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Rachel Wright

Postgraduate VSW Certificate Program Participant


Q: Would you share a little with us about your educational background and experience as a social worker?

A: I received my Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Drug & Alcohol Studies from Washington State University, and my Master of Social Work from University of Washington. In addition to being a clinical social worker, I am a credentialed chemical dependency counselor. I have been a clinician since 1997, working with clients in a variety of settings including: residential treatment, community mental health, school-based, hospitals and hospice agencies. Since 2003, I have been a Pet Partners team with multiple animals (dogs and rabbits!) and have incorporated animal assisted therapy as a powerful tool with clients in the counseling process. For six years, I also worked as the director of programs and therapy animal program manager for Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society). In addition to my role as a veterinary social worker, I own a private practice, Paws To Connect Counseling LLC, where I specialize in grief and bereavement, co-occurring disorders, and integrate my therapy animals into counseling sessions.


Q: What attracted you to the Veterinary Social Work Certificate Program?  

A: I was drawn to veterinary social work due to my own personal experience of losing four of my beloved animals in two years. Particularly difficult was the loss of my best friend and therapy animal teammate, Mia, a Basset/Labrador mix, who courageously lived with lymphoma for three years. During this time frame, I worked closely and collaboratively with an excellent interdisciplinary veterinary team. I learned a great deal about veterinary medicine, the “roller-coaster ride” of anticipatory loss and caregiving, and navigated my own personal grief process. I have learned many powerful lessons and feel honored to now pay these gifts forward to others in need. I am passionate about supporting and advocating for individuals who are having difficulty with treatment decision-making, are grieving their beloved animal, or coping with daily stress and fatigue in caring for others. University of Tennessee’s veterinary social work certificate program has been outstanding. The curriculum and program support have provided me with the skills and resources to pursue this passion. Veterinary social work is truly a calling for me!  I feel grateful and humbled every day in my work with clients and staff; they continue to be my greatest teachers.


Q: Where did you complete your service learning project? How did you approach them to propose your project?

A: I completed my service learning project at Summit Veterinary Referral Center in Tacoma, WA. Summit is a large specialty clinic that provides integrated care with expertise in critical care, oncology, neurology, surgery, cardiology and ophthalmology. I have been a long-term client with my animals at Summit, and have a great deal of respect for the staff and services they provide. Therefore, I initially approached my animals’ oncologist, with whom I have had a long-standing connection. She was very enthusiastic, and in her role as both veterinarian and clinic partner she saw the potential benefits to clients and staff. This connection helped pave the way to integrate social work services at the clinic. As a result, the service learning project then developed into a paid position!


Q: What did you do at your service learning location?

A: My main areas of focus were (are) two-fold: animal-related grief and bereavement and compassion fatigue management. I provide the following services:  

  • Grief support for pet loss (outreach bereavement calls to clients after their animal’s death, and individual and family support)
  • Facilitation of a weekly drop-in pet loss support group for clients and community members
  • Help clients with making and processing difficult decisions (quality of life assessment, treatment decisions, end-of-life care)
  • Act as a liaison between the pet owner and veterinarian team
  • Be present before, during, and after euthanasia
  • Provide crisis intervention
  • Provide referrals to community support services, as needed
  • Offer educational resources, memorial and ritual ideas
  • Provide compassion fatigue management presentations and support (for staff and referring clinics).


Q: How receptive was your service learning host? Did you face any resistance?

A: The clinic and staff have been very receptive and supportive. Yes, there have been challenges to navigate; specifically around integrating compassion fatigue prevention and management. However, I expect this to be the case when incorporating something new and different into an already established system. It takes patience, perseverance, and time to build trust. Drawing upon a strengths-based perspective, I have found that these challenges offer an excellent opportunity for growth and change. There has been an incredibly positive response from clients and community members. Time and time again, clients have expressed being pleasantly surprised and grateful that they have access to an on-site social worker for support.


Q: How did your service learning turn into a job?

A: We began having conversations during my service learning about turning my role into a paid position. In collaboration with others at the clinic, I developed my job description, pay scale break down, and provided a synopsis report of the social work services provided. My main contact was absolutely instrumental in making a case for veterinary social work services. I am very grateful that the clinic’s partners and board of directors saw the benefits as well as future potential opportunities. Ultimately, they were willing to take a risk on creating and integrating this position.


Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring veterinary social workers?

A: Yes! Tap into your existing connections within the veterinary field, and work diligently to develop and nurture collaborative working relationships. Make yourself and your services invaluable and irreplaceable to clients and staff. It is important to find your advocates and champions, and also expect that there may be those who are skeptical, resistant, uncertain or neutral. Do not let that deter you!  Be compassionate, and find simple or creative ways to connect and understand differing perspectives and job challenges. Being a social worker in a veterinary clinic entails being a “go-getter” and a willingness to take risks to forge a new path. It can be a very fast-paced environment which requires an abundance of energy and the ability to “wear different hats”. This dynamic is both rewarding and challenging! Therefore, it is important to stay grounded and practice excellent self-care and boundary-setting. It is also easy to feel isolated in this field, so it is helpful to connect and network with others to gain insights, support and share best practices. 


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