What do you get when you cross a love of animals with a love of learning? Saint Leo University faculty members created the Interdisciplinary Approaches to Therapy and Service Animals course in 2017, and it now is being offered for its sixth semester.
Social work, education, human services, and criminal justice faculty teach this course, which provides an overview of human-animal interactions and the human-animal bond, and how those affect animals, society, and the work of those in “helping careers.”
Faculty members who are wild about animals combined their talents, knowledge, and research to create this popular course. Students learn about the social, physical, and emotional/psychological effects of human-animal interactions with interdisciplinary helping professions; educational benefits; therapeutic roles of animals; ethical and animal welfare considerations; and the connection between violence toward people and violence toward animals.
Saint Leo students get hands-on experience working with animals in various capacities. While dogs seem to be the most popular, they also work with other animals. In addition to University Campus, the course has been offered at the Ocala Education Center.
Last year, students even created a children’s coloring book, Dear Charlotte’s Story: A Coloring Book, and an accompanying website, Dear Charlotte, The Saint Leo Pig, based on one of Dr. Rhondda Waddell’s pigs. “This project came about after I was given a mini pig that no longer was living her best life,” said Waddell, associate dean of the College of Education and Social Services.
“During the course of the class, the students decided to create the website and book as a class activity,” she said.
“Then as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions on class attendance in-person, they wanted to offer something more that children could do while home on their computers that might put their minds at ease and distract them from the restrictions of confinement and generalized worry that comes from social distancing.”
And who can resist an adorable mini pig? “Anyone can enjoy the heartwarming story of Charlotte finding her forever home, and her interest in helping others,” Waddell said. Everyone can “enjoy her words of comfort and the joyful pictures of her animal friends.”
Then-student Joshua Hoffman ’21, a criminal justice major, was the author while Adrien Velez, 11-year-old brother of social work major Yulissa Velez, drew illustrations for the children’s coloring book. Then-students Allison Daul ’21 (biology major); Mike Simmons ’20 (criminal justice major); Jessica Skrelunas ’21 (psychology major); and Velez created a website using Wix.com to showcase the little pig.
“She lives with her newfound dog siblings, and sister, Cherry Moon Pie, who is another pig!” the website states in the “About Charlotte” section. “Charlotte is a happy girl who has gone through challenges just like me and you. We will share her advice and adventures with all of you!”
For author Hoffman, working on the Dear Charlotte project was a fun idea that “quickly became real,” he said. “Reflecting on the experience, what means the most to me is that we, in a unique way, took some of the core concepts of the class and applied them to the real world,” Hoffman said. “Service and therapy animals are very effective when supporting someone in an educational environment, and the same excitement and enthusiasm we had for Charlotte can now hopefully contribute to a child’s reading and writing skills through the Dear Charlotte project.”
While holding classes online was challenging, Saint Leo’s faculty members made sure students had a great experience. “In terms of class field trips, we had planned for a visit to the Emerald M Therapeutic Riding Center,” Waddell said. “I went with another faculty member from education, Dr. Jodi Lamb, and filmed the entire tour with Emerald M director Lisa Michaelangelo, and it was awesome. I embedded the video into Prezi to share in class. Surprisingly, I received a complimentary email from Prezi saying it was a valuable video and addressed the COVID-19 ramifications on the farm, and that was a valuable learning experience.”
Special guests and their beloved animals were welcomed via Zoom. “We missed touching them, but it was still fulfilling to have this encounter with the animals and their handlers,” Waddell said.
The interdisciplinary class features many types of animal interactions and therapies from K-9 officers to equine therapy, and from therapy-service dogs for veterans to search and rescue animals.
Several faculty members shared their experiences from interdisciplinary perspectives. For example, Dr. Mike Campbell, associate professor of social work, spoke about his research in hospitals regarding volunteers and their therapy animals’ relationships to their volunteer work, and Dr. Debra Mims, associate professor of criminal justice, spoke about her work as a police officer with equines and her dog behavior training work.
Mims taught the course in Spring 2021. The owner of eight dogs, she knows the benefits the canines offer. Her dissertation described the use of therapy dogs to help victimized children talk about abuse. Mims’ animals include therapy, agility, obedience, and critical incident stress management team dogs, as well as Pasco County (FL) family court dogs. Mims also is the therapy dog liaison for the Region 5 Tampa Bay Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which responds in crisis situations.
“I definitely think this is a worthwhile course for students,” Mims said. “We discuss that as humans, we all have certain needs that must be met for us to be healthy: physically, mentally, and emotionally. Animals make great therapists, and we discuss how they can aid mental health issues, and the scientific findings that link mental well-being to the presence of animals.”
This Fall Semester, the course is being taught by Dr. Ospina-Kammerer (Dr. VOK), professor of social work. The College of Education and Social Services faculty plan on writing more children’s books, focusing on social justice issues and helping children overcome challenges.