Colorado State University Argus Institute Still Evolving Counseling Mission for Pet Owners, Veterinary Students after 30 Years

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For nearly 30 years, veterinarians and veterinary students at Colorado State University have worked in partnership with the Argus Institute to not only treat companion animals but support their caregivers.

Argus was created in 1984 to support people who are facing difficult decisions regarding their pet’s health and help them manage the challenges of caring for a sick animal.

Counselors at the Argus Institute at CSU’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital see as many as five cases per day or about 1,200 cases per year. The institute employs two full-time counselors and provides support to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital clients as well as faculty, staff, students and concerned pet caregivers nationwide.

“The counselors provide decision-making support – to anyone that needs a facilitator, mediator, support-person or advocate,” said Dr. Jane Shaw, veterinarian and director of the Argus Institute.

Another mission of the institute is to teach compassionate communication to future veterinarians and prepare them for stressful situations in veterinary practice, such as delivering bad news, end-of-life care and financial discussions.

The institute includes state-of-the-art video-equipped classrooms where instructors can observe veterinary students as they’re working with pets and their caregivers, and videotape the interaction for feedback.

And this year for the first time, Shaw and her colleagues, Drs. Laurie Fonken and Camille Torres-Henderson led students through a new course designed by Rachel Remen, MD, and offered at more than 80 medical schools around the country.

It’s the first offering of this course in a veterinary curriculum, but the Argus Institute has been setting the standard for support services for decades.

“The ‘class’ takes place around a table with small groups talking about healing through storytelling, listening and creation of community,” Shaw said. “We take time to reconnect with why we became veterinarians and remember the meaning of our work so we can care for people and their pets.”

Veterinarians, like human doctors, struggle to manage their stress and have high rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicide. Argus aims to give veterinary students a toolbox to give them more joy and fulfillment so they’ll face less burnout, feel more satisfied with their profession and more easily handle tough conversations.

Visiting the veterinarian can be stressful for pet caregivers, but that stress can grow when your veterinarian is stressed as well, Shaw said.

Shaw’s research focuses on the behavior of veterinarians themselves. She has linked personal self-esteem and empathy with professional fulfillment. In other words, veterinarians who feel good about themselves can project that sense of happiness onto their clients, which will encourage clients to respond positively to the veterinary visit.

“The stronger their toolbox on building relationships with their clients, the more satisfied they were with their client interactions,” Shaw said.

“What it means to be a healer is being human with a commitment to service – not being a doctor or scientist,” she said, noting that veterinary students face enormous pressure in their training and this program helps them rejuvenate and hold onto their passions.