Q&A With Katherine Compitus, MSW ’09/DSW ’20

Kathy Compitus headshot

The executive-style structure of NYU Silver’s Doctorate of Clinical Social Work (DSW) program was ideal for DSW Class of 2020 graduate Katherine “Kathy” Compitus, who maintained a more than full-time work schedule throughout the program. In addition to pursuing her doctorate and working as a mental health clinicial and psychiatric social worker, she served as the chairman of Surrey Hills Sanctuary, a non-profit organization she founded whose programs are based on Applied Anthrozoology (the direct application of the Human-Animal bond).

While she was an MSW student at NYU Silver from 2009-11, both of Dr. Compitus’ field placements related to the human-animal bond. She explained that she has always had an affinity for animals and the area is one in which she has developed considerable expertise. She is also especially interested in crisis intervention and trauma therapy, particularly working with pediatric trauma survivors.

A self-described “life-long learner,” Dr. Compitus holds not only her MSW and DSW, but also an MSEd in Education, and an MA in Biopsychology (Animal Behavior). She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a Certified Family Trauma Therapist, an attachment theorist, and is trained in both Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). “The DSW,” she said, “is the culmination of my formal education.”

Dr. Compitus continues to lead Surry Hill Sanctuary and currently works both in private practice, utilizing an integrative approach that combines psychodynamic psychotherapy, DBT, CBT, Animal-Assisted Therapy, EMDR, and Hypnotherapy, and at Orange Regional Medical Center as a psychiatric social worker in the emergency department. She is also an Adjunct Lecturer at Silver, and teaches the popular MSW elective “The Human-Animal Bond and Direct Social Work Practice.” Her research focuses primarily on pediatric mental health, attachment theory, and the human-animal bond. 

In 2021, her book The Human-Animal Bond in Clinical Social Work Practice was published by Springer as part of the Essential Clinical Social Work Series.

NYU Silver’s Communications Department spoke with Dr. Compitus after her first year in the DSW program about her experience to date and her plans once she earned her degree.

Why did you decide to pursue a DSW?

I chose to pursue the DSW instead of the research-intensive PhD program is because of its emphasis on applied knowledge. Reading about, studying, and doing are different things. All are very valuable and necessary but my goal is to become a more skilled, knowledgeable leader and clinician. I am interested in research, and there is a research aspect to the DSW program, but the focus is on people and also on teaching practical skills to the next generation of social workers.

Has your first year in the DSW program changed your work?

I came into the DSW program with a foot in two worlds: trauma therapy and the human-animal bond (applied anthrozoology). With the support of the faculty, I have combined my two passions. Rather than drive me toward what they thought I should be doing, they pushed me to better myself in following my own interests. They are teaching me how to become an advanced clinician and critically thinking scholar. It is challenging, thought provoking, and really helping me to grow.

Is it correct that the DSW program has an emphasis on theory development?

Absolutely. I love that every lesson we learn, every class we take, and every paper we write is geared toward training us to publish and to become advanced researchers and experts in the field. I am an attachment theorist at heart, but I really appreciate that we are learning in depth about so many different theories and how to apply them to our work. We are not just regurgitating information; we are learning to create new ideas.

What has been your favorite course so far?

It is hard to say since I have enjoyed them all, but the first semester course on Philosophies of Knowledge and Mind was particularly fascinating. Unlike MSW classes, which are more concrete, DSW classes tend to be more philosophical. This course explored questions such as “How do we know what is real?” “What makes one point more valid than another?” and “How do we define what is ‘normal?’”

You mentioned research; what kind are you doing?

Currently, I am not doing formal research with human subjects, but I am writing up case studies for publication illustrating how I have integrated Animal-Assisted Therapy into the DBT treatment of people with Borderline Personality Disorder. Because of their forgiving nature, animals are uniquely designed to help us with things like emotional regulation. For example, a client of mine who struggles to manage her anger said that when she gets dysregulated and starts yelling, her dog will walk away from her. When she calms herself, her dog will come back without any judgment. So we have integrated her dog into her sessions to help her regulate her emotions; when her dog starts walking away, she knows it is time to check herself.

In the near future, I plan to seek Institutional Review Board approval to conduct a survey of veterinarians, whom prior research has found have significantly higher rates of suicide than the general population.

Can you tell a bit about your nonprofit?

I started Surrey Hills Sanctuary because I met several people with limited incomes, whose pets had emergency medical needs that they could not afford to have treated. There was one man with an intellectual disability who lived alone, was on public assistance, and whose dog had a stroke. The vet said the dog could recover with aqua-therapy but the man could not afford it, so I raised several thousand dollars for the treatment and the dog fully recovered. It was heartbreaking to me that this man could have lost his dog, who was his primary source of support, to something that was easily curable if only he had access to more money. That is how Surrey Hills Sanctuary started but it quickly expanded to include Animal-Assisted Therapy, mostly with pediatric trauma survivors, as well as some “read for me” programs where children with dyslexia read to the dogs, who are a nonjudgmental audience. We have also done a lot of education about the difference between psychiatric service dogs, emotional support animals, and therapy dogs.

What do you plan to do when you complete your degree? 

I want to expand the scope of Surrey Hills Sanctuary to help more people. Most people do not realize that the field of the Human-Animal Bond is actually quite extensive. It relates to homelessness, domestic violence, breed specific legislation, animal hoarding, and psychiatric service dogs.  Most people just think of Animal-Assisted Therapy, which is a whole treatment modality in itself, but just a small part of this huge field.

I also want to keep doing research and teaching as an advanced clinician. Studies have shown that many clinicians would love to start integrating Animal-Assisted Therapy into their practice but they do not know how. Just like with any other treatment modality, you needs goals, objectives and you need a treatment plan – you cannot just bring a dog into your practice and call it Animal-Assisted Therapy. 

We have known about the psychological benefits of the Human-Animal Bond for a long time; John Locke in the 1600s first suggested that children benefit from the companionship of small animals because it helps them to develop empathy.  The field is quietly growing but still remains relatively unknown. One of my goals as a DSW is to raise awareness among clinicians of the various areas of social work that involve the Human-Animal Bond, and to train them to apply that knowledge in practic