Service and therapy animals can provide an incredible amount of support to humans. From guide dogs for the blind to therapeutic horses for improving mental health, animals of all types can accomplish a multitude of tasks and provide unconditional emotional support for their handlers.
The Fall 2021 Service & Therapy Animal Course
This fall, Saint Leo University is offering a course called Interdisciplinary Approaches: Service & Therapy Animals. Dr. Veronika Ospina-Kammerer, a professor of social work in Saint Leo’s Bachelor of Social Work degree program, is teaching the class. Because it is interdisciplinary, students from a variety of majors like social work, education, human services, and criminal justice can benefit from the curriculum.
“The main focus of the course is on how animals can serve people or help them through therapy,” Ospina-Kammerer explains. “We are looking at service animals vs. therapy animals and what these types of animals can actually do for people. In my teaching, I focus more on the emotional and mental health side of working with animals.”
She says Dr. Rhondda Waddell, an associate dean and full professor of social work, started teaching the course in 2017. It has been offered with different names to reflect certain areas of focus based on the background of the instructor teaching it in a given term. The current class has 13 students. Dr. Debra Mims, an assistant professor of criminal justice, will teach a version of the class in the spring which will focus on how animals play a role in criminal investigations.
According to Ospina-Kammerer, studying human-animal interactions (HAI), human-animal bonds (HAB), animal-assisted therapy (AAT), and animal-assisted interventions (AAI) can be a truly fascinating endeavor.
“Like quantum physics, it’s all about energy and intuition. It’s clear that animals have a sixth sense because they can detect things much earlier than humans. It’s incredible how they can sense the goodness or stress in a person. They can also teach us patience.”
And what have her students gotten out of the class this semester?
“I think they’ve gained more respect for animals,” she says. “They are always surprised by what animals can do and how they can help people. Plus, they’re learning the importance of being more responsible with animals. For example, when service animals are out in public, people need to understand how to behave around them. The nice thing is that they will be able to bring all of this knowledge into the field when they start their social work careers.”
Seeing her students’ perspectives change for the better is what means so much to her, she explains.
“When I see those ‘a-ha’ moments, it’s very rewarding. For this course specifically, I enjoy seeing when students show their true appreciation for animals. Research has shown that when a person loves animals, they will likely be more empathetic and caring toward other people.”
Making an Impact on the Community
Over time, the course has offered numerous opportunities for students to gain practical experience outside of the classroom in the local community. Saint Leo students have gone to Lacoochee Elementary School in Dade City, FL to help younger students improve their reading skills.
“We have our students assign an animal to each child,” she explains. “Then the child reads to the animal. One time, one of the dogs fell asleep and the little girl looked back at me and asked what she should do. I told her that she did a great job because she had made the dog so relaxed.”
In addition, students have brought service animals to local nursing homes and Hospice facilities to brighten the lives of those dealing with serious physical and mental challenges.
A Driven Student’s Perspective
Nicole Pasqurell, a senior social work major, is one of the students in the course. The 21-year-old came to the sunny Saint Leo campus from Connecticut where she graduated from Haddam Killingworth High School in 2018. She explains what piqued her interest in social work as a teenager.
“During my sophomore year of high school, I met a woman who worked in social work,” Pasqurell says. “She taught me a lot about what she did to help others overcome their issues. I decided I really wanted to pursue this as a career.”
She embarked on Saint Leo University’s undergraduate social work degree program in the fall of 2018. Several instructors in this bachelor’s program have positively influenced her.
“Dr. VOK is one of the most educated people I’ve ever met. She is just so smart and has so many connections in the social work field. She has shaped my experience as a student in so many ways. Prof. [Christina] Cazanave has also been a great help to me.”
Choosing to Take the Service & Therapy Animal Course
As an elective course for her, Pasqurell explains what intrigued her about the curriculum.
“It seemed like a really interesting class,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know the difference between service animals vs. therapy animals. We’ve learned about what’s required for animals to get these labels and who is eligible to receive them. We’ve also learned about how animals can help in an intervention situation. I think it’s especially important for social work students to understand all of this because we will be working with people who have these animals.”
An Eye-Opening Curriculum
According to Pasqurell, the course has busted so many myths for she and her classmates.
“We’ve had a lot of guest speakers come and speak about their involvement with service animals. It’s been so cool to see all of the different ways animals can help people. For example, I didn’t realize how a horse can help someone walk again after suffering a traumatic brain injury.”
Students have specifically learned about equine-assisted therapy through the Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center, a facility based in Brooksville, FL.
Lending a Hand to a Local Animal Rescue
For the class, the students had to complete at least 10 hours of volunteer work with an animal-related organization. They then had to write a paper on the experience and do an oral presentation to the class. Pasqurell, who also serves as treasurer of Saint Leo’s social work club, decided to partner with some of its members for her project.
“Because of this class, our club members expressed an interest in working with a local animal rescue. I reached out to some local organizations. Angel Ballard from Little Cat Rescue was the only 1 who got back to me. She told me about her organization’s Halloween fundraiser going on the entire month of October. I rounded up several social work students and we spent every weekend with Angel raising money for her cats.”
The students helped run a haunted house on the property.
“The theme of the haunted house was an ‘animal testing facility.’ Basically, the message was against animal testing. So, the people dressed up as animals started doing ‘testing’ on humans. I portrayed the nurse who got ‘eaten’ by cats. Several other students got to be scare actors for this event.”
A Bright Future in the Social Work Field
Pasqurell is applying for graduate school at the University of Connecticut for its Master of Social Work program with a focus on community organizations. She details her desired career path.
“I would love to work with teenagers and young adults who are at risk of drug and alcohol abuse and help with suicide and homelessness prevention.”
LEARN MORE: Check out this recent story on the course in the latest edition of Spirit magazine.