Exploring Animal Assisted Therapy at NYU Silver

Animal Assisted Therapy in Social Work (AATSW) provides NYU Silver School of Social Work students the opportunity to learn more about animal assisted therapy (AAT) and to explore the multitudes of animal-assisted interventions that are applicable in the social work field. The student-run collective provides occasions for group discussion, guest speaker presentations, and direct practice through AAT volunteer opportunities.

According to the AATSW mission description, animal-assisted interventions range from “clinical applications and programs to evidence-based research in the field.” AAT is used with recovering neurosurgery patients to aid in the rehabilitation of their fine motor skills, with developmentally disabled individuals, with senior citizens as a source of emotional comfort and social contact, and with veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorders.

As AATSW co-leader Allison Hagan, MSW ’14, explained, “AAT has been found to lower depression and anxiety. You can see immediate decreases in blood pressure and release of endorphins. Participants describe decreased feelings of isolation, alienation, and other improvements in their mental health and well-being after spending time with registered therapy animals.”

Since its inception last year, the group has collaborated with several New York City-based agencies that utilize animal-assisted interventions in a social work context. In December, the AATSW invited Greer Griffith, the director of Angel on a Leash, and Nancy George-Michalson, the animal therapy program coordinator at Pet Partners, an organization that trains animals to become registered therapy animals. They spoke to members about Angel on a Leash’s role in creating therapy dog programs in health care facilities and other settings across the country. A contracted provider for Memorial Sloane Kettering and New Alternatives for Children in NYC, Angel on a Leash connects insured volunteer handlers and their dogs to agencies in need of AAT interventions.

AATSW has been confronted with the practical reality that most graduate students in New York City do not own dogs of their own to train and volunteer with; so, as a way of giving students the chance to practice AAT hands on, the AATSW works with Angels on a Leash and Pet Partners. Last year, AATSW members partnered with these groups and held a volunteer event at a senior citizen center in Greenwich Village. Students paired with registered pet therapy teams to visit and socialize with center residents.

This year, the group has also targeted organizations such as the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City Animals for volunteer and fundraising opportunities. One subsidiary of the Alliance for NYC’s Animals is the Urban Resource Institute’s People and Animals Living Safety (URI PALS) program, which launched last year as New York City’s first initiative to shelter domestic violence survivors with their pets. The AATSW student group has collaborated with this shelter, inviting them to speak in the fall at Common Day to provide students the opportunity to learn about a new and growing area of social work in New York City.

This spring, AATSW is partnering with the Phi Alpha Honor Society to plan an event where members of both organizations will collect comforters and blankets to donate to local shelters. The groups also collaborated to organize two visits this past March to the BARC animal shelter in Williamsburg, where students had the chance to meet and walk dogs waiting to be adopted. And for MSW students already feeling the overwhelming specter of finals looming, fear not: the AATSW is planning a Puppies for Finals event, in which students will have the opportunity to interact with companion dogs in training and hopefully cuddle away some anxiety.

The AATSW meets every other Tuesday at 6:30pm in the Parlor at 1WSN. Meetings are open to all, and attendance is encouraged!