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November 2016

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

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“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.

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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

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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 dr.gupta@kittenpizza.com if I can help you along your path!

Resources:

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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