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Social work grads, dogs making positive impact

It’s one of those double-take moments: “Did I just see a dog walk across the stage?”

Well, if you’ve attended a DU Commencement at the Graduate School of Social Work, the answer is yes, you likely did see a dog walk across the stage. It’s part of a special program that allows DU social work students and dogs to learn together to become therapy teams.

“These teams are becoming more and more accepted in practice,” says Philip Tedeschi, the program’s coordinator and clinical director of the Institute for Human Animal Connection.

The project is entering its fifth year and has graduated more than 20 teams, many of whom are now working in the Denver metro area and around the country to improve the lives of kids, the elderly and families.

One of those teams is Kelsey Hopson (MSW ’10) and her dog, Samantha, a three-year-old lab-golden retriever mix. They do in-home therapy and help youth adjust to new adoptive families, among other therapy assignments.

“Samantha helps people create healthy bonds with others, she’s consistently accepting and loves them no matter what they do,” Hopson says. “It’s often important for these kids to have a non-judgmental presence and that’s what Samantha is. So now the kids are making new friends with Samantha’s help.”

Tedeschi says it can be difficult for human therapists to establish working relationships with young people who may have difficulty trusting others, but dogs are helping break the ice.

“For people who’ve been hurt and have a distrust of humans for whatever reason, the dogs can help them make therapeutic headway where traditional methods stall,” Tedeschi says. “When a good therapy dog is paired with a talented social worker we can often establish a level of safety and motivation that creates opportunity for genuine therapeutic connection and that is when progress in therapy occurs.”

One DU therapy team is teaching kids in Denver-area public housing how to properly care for animals as a way to learn responsibility and compassion for others. Another pair is helping kids who’ve been removed from public schools for serious behavioral problems develop emotional regulation, improved attention and motivation. Another team works in a nursing home to motivate the elderly for activities such as regular walking and to stimulate conversation, which research says improves patients’ cognition and mood.

Tedeschi says therapy dogs have been used for many years in places such as hospitals to visit patients, but he says the spark for the canine therapy program started at The Graduate School of Social Work by asking, ‘What if we intentionally created a team by pairing really skilled dogs and skilled social work students?’

Doing that, he says, gives students the professional social work skills they need to effectively include their dogs in practice with clients, both through the established social work curriculum and through supervised field internships.

Tedeschi says dogs are particularly good at working with people because of our close relationship with dogs and domestication has resulted in dogs reading people and actually becoming more socially intelligent about them.

“Dogs are incredible because they are so highly observant of humans. They’re getting better at understanding our voices, tones, words, gestures, facial expressions and postures — this is the evolutionary track dogs are on,” Tedeschi says. “Dogs are paying attention and that has implications for intervening in human health issues, especially when genuine connection is needed. People are becoming increasingly isolated in our society through technology and urbanization, riding in cars for long commutes and staring at computer screens for hours on end.”

Tedeschi says one of dogs’ greatest qualities is that they live in the here and now.

“They’re not stressing over the abstract complexities of life and many people report that their simplest and most reliable relationships are with their dogs, it’s a relationship that makes people feel valued,” Tedeschi says. “It shouldn’t surprise us that the research also supports that dogs can increase the number of social interactions with other people.”

These dogs must complete a canine good citizenship test and therapy dog certification and then become permanent members of the DU graduates’ families, and they work together throughout the second year of graduate school and into the students’ careers.

“Samantha lives with me and we get along great,” Hopson says. “She’s kind of bomb-proof, nothing much bothers her.”

Hopson says Samantha does have one quirk when she’s not working.

“She likes to race other dogs and win the races,” Hopson says. “If she’s in the middle of a race she’s losing, she’ll quit racing and the sulk around for a while. She’s strangely very competitive.”

As for Hopson, she loves her job more than she ever imagined. “The work is more rewarding than I ever thought it’d be. I have at least one moment every week that just blows me away.”

Tedeschi says DU is working with Freedom Service Dogs, a Colorado nonprofit that rescues dogs from area shelters and trains them for DU and is establishing relationships with Colorado Animal Rescue. The Loretta Boyd Charitable Trust also provided pilot funding to the dog therapy project.

DU’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the Graduate School of Social Work will host “The Role of Shelter Dogs in Human Health: The Colorado Connection” on May 3 from 5–8 p.m. in the Boettcher Foundation Community Room. The event will feature presentations by Hal Herzog and some of DU’s talented human-canine teams. For more information, visit and

Tedeschi spoke at the 2010 TEDxDU event on human-animal connections at the Newman Center for the Performing Arts. TED is a nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading.” At TED conferences, leading scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs and artists present their ideas in 18 minutes or less. TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. DU will host its second local event — TEDxDU 2011— on May 13.



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