Animals are Tanya Bailey’s driving force. She has been seen on campus with dogs, horses, and perhaps most notably Woodstock, her Silkie-breed registered therapy chicken.
Animals are the reason that the social work Ph.D. student was awarded the 2016 University of Minnesota Outstanding Community Service Award, the highest honor the University gives to a student for service to the greater community.
The award recognized Bailey for starting an animal-assisted interaction program to support the well-being of students on the Twin Cities campus. The program, called PAWS—Pet Away Worry and Stress—allows students to interact with registered therapy animals in order to relieve stress and anxiety.
“The PAWS program is an extraordinary gift from Tanya to the whole campus of the University of Minnesota and really to college students across the country as more and more universities emulate PAWS,” according to Elizabeth Lightfoot, professor and director of the School of Social Work Ph.D. program.
Bailey’s bond with animals goes back to her childhood in Indianapolis, where she had a habit of bringing home injured creatures. Her mother never sent any of them away. She got her first pet when she was about five—a rabbit that slept with her.
“I had a lot of support for my love for animals,” says Bailey. “Animals and being connected to nature were just my orientation.”
Being outside and bonding with animals, especially during the summers she spent on her aunt and uncle’s farm in Illinois, helped her through the traumatic time of her parents’ divorce when she was eight.
“Sometimes being with humans is difficult, but animals take us to a deeper place much quicker,” Bailey says. “They allow us to be vulnerable with them without fear of being judged.”
A licensed social worker, Bailey moved to the Twin Cities in 1995 and continued working with animal-assisted interactions in programs for individuals, families, school districts, and human service organizations. In 1996, she started a nonprofit organization that provided animal-assisted interaction programming on farms and in schools. Measuring the girth of a horse to teach circumference is just one example of her innovative techniques to make learning math both fun and real.
“That program was essentially my childhood for as many kids as I could find,” she says.
In 2012, Dr. Jean Larson recruited Bailey to become the principal animal-assisted interactions specialist in Larson’s Nature-Based Therapeutic Services program at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Besides her work in that program, Bailey also teaches courses on human–animal relationships in the University’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. Working at the U, Bailey decided it made sense for her to work on a Ph.D.
Bailey developed the PAWS program with Gary Christenson, M.D., chief medical officer at the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health, in the fall of 2013 out of concern for the emotional health of college students.
“Nationwide, mental health is the number-one public health concern for today’s institutions of higher learning,” she says. “Campuses struggle to meet the increasing mental health needs of students, who are the least likely group to seek help.”
College students face the challenge of learning to navigate adulthood just as they are separating from their family, friends, and homes. For most youth and young adults, a relationship with a pet is a significant source of social support—the pet is perceived as an ally and a confidant.
“Leaving home and entering college separates students from their pets,” Bailey explains, “a task many young people experience as more difficult than saying good-bye to other established forms of support.”
PAWS began with weekly sessions at Boynton Health on the East Bank campus. Then bi-monthly sessions on the St. Paul campus were added, then weekly sessions on the West Bank campus, then monthly sessions at the Rochester campus. In academic year 2015-16, PAWS received more than 14,000 visits.
“We’ve obviously tapped into something!” says Bailey. But she has been concerned about the lack of scientific research to support emerging practices. That’s why she is laying the groundwork to study programs like PAWS for her dissertation. Her research will be useful not only to universities across the country but also to other organizations—such as businesses, nursing homes, schools, or hospitals—that are looking to improve the well-being of people they serve.
“We need animal-assisted therapy programs that are grounded in evidence-based research and training,” she says.
Bailey remembers a first-year student who came to a PAWS session. She made a beeline toward a golden retriever named Boudie and his human, Wayne. Tears flowing, the student told Wayne that her family dog at her faraway home—who looked exactly like Boudie—was very sick, and she wasn’t able to make the trip back home to say good-bye. Wayne expressed compassion as the student wrapped her arms around Boudie, who rested his head on her shoulder and let her cry. Before the student left that day, she thanked Bailey for the PAWS program.
“PAWS was there for her when she needed it,” says Bailey, “at a time when she might not have been able to share with anyone else the depth of sorrow she felt over the death of her own dog back home.”
Read more about PAWS.
Learn more about the School of Social Work.
Story by Jacqueline Colby | Photos by Peter Bailey, Tanya Bailey, and Jordan Steger | Fall 2016