Academics and Research

Social Work professor says animals are ‘co-therapists’

Philip Tedeschi, clinical associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), has hairy co-workers.

His favorites are the horses, but goats come in at a close second, followed by dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs, in no particular order.

Tedeschi has been running the animal-assisted therapy program at the University of Denver for nearly 10 years and says DU’s GSSW program is unique in its approach to this form of therapy. But the benefits of animal therapy have been well-known to Tedeschi since he was a young veterinary student at the University of Wisconsin.

“I was teaching horseback riding as a job, and I was asked to teach a class of people from the local mental health center,” Tedeschi recalls. “When that group of individuals came off the bus, I was alarmed by the strange behaviors I observed. But I ended up captivated by the effect the horses had on them. A profound change occurred with those individuals on that very first day.

“That really changed my life’s trajectory.”

Tedeschi switched into the social work program and created his own degree to incorporate a study of animal-assisted therapy and experiential and motivational therapies.

Today, Tedeschi teaches in GSSW’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. He founded several nonprofits that serve children, adults and families facing interpersonal issues, and he is the clinical services administrator for Rocky Mountain Care Systems Inc., through which he is creating therapeutic farms to serve youth and provide opportunities for social work students to learn to use animal-assisted therapy approaches.

“We are creating a whole new generation of social workers,” he says.

Jennifer Boggs is earning an MSW with a certificate in animal-assisted social work.

“Horses have always been my passion, and I wanted to use horses to help people,” Boggs says.

Tedeschi adds that working with animals also helps alleviate the all-too-common burnout that many social workers experience.

“I’ve done social work now for 23 years with some very difficult issues, and I’ve never been bored. There are days when I don’t want to hear the term ‘sex abuse,’ but it is a rewarding opportunity to work outdoors with animals who can teach us so much about ourselves and are such patient teachers and wonderful co-therapists.”

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