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.