A Multidisciplinary and Trauma-Informed Approach to Community-Based Support Programs

Written by Lauralee Dorst, RVT, Dillon Dodson, RSW, MSW, Beverley McKee, CDBC, CPDT-KA

In 2023, Toronto Humane Society launched a pop-up pet support program designed specifically to provide wellness, behavior and social services to underserved communities. While community wellness is not new to the organization, this program was designed to offer essential veterinary and behavioral services through a trauma-informed lens to individuals experiencing vulnerable housing situations in Toronto, Canada. An estimated 200,000 people experience homelessness in Canada, with the highest number of homeless individuals based in the City of Toronto.1 Of that number, an estimated 20% of those individuals are pet owners.2

Clinic Purpose

What makes this program different from past outreach programs undertaken by Toronto Humane Society is a multidisciplinary approach that adds veterinary social work and animal behavior components to traditional wellness outreach models. This model represents a unique least intrusive, minimally aversive, and trauma-informed approach to wellness that intersects the needs of both animals and humans in underserved or vulnerable communities and brings in experts in trauma-informed care to ensure nonthreatening, nonjudgmental, and accessible service to unhoused pet parents with experiences of trauma and surviving violence.

The initiative was conceptualized and funding secured by Toronto Humane Society’s Lauralee Dorst, RVT, director of community animal welfare, and Dillon Dodson, RSW, MSW, director of social work. The program provides free veterinary services in the form of pop-up clinics for unhoused, temporarily housed, and vulnerably housed pet parents, including those in encampments. In developing the program, Dorst and Dodson actively sought community partnerships to both identify need and strengthen community relationships, and they worked in case-by-case provisions for post-clinic services to those in need.

Recognizing the environmental stress likely present for animals in families facing housing vulnerability, the pair recruited former IAABC board secretary and chief operating officer Beverley McKee, CDBC, CPDT-KA, who is currently the Society’s manager, pet parent training and support, to collaborate with the intent of including free behavior counseling services and a LIMA approach to patient care during wellness and vaccination appointments. Finally, they recruited a dream team of staff veterinarians, veterinary technicians, customer support agents, and Toronto Humane Society volunteers, along with support from the Society’s Food Bank to ensure that essential food and supplies were available during clinics for those in need.

The Role of Veterinary Social Work

Veterinary social work is a relatively new area of veterinary medicine. Dodson defines veterinary social work as the work that occurs at the intersection of human and animal wellness.

This work recognizes that to bring the best outcomes, both species must be considered. Animals act as an intervention point in our engagement with people. By engaging with people about their animals, we can encourage them to share other difficulties that are present. This allows us to provide a soft landing and a place of resource connection to bring improvement to the bonded family as a whole, rather than severing the human -animal bond or only directing intentional care to either one or the other. At its core, veterinary social work links the often-siloed industries of human care and animal care, and encourages a collaborative view of health and wellness recognizing the reciprocal nature of the human-animal bond.

The intersection of behavioral health and physiological wellness are well known. Incorporating a trauma-informed veterinary social work element and a LIMA approach to behavioral care to this unique outreach program serves to inform that holistic approach even more.

Veterinary social work serves as a linchpin in addressing systemic issues that impact both human and non-human family members. Social workers possess a unique skill set that enables them to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics, provide support to survivors of systemic marginalization, and advocate for systemic change. Their ability to engage with diverse populations and create safe spaces for disclosure and healing is invaluable in cases of resource scarcity and/or abuse that involve both humans and animals.

Within the context of animal welfare, social workers play a pivotal role in identifying signs of animal abuse, assessing the safety of both animals and humans, and connecting survivors to appropriate resources. By fostering collaboration between various agencies, including law enforcement, child protection services, and animal welfare organizations, social workers contribute to a comprehensive and coordinated response to instances of violence.

From a LIMA lens, the principles of agency and choice for the human learner become very important when serving a vulnerable community, especially when one approaches client care with a trauma-informed framework.

The team

Trauma- Informed Care Defined

Trauma-informed care is defined as an approach to engaging people with histories of trauma that recognize the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role trauma has played in their lives.3

The following key principles guide trauma-informed care:

  • Realize the prevalence of trauma in the lives of our community. Any organization that offers services to people will encounter trauma and trauma symptoms. We must increase awareness of the prevalence and impact of trauma in the lives of our community. By recognizing that an abused/neglected dog may be a window into the lives of an abused/traumatized owner, we are uniquely positioned to bear witness to the reality of how trauma impacts not only animals but also their caregivers.
  • Recognize the signs, symptoms, and role trauma plays in the lives of pet guardians, staff, and others involved. By raising our consciousness of its prevalence, we may recognize the signs not only in owners but in our colleagues as well.
  • Respond by integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices. As an agency, a department, and individuals, we must consider assessing practices and policies that may inadvertently create inequity. This requires us to reduce possible experiences of retriggering, retraumatizing, and ultimately, disempowering owners. By taking a “walk” through service provision through the eyes of a service user and soliciting owners’ input, we stand to increase equity and reduce retraumatization. Trauma-informed care does not require any specific training to employ, rather it emphasizes the basic principle of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment. As such, being trauma-informed is not applicable to only service users, rather it is a foundational way of simply being human with each other. Being trauma-informed does not require, nor ask us to assume everyone requesting our services has experienced trauma, rather it presumes the possibility.
  • Resist retraumatizing those involved and employ a strength-based approach. Crises and traumas are inherently disconnecting and often isolating. Further, an inherent power dynamic exists between owners seeking services and those providing services. By dismantling the concept of “us” (animal care experts) versus “them” (people in need of our service), and instead working collaboratively, we can equalize the power dynamic and stand “with.” It is crucial to recognize that in the context of providing service, we are entering into partnership with owners; both parties have expertise and value, and share a common goal of optimal wellness and safety for the animal. Creating an alliance with our owners is key and serves as a foundation for authentic and safe relationship development. Within this context, we can offer the most relevant information on animal health and care practices, which will ultimately bring the best outcomes for the pet.

When distilled, trauma-informed principles encourage us to work, recognize, and build on a culture of strength. We acknowledge that persons may have difficulties in one area of life but have effectively negotiated other areas. With any crisis, there exists the possibility for growth, and our involvement as animal care experts to our pet parents has the potential to play a significant role. By assuming pet parents are doing the best they can with the resources they have, we emphasize and build on their competencies. We work to identify and highlight areas of strengths in owners as they are always present. It is looking for the “green lights” rather than the “red flags.”4

Trauma-Informed Behavior Interventions Within a LIMA Framework

Providing behavior interventions with a trauma-informed approach demands an ability to exercise nonjudgmental and open-minded problem-solving skills while staying within LIMA methodology. For example, a client attending a clinic held in September 2023 in a 900-bed community shelter sought out behavioral advice to help teach their large Mastiff how to walk on leash without pulling. They were currently using a prong collar and were unhappy to use it, but if the strong dog were to pull free from the owner and potentially jump up on or otherwise interfere with another person, this would result in them losing their bed.

Another client attending a clinic held at an encampment in August presented with a fearful American Pitbull Terrier, and wished for advice on how to teach their dog to be more threatening because the dog would run into a corner and hide when other members of the encampment entered their tent and stole supplies.

One of the many fearful pitbulls the team has worked with.

Applying LIMA-based interventions in these circumstances required creativity and a philosophy of “progress rather than perfection” based on limited resources available. It is important to recognize that these clients would have limited capability to attend follow-up sessions or realistically work through methodical training plans. The goal was to listen empathetically and non-judgmentally to the client’s training goal, present a realistic overview of what kind of training those goals would require, provide management solutions, and, in some cases, gently suggest other goals that might present less stress to the animal in question. At the same time, a goal was to minimize aversive equipment or punitive training and management methods while introducing the concept of positive reinforcement training.

For the Mastiff, guidelines on teaching loose leash walking were provided, along with a hands-on demonstration and instructions to create distance when walking through densely populated areas of the facility to avoid the potential for the dog to jump on someone. Distance from distractions would also allow the dog to focus more easily on the handler. We had no suitable no-pull harnesses to provide the client on-site, so they were provided with instructions on how to make an emergency leash harness for situations in which their dog was likely to pull strongly, so that the prong collar could be removed. The goal was to eliminate the leash harness once loose leash walking skills were generalized or to provide the client with a suitable no-pull harness if they were able to visit our facility to pick one up. We also invited the client to join our foundations skills group training classes if they were able.

The client with the fearful Pitbull Terrier was provided with information on using counterconditioning and desensitization to help build confidence in their dog. We discussed the kind of onerous and methodical training that goes into training protection dogs and had a frank discussion around the kind of stress this kind of training would subject their already fearful dog to. Working with the client, we looked at potential alternative solutions, and agreed that training the dog to bark on cue using positive reinforcement would be an acceptable solution. We discussed how they could then train a cue transfer so that the sound of the tent entrance rustling could become a cue to bark. The client was offered free follow-up training sessions to help work through that plan if they wished.

In all cases, recognizing that training interventions were more effective with trainer support, free access to appropriate training classes or the opportunity to attend a follow-up private behavior consultation were provided.

RVT Telka Mallory making a new friend

Conclusion

As a team, over the course of four clinics through the summer and fall of 2023, we were able to service (77) pet parents and (86) animal patients through wellness examinations, behavior consultations, vaccinations, and parasite control. We also provided pet parents with 2,266 pounds of dog food and 292 pounds of cat food, along with essential equipment such as leashes and collars, dog coats, and enrichment toys. Each clinic represented a powerful day of connection with our community, with each other, and with our mission.

References

  1. Guliver-Garcia, T. (2014) Which city in Canada has the most homeless people per capita and why? Homeless Hub: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness [online]. Last accessed 2/9/2024.
  2. Lem, M. (2019) Serving homeless populations through a One Health approach. The Canadian Veterinary Journal 60:10.
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2014). SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. MD, SAMHSA.
  4. Crisis and Trauma Institute Inc. (2019) Trauma-informed care [online]. Last accessed 2/9/2024.

Beverley McKee, CDBC, CPDT-KA is the Manager, Pet Parent Training and Support for Toronto Humane Society. Bev leads a team providing animal training and behavior programming and education to pet parents.

Dillon Dodson, RSW, MSW is the Director of Social Work for Toronto Humane Society. In her role, Dillon develops and oversees all social work programs for the society.

Lauralee Dorst, RVT is the Director of Community Animal Welfare for Toronto Humane Society. Lauralee steers the strategic direction and operational effectiveness of all community-focused animal welfare initiatives for the society.

TO CITE: Dorst, L., Dodson, D. and McKee, B. (2024). A multidisciplinary and trauma-informed approach to community-based support programs. The IAABC Foundation Journal 29, doi: 10.55736/iaabcfj29.1



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