Social Workers Promote Human-Pet Bond

Juliet SternbergJuliet Sternberg is a co-chair of Social Workers Advancing the Human-Animal Bond, or SWAHAB, which is hosted by the NASW New York City Chapter.

Social workers may routinely help people who are dealing with the loss of a pet, but a group in New York City is working to take human-animal relationships to a deeper understanding.

“When my dog died, it was a profound loss,” said Robert Schachter, executive director of NASW’s New York City Chapter.

Since 2007, the chapter has hosted monthly meetings of Social Workers Advancing the Human-Animal Bond, or SWAHAB. Membership is open to social workers and related professionals who are interested in the unique interaction between people and animals, said Juliet Sternberg, one of the group’s co-chairs.

“I think it’s vitally important that social workers, even if they aren’t animal lovers themselves, understand that clients who live with animals regard them very much as members of the family,” said Sternberg, who works as the practice director of Hope Veterinary Clinic in Brooklyn. Some people regard their relationships with their pets as even stronger than a family bond, she noted.

Sternberg expressed the need for social workers to understand that pet owners can undergo severe trauma when a pet is ill or dies. Too often, a grieving owner won’t feel validated for such feelings of loss, Steinberg explained. Social workers, who are well trained in communication, can help support clients with their positive relationships with their animals as part of the client’s overall support system, she said.

Susan CohenSusan Cohen was director of counseling at The Animal Medical Center in New York City.

Susan Phillips Cohen is SWAHAB’s other co-chair. She noted that the chapter has provided a significant boost to the program.

“Dr. Schachter and the rest of the chapter have cheered us on, allowed us to grow and helped us connect with other social workers,” said Cohen, who recently retired after 28 years as director of counseling at The Animal Medical Center in New York City.

“Over half of all U.S. households have a pet, so you can see that human-animal interaction touches many lives,” she said.

SWAHAB regularly hosts speakers and has heard from experts in equine-facilitated psychotherapy, animal hoarding, service animals, a pets-in-prison program, pet loss and the role that animals play in psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

Members represent various specialties, from veterinary settings to children’s service agencies, animal welfare organizations and entities that deal with family violence and private practices. The group focuses on problems that are similar to and intertwined with more conventional social work concerns, Sternberg noted.

Specifically, it aims to:

  • Educate professionals and students in the human service field on multiple issues related to the human-animal bond, including attachment issues, pet loss and bereavement.
  • Promote and advocate for the involvement and recognition of service animals in the social work and health care professions.
  • Recognize and educate others about myriad human-animal concerns, including the correlation between animal abuse and other types of violence, the consideration of animals in times of crisis and disaster response, and animal hoarding.
  • Support social workers and others who are working in environments in which both human welfare and animal welfare are at stake.

Schachter said having SWAHAB hold its meetings at the chapter office has enhanced the chapter’s capacity to reach other social workers. He said it is important to be open to special interest groups, because “social workers work in a lot of different contexts.”

Sternberg, who was recently featured in a USA Today column by Sharon L. Petas, said she believes social work’s involvement with human-animal bonding will continue to grow.

“I think if we train social workers from day one to include animals in their understanding of family dynamics, the next generation of social workers will be better equipped to support their clients, in whatever field they work,” she said. “Aside from the value of pets, animals have an amazing role to play in healing.”