My thoughts about the history of veterinary social work (as contributed in February 2020 to VSW listserv)
From: Veterinary Social Work Listserv On Behalf Of sandra@SBRACKENRIDGELCSW.COM
Like Laurel, Deborah, Susan and a few others out there, this thread has brought so many memories. Honestly, I kind of wanted to dwell in them privately for a bit. With Laurel’s post, I realized that I needed to fill in the gap of history that I occupied. I felt like I was hiding, and I was for a bit. I hope a skilled writer will one day create a history. I also knew my post would be long, so I’m so sorry about that. If you want, read the first paragraph and the last.
I came to this career a bit differently than the others. I wanted it and dreamt of what could be done as a child. I did some independent studies in undergrad to understand animals and humans, and then when I did my thesis for my MSW (graduating in 1980), I had a very difficult time pitching and then implementing a study. My hypothesis was just that my sample would disclose more freely during an interview with an animal present. I was able to find a brave professor to help me, but I struggled terribly and was called “crazy” in trying to find a site that would let me in to interview with my own dog. Public and private facilities refused. Remember, in that day, animals were still “dirty,” and parasite control/vaccinations were not common knowledge especially in the south. Luckily, a Catholic nun was my classmate, and she convinced her Mother Superior to let me use St. Elizabeth’s Children's’ Home, a home for girls in state custody. I was able to conduct my study in the courtyard only, and my professor said that if I had had a bigger sample the results could have been published. In addition, the literature review was terribly short. I believe I only found three articles and two books by Boris Levinson (a psychiatrist who took Skeeter to inpatient child psychiatry visits) who I interviewed by phone. Yes, he just answered my phone call. There was no email then.
After graduation, I knew that I had to shelve my interest in order to find a job since I couldn’t be labeled crazy. I had several jobs and participated in several “pilots” which were successful. Developing pilots would benefit me later at LSU. I was in private practice in 1988-1989 when I learned of the Delta Society formation and conference. The first conference I attended was in New Jersey, and I found a home. That conference was held with NARHA and Canine Companions. What a field day! I began using my own dog in AAI visits and in my private practice. We moved to a farm where we were able to live with my horses, and I began to plan an equine therapy program. And I began to present to veterinary practices and consult with veterinarians about grief due to pet loss, helping owners with quality of life decisions. I formed a pet loss support group and presented by request at animal shelters to the workers. I had seen Susan Cohen, Terry Anderson, Ben Granger, Carolyn Butler and Laurel Lagoni, and Leo Bustad at the conferences and I was humbled and too shy to introduce myself. I finally introduced myself to some of them sometime after I obtained the position at LSU.
I was calling LSU School of Veterinary Medicine to let them know of my presentations and work, and the Dean’s secretary said, “Well, we are looking for a counselor, but the application deadline has passed.” She put me on hold and said that if I could have my resume there the next day, I could still be considered. Remember there was no email as this was 1990. I delivered my resume 73 miles away to the school, which led to several interviews and then an interview with then Dean William Jenkins. Dr. Jenkins went on to become Chancellor and President of LSU in the years to come. He said that he wanted someone who in 20 hours a week could develop a grief counseling program for LSU’s hospital, all LSU alumni, provide counseling for staff, students and faculty (800 people), and supervise social work interns from LSU School of Social Work. I asked if I could do an AAT program as well, and he smiled and said, “Anything else you want to do.” I said yes, yes, and yes. With time, I was able to show him numbers, and we diminished counseling services and offered to students only. I say “we,” because one of my first MSW interns was Stephanie Walker Johnson. I lived 73 miles away and could only do 20 hours a week, and after she graduated with her MSW, she became my assistant and then took over the position when I left. Stephanie has maintained and enhanced the program now for 26 years!
I was at LSU from 1990-1994, a short time, but we developed a pet loss service for the hospital, a pet loss group, the counseling program for students, a model AAT program in partnership with the School of Social Work (the first program to be allowed into a major medical facility in Louisiana), and I began teaching in rounds and in the curriculum. We held a conference on the Human-Animal Bond. I had to overcome my shyness to present, and some still tease me about using index cards in the beginning. I was asked to write articles about stress management by orthopedic surgeon Derrel Elkins, DVM which in 1994 became our book Stress Management for the Veterinary Practice Team. My own pet loss book for children Because of Flowers and Dancers was also published in 1994. Because of the friendship developed with Carolyn Butler and Laurel Lagoni, I realized that we couldn’t simplistically expand pet loss to the loss of a horse. So having been a horse owner all of my life, I theorized and educated about loss and euthanasia of a horse in “The Human-Horse Bond and Client Bereavement,” published in 1996.
In 1994, I interviewed across the country for other positions to prompt LSU for more in terms of my position there so that I could relocate closer to the school. In doing so, I was offered a tenure track position teaching in the BSW program at Idaho State University. Louisiana was going through a recession and couldn’t compete, and as many of you know, very few without a Ph.D. are ever offered such an opportunity. I moved to Idaho with two daughters and a host of assorted small and large animals. There I taught, lived on a mountain, and had a blast until 2008. I also continued helping to develop programs there, presenting, publishing, and serving as the state’s Foundation Pet Loss Consultant. I continued the same when I moved to Texas in 2008. As faculty in the BSW program at Texas Woman’s University in 2013, a student named Briana Schultz, having listened to my tales, wanted to do her online MSW and her VSW certificate through the University of Tennessee. She asked me to find her an internship in Texas, and I did. The VSW program at the Center for Veterinary Specialty + Emergency Care was created.
In the 80’s to 90’s, a veterinarian who pursued internships and residencies toward specialty expected to live out their careers in academia. This began to change in the 90’s and today, most who specialize will be in privately owned or corporately owned practices. At the VSW Summit in October 2015, I presented about the development of this kind of social work internship. Melinda Larkin of JAVMA published an article in January of 2016 which resulted in hospitals contacting me to develop programs similarly.
I had one goal when I was a kid: If the time came that we had to leave earth with only a few things and a few people, well, I hoped that we would be convinced that the animals would have to be included. As I entered higher education and training, this translated to a goal for society to recognize the abilities of animals to make us better humans, to fulfill needs that other humans may never fulfill, and to see them as not only utilitarian but essential for our humanity. More importantly, I hoped that the animals would help those who experienced the bond achieve some bit of a spiritually integrated being. Well, as we succeeded in elevating our relationships with animals, the people of like-minds who devote their lives to caring for the animals, the veterinarians, veterinary professionals around them, shelter workers, those involved in animal welfare, rescue, lab animal work, exotic animal work, etc. have been presented with new and hard challenges. It never entered my mind years ago that elevating the human-animal bond could so challenge and even harm those so instrumental for the animals’ survival.
Laurel wrote this, and I wholeheartedly agree:
“Still, in my heart, I believe every veterinarian needs to understand grief and be skilled in dealing with it so they can be present with their patients and clients when pets die or are euthanized. I think it’s a huge part of what sets veterinarians apart from human physicians and helps them stay human in the face of all the science, treatment protocols, financial matters, staff supervision, etc. they must deal with day after day after day. I think grief support is ultimately what clients count on veterinarians for, what they trust them to do for them.”
I see social workers and other mental health practitioners now as essential in the dynamic and not only when there is grief. When the barrage of comments on social media is too much, or the documentation is strangling, or the co-workers become negative, or the owners can’t afford anything, or when they need a break from death…it’s not grief only anymore. So there can be disillusionment too, but disillusionment is also about grief, right? For all of these things, and when an animal, non-speaking but completely equal in the family or to the professional individual who is taking care of them, and when that caretaker is spending all of their physical, spiritual, and psychic energy on the animals’ behalf…. the missing piece, the relief, the way the caretaker finds their path back to the hope, is the social worker/trained mental health practitioner. At least we can assist.
Sandra Brackenridge, LCSW
Veterinary Social Worker, www.cvsecvet.com
Texas State Board Approved Supervisor
Social Work Consulting and Counseling for Veterinary Practices
Phone: 940-269-0140 or 208-705-0088