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Cassandra Hanrahan, assistant professor

A day in the life

Cassandra Hanrahan, assistant professor

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Animals offer a non-judgmental presence. They encourage safe, empathetic relationships. It’s really the presence of a living creature who is bringing acceptance into our lives.

Treating people and animals with dignity and integrity


People often ask Cassandra Hanrahan: what is a social worker?

That’s a difficult question to answer, she says, because you find social workers just about everywhere: hospitals, community organizations, government agencies, schools, correctional facilities, transitional housing, and charitable organizations.

Some social workers might not even be human.

Dr. Hanrahan studies human-animal bonds in the fields of human health and welfare. She looks at the unique interactions between humans and companion animals and the many physical and psychosocial health benefits that emerge from inter-species communications and relationships.

Animals go places and do things that humans can’t. They open people up to attuned emotional connections and research shows that stroking animals reduces blood pressure, promotes relaxation and increases human immune system functioning.  

“Animals offer a non-judgmental presence. They encourage safe, empathetic relationships. It’s really the presence of a living creature who is bringing acceptance into our lives”.

What appeals to Dr. Hanrahan (a sociologist by training) about the study of social work at Dalhousie is its critical, reflexive approach.

What does it mean to help people?


For instance, Dr Hanrahan teaches a course called Theoretical Foundations of Social Work Practice. She surveys major theoretical approaches to social work, but she also asks deceptively simple questions like, what does it mean to help in the world today?

Courses take apart the social constructs we all wrap ourselves in. Students un-learn and re-learn how to relate to themselves and to others. Instead of forcing different people into handy hierarchically organized categories, professors encourage students to examine the interpersonal as well as the political aspects of relationships.

“We are really challenging what they bring with them into the program,” Dr. Hanrahan says. Students mine their own histories, attitudes, values and beliefs, to go beyond conventional scientific understandings of objectivity.

The goal is to enable students, as future social workers, to say, “As a professional, I can both recognize my values and suspend any judgement. I can interact with this person with dignity and integrity, rather than have power over them.”

Seeing the growth that takes place in students


This openness is a new kind of challenge and students really respond to it.

“Quite often, I see from the beginning of September through to the end of the school year, a tremendous amount of growth and maturation that happens with students.”

In a way, one can almost see a parallel between the critical skills students take to heart here, and the non-judgmental empathy she studies in relations between non-human animals and people.