. While the work was often stressful, there was immense satisfaction in providing a service that filled a gap. Not only did we help individual people and animals, we saw the agencies with which we worked start to become more responsive to this issue. We were also able to help raise awareness of this issue across the field by providing trainings to national organizations and assisting in developing other programs of this type around the country. There’s a saying that every nonprofit should strive to do its work so effectively that it eliminates the need for its own existence.

I’ve also had the opportunity to use my background in HAI to be part of a nonprofit that is working to develop the HAI field itself. The Animals & Society Institute helps improve and expand knowledge about human-animal relationships to create safer and more compassionate communities for all. These efforts include promoting evidence-based practice in applied HAI. They also include fostering the growth of HAI and its related discipline, Human-Animal Studies, in our university systems so that more students have access to courses, internships, and degree programs instead of becoming accountants. (Oops! Sorry again, accountants! Keep reading—we’ll get to you in a moment.) As ASI’s Executive Director from 2014-2016, I was challenged to use my knowledge of both HAI and psychology as a whole to grow a nonprofit whose work mostly takes place behind the scenes rather than in direct service.

These days, as an independent consultant and “free agent,” I get to help other nonprofits become stronger through program development and evaluation, while also teaching a course on Animal Nonprofits for the master’s program in Anthrozoology at Canisius College and writing the occasional article like this one expounding on the virtues of the nonprofit sector. So why is the nonprofit world an attractive option, and what directions can you take?

One reason psychologists specializing in HAI can be attractive to nonprofit organizations is that those letters after your name convey automatic credibility, whether fair or not (but hey, you did toil for how many years to earn them?). Now, that’s a power that is to be used for good rather than evil, but many nonprofits are eager for the subject matter expertise and PR value that your advanced degree in psychology lends. Your background in HAI isn’t only coveted by nonprofits that focus exclusively on the human-animal relationship, by the way. Organizations that traditionally leaned more toward the animal half of the equation, such as animal shelters, are increasingly developing community outreach programs (reading with dogs; pets for seniors) that promote the human-animal bond. On the other end of the spectrum, human-service-oriented nonprofits are catching on to the potential (and, let’s be honest, the community appeal) of incorporating animals in their work—for example, AAI/AAT programs in hospitals.

Your training as a psychologist puts you in a strong position to help these organizations with everything from designing and delivering their programs to evaluating them. As we know, the HAI field continues to strive to gain broader acceptance within mainstream psychology, even though we’ve already made great progress in this regard. Such topics as fidelity and dose-response don’t cease to be relevant when you step outside the laboratory; nor do cost-effectiveness and clinical as opposed to statistical significance cease to be relevant when you step in.

First, you can help bridge the gap between HAI research and practice by helping translate emerging knowledge into best practices for nonprofits that don’t have time to read academic journals. Second, in my opinion, we need a great deal more outcome evaluation of existing HAI programs to build a stronger evidence base and reduce the potential for external criticism that anybody with a critter can hang out a shingle. Guess what? Nonprofits increasingly agree. If nothing else, they know that their funders have awakened to the importance of demonstrating effectiveness and are now requiring program data even in initial funding applications. Yet many nonprofits lack the resources of knowledge and/or time to do thorough data collection and evaluation. And let’s not forget that the bridge between science and practice goes both ways: as part of a nonprofit, you’ll get to identify the new research questions that are illuminated by the work, and bring those back to the field for study. I’m actually writing this article from the fascinating Research Symposium at the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators conference, where humane society directors are listening to researchers discuss everything from outcomes in programs pairing veterans with shelter dogs (presented by our Section’s own Lisa Lunghofer) to clicker training with cats to improve adoption rates (a study coauthored by our Section Chair, Lori Kogan). Just as the shelter staff are translating the findings into best practices for their own programs, they’re also reporting back from the trenches on new aspects for the researchers to consider. The scientists learn from the practitioners as much as the other way around.

Compassion fatigue is another hot topic in the service sector, and it seems there has been a great increase in awareness among animal organizations. For a nonprofit that lacks internal resources to address compassion fatigue, this can pose a real problem in terms of staff and volunteer mental health, turnover, and the quality of the organization’s services. For those of you with clinical training, this is an excellent opportunity to provide a valuable asset.

Before you jump into the nonprofit arena, there are a few unpleasant realities I should disclose: funding scrambles, fewer job openings than interested candidates, a tendency toward lower pay than you might receive elsewhere, and burnout. (But wait…not so different from our field as a whole, is it?) Depending on the size of the nonprofit, you may also need to wear many hats besides that of Resident Fancy Psychologist. I’m not ashamed (in fact, I’m proud) to admit that in some of my nonprofit stints, even as the executive director, I’ve been on hands and knees scrubbing dog vomit out of the transport vehicle—not to mention answering calls to the crisis line at 3 A.M. If you aspire to run an organization, you’ll also need knowledge of nonprofit administration, which includes everything from strategic planning, volunteer management, and compliance with federal/state laws to budgeting, fundraising, and basic accounting.

(Hey! I said ACCOUNTING! That’s right, accountants: your skills are needed in the HAI field to help the rest of us keep our balance sheets and cash flow projections from looking like a hot mess. And then there’s the small matter of the Form 990 nonprofits are required to file with the IRS each year, plus the external financial review or audit many organizations need in order to fulfill funder requirements. Some of my favorite nonprofit colleagues have been the accountants, attorneys, marketing professionals, and other businesspeople who “came over to the dark side” from the corporate world to use their skills toward social change.)

Here’s a quick note for those who may be considering starting a nonprofit of their own. While this can be an immensely rewarding endeavor, it’s not for the faint of heart. Getting from the idea stage to a successful organization can take many years, and you may not be able to pay yourself at first. Further, funders tend to want to support existing nonprofits over new, unproven ones, seeing the former as safer investments. I’m not trying to discourage you from starting a new organization if you have genuinely identified a need that isn’t being met by existing organizations, but you must undertake this needs analysis in good faith—it’s not enough to launch a new organization just because you want to be the star of your own show—and be prepared for a potentially tough road. I always suggest getting involved as a volunteer with a similar nonprofit first, to learn more about the ins and outs of the work and determine whether you could do more good by pooling your efforts with theirs. If there is truly no organization in your area doing anything remotely resembling your idea, do your homework by reaching out to one somewhere and learning as much as you can.

Although my focus here has been on careers, you don’t have to create or even work for a nonprofit to be involved in the nonprofit sector. Almost every nonprofit needs more volunteers, and the rigid volunteer programs of the past are being replaced by flexible service opportunities that take into consideration each volunteer’s unique interests and skill set. Could your local humane society benefit from a pet grief group? Could your students take externship placements at a nonprofit specializing in AAT? Could you serve on an organization’s board of directors or advisory council? (By the way, board service isn’t only for the venerable and wealthy. Early career professionals are increasingly in demand for the unique and valuable perspectives they bring to nonprofit governance.)

Finally, don’t be discouraged if you express your interest in working with a nonprofit and don’t hear back right away. Some organizations are overwhelmed with requests for assistance and, rightly or wrongly, don’t promptly return emails or phone calls even from those offering to help. Persevere, and I promise you’ll find your niche—with the rich reward of knowing you’re using your training to change the world.

Below, I’ve provided some websites that may be helpful for those wanting to learn more. In the meantime, or anytime, please feel free to contact me at if I can help you along your path!


Animals & Society Institute (lots of information on HAI organizations)
Joan Garry (tagline: “Because Nonprofits Are Messy”)
BoardSource (best practices in nonprofit governance)
Foundation Center (fundraising-oriented, especially grants and corporate support)

Independent Sector (leadership network bringing together nonprofits, foundations, and corporations around social change)
Chronicle of Philanthropy (a great way to stay on top of news in the nonprofit sector) National Council of Nonprofits (find your state’s alliance for nonprofits)

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