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Clin Soc Work J (2013) 41:9399

DOI 10.1007/s10615-012-0405-2

ORIGINAL PAPER

The Pet Connection: An Attachment Perspective


Pat Sable

Published online: 28 June 2012


! Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Abstract Using the ethological-evolutionary framework of


attachment, and including how the theory has been updated
and expanded by findings from attachment-based research,
neuroscience and animal studies, this paper proposes that a
relationship with a family pet, especially a dog or cat, reflects
certain dynamics of attachment which may account for the
sense of comfort and connection they provide to individuals at
all stages of the life cycle. There is now convincing scientific
evidence that companion animals have positive effects on
psychological and physical well-being, helping shape how
people regulate their emotions, deal with stress or trauma, and
relate to others. Discussion considers the implications of these
benefits for social work, in particular for policy, prevention,
and psychotherapy. An illustration of treatment for pet loss, as
well as a framework for promoting attachment in pets adopted
from rescue shelters, is also presented. It is recommended that
both social work professionals and social work students be
educated about the human-animal bond and the significance of
pets to so many of our clients.
Keywords Family pets ! Human-animal bond !
Attachment Theory ! Psychotherapy
For my panel presentation at the American Association for
Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work (AAPCSW) conference last spring, I began by asking how many in the

The paper is an expansion of my invited panel presentation at the


AAPCSW (American association for psychoanalysis in clinical social
work) national conference in Los Angeles, last March, 2011.
P. Sable (&)
University of Southern California, 877 Teakwood Road,
Los Angeles, CA 90049-1334, USA
e-mail: sable@usc.edu

audience had a family pet. Many hands went up. I then


asked how many did not consider the pet a member of the
family. Not one hand was raised. As I explained to the
audience, my family includes 2 Chihuahua mixes, Joe
and Katie, who were at least 4 years old when I adopted
them from a rescue facility. Joe had been found as a stray,
and showed signs of having been abused and/or neglected;
Katie was dropped anonymously at a shelter, and suffers
from a physical disability. We pet parents today have a lot
of company. Although the relationship between people and
animals dates back thousands of years, the popularity of
household pets is at an all time high, and we are pampering
them with an array of products and services, such as health
foods, lavish attire, and mobile grooming. In addition to
doggie parks and day care, companion animals can be
taken to yoga, a psychic, or a play date. Available medical
care includes swim therapy, massage therapy, aromatherapy or acupuncture.
Reasons for the astonishing pampering pets are now
getting tends to center on the idea that they offer a predictable, uncomplicated and consistent relationship which
substitutes for the lack of close relationships in our challenging and unsettling times. If so, do we have to add
facebook as a factor in this burgeoning phenomenon? Do
people turn to a pet when they turn away from their
computers in order to feel less lonely and isolated? It is
possible that some do, but this does not seem to be an
adequate account for the many people who have such
strong feelings for their dogs and cats, that, as we saw with
the Katrina flood disaster, will risk their own lives to assure
their animals safety.
Paralleling this dramatic example is accumulating scientific evidence that our domestic charges actually keep us
happier and healthier. Studies have confirmed that the
presence of a pet lowers blood pressure, raises survival

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chances after a heart attack, and facilitates social contact.


Pets have proven effective in reducing loneliness, anxiety,
and depression (Farnsworth 2004; Sable 1989). In particular, elderly pet owners report less psychological distress
and fewer doctor visits than those without pets, even when
they do not live alone (Siegel 1990), and animal assisted
therapy is so successful for all ages that it is now widespread in a variety of settings (see, for example, Katz 2003;
Koppel 2011). Although some of these research findings
have had extensive media coverage, and though many of
our clients have family pets, a depth of theoretical understanding or the clinical implications of these effects, have
received little attention in the psychological literature
(Risley-Curtiss et al. 2006).
Using the ethological-evolutionary framework of
attachment, including how it has been updated and
expanded by findings from neuroscience, attachment-based
research and animal studies, this paper proposes that a
relationship with a pet, especially a dog or cat, reflects
certain dynamics of attachment which may account for the
feelings of affection and devotion directed to them.
Attachment theory is based on the premise that humans,
like many animals, are biologically predisposed to seek out
and sustain physical contact and emotional connection to
selective figures with whom they become familiar and
come to rely on for psychological and physical protection.
The approach follows in the tradition of psychoanalytic
object relations theory that, as first specified by Fairbairn
(1954), we are object seeking. Bowlby (1969) added
ethological principles to explain that proximity-seeking
behaviors were designed over the course of evolution to
assure the physical proximity and emotional availability of
attachment figures in times of need. From an attachment
perspective, affectional relationships serve as a lifelong
source of security and comfort, unique in their ability to
reduce stress, regulate affect, and restore emotional balance. In applying attachment concepts to our affinity for
animals, I am not suggesting that they fulfill all attachment
criteria, such as safety, but that they do offer attachment
related functions such as a safe haven, together with an
element of constancy (Farnsworth 2004, p. 61) in a
changing world. Pets are readily available, are keenly
attuned and responsive to their owners movements and
moods and generate positive feelings of comfort and connection (Sable 2000). In other words, they make us feel
better.
I discovered how significant pets could be in my
attachment-based study in which I interviewed 81 women
widowed one to 3 years, and explored variables related to
adjustment following loss of their spouse. My strongest
statistical finding was that women who had pets, in particular dogs, and then cats, reported significantly less
loneliness. For example, one woman said: I love dogs.

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Theyre very comforting. Theyre my good friends.


Another woman who described suffering from anxiety and
panic stated: (When I had) panic at night, my dogs (were
the) only things that helped. I sat on the floor with them.
(Theyre) just being there. Some bereaved spouses complained that social support was mobilized at the time of the
loss, but then quickly ended. Pets stay around, supplying
continuity during the months of mourning (Sable 1991,
1992, 1995).
Recent findings from neuroscience confirm components
of pet attachment by demonstrating links between underlying attachment processes and brain activity in both animals and humans. For example, just looking at a dog,
stroking or talking to it, can trigger oxytocin, a hormone
which elicits feelings of pleasure and eases stress. Oxytocin
is known to bolster ones immune systems, lower the
production of stress hormones and diminish feelings of fear
and danger (Olmert 2009). This understanding of oxytocin
can help explain, for example, the results of a UCLA study
of animal assisted therapy which found that only 12 minutes with a visiting dog could reduce loneliness and anxiety
as well as the amount of medication needed for pain
(Olmert 2009).

Pet Attachment and Evolutionary Adaptation


The calming and soothing effects of dogs suggests why
they can be important for the mental health and emotional
equilibrium (Panksepp 1998, p. 275) of humans. In fact,
their benefits can be seen as adaptive in an evolutionary
sense, a source of genuine attachment which is a key element in why we feel about them as we do (Katz 2003,
p. 24). Furthermore, the work of Schore and Schore (2010),
two contemporary attachment theorists who are expanding
attachment concepts with insights from neurobiology, have
a position which adds to understanding how the strong
feelings for a pet can develop without verbalized experience (p. 62). Alleging that attachment processes lie at
the center of all human emotional and social functions
(p. 57), the Schores explain that attachment experiences,
beginning in infancy, are processed and stored in the right
hemisphere of the brain, influencing later functioning such
as affect regulation. These encoded experiences include
implicit nonverbal communications (p. 61), which
become an active part of working models throughout the
life cycle. Stern (2004) uses the ethologically based
research of Ainsworths (Ainsworth et al. 1978) Strange
Situation procedure to show there is evidence of implicit
knowledge in the developing working models of 1-yearolds who do not yet have speech. The observational study
focused on the reunion response of an infant following a
brief separation from mother. Stern claims that the infant

Clin Soc Work J (2013) 41:9399

implicitly knows how to behave with her, depending on the


attachment pattern previously established, for example,
whether to approach her with raised arms to be picked up.
Stern (2004) makes the point, as do Schore and Schore
(2010), that much of what we learn about relating to others
is not only implicit knowing but remains, unspoken, in
an adults working models.
The relevance of implicit knowing with our four-legged
companions is described by the poet Doty (2007) as he
writes about the solace he feels from his two dogs, his
speechless friends (p. 14): the word cant go where the
heart can, not completely. Its freeing, to think theres
always an aspect of us outside the grasp of speech, the
common stuff of language (p. 48). Similarly, Jennings
(2010) describes the unspoken solace he found with his dog
through a serious illness: The most healing aspect of dogs,
Ive found, is the simple gift of their presence. They like to
be near. They know how to be present (p. 27). Jennings
also notes Just to touch our dogs is enough to calm us
down, enough to soothe us (p. 153).

Why Does Everyone Want to Pet My Dogs?


The evidence that touching pets is both physiologically and
emotionally beneficial is intriguing, though not surprising
since it is common for people of all ages to want to pet
dogs, even when the animal is not their own. Olmert (2009)
speculates that the urge to touch an animal is biological,
and may trace back thousands of years to when people and
wolves began to form an alliance of convenience (p. 71).
This alliance blossomed into a bond when, at some point,
the animals allowed humans to touch them. According to
attachment-based research, bodily experience (Holmes
2007, p. 22) is now recognized as a component of mental
life which Ogden et al. (2006) connect to the first weeks
and months of life when much of the communication
between parent and newborn is through touch. The quality
of these early interactions is laid down in the connections
and pathways of an infants brain and becomes the foundation for a later ability to regulate bodily based affects
(Schore and Schore 2010, p. 67). If stored implicit
memories (Schore and Schore 2010, p. 66) reflect secure
attachment, an adult is comforted and reassured by the
touch of an attachment figure, for instance, at times of fear
or stress. Likewise, this same phenomenon has been
observed in dogs (Panksepp 1998), suggesting that pets are
not only good for uswe are also good for them. For
example, in a study where humans were in contact with
dogs, the animals blood pressure went down, and their
oxytocin levels increased (Davieds 2005). This supports
Panksepps (2009) assertion that animals have a series of
emotional behavior patterns (p. 8) that are similar to

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humans. One pattern in pet dogs is their attachment


behavior (what Panksepp calls seeking).
According to Bowlby (1969), attachment behaviors are
part of a behavioral system of attachment which regulates
how humans, as well as many animals, are able to initiate
and maintain proximity to affectional figures for protection
and survival. Most dogs, for example, exhibit attachment
behavior when they want to be near their attachment figures,
want to play, and will attempt to thwart separation. This
behavior fosters a feeling of being needed which may
explain the way we take care of them, have a tendency to
call them baby, and tell them we love them. Any doggie
parent knows that pooches have strategies for maintaining
proximity especially if they are frightened or left alone in a
strange place. I once had a dog who was stung by a bee, and
came running to me, crying and holding up his hurt paw.
In contrast to that dogs adaptive attachment behavior, I
have written about Beauly, (Sable 2004) a Sheltie dog I
brought home at 10 weeks of age, who shied away from
being touched, and kept mostly to herself while giving
full sway (Lieberman and Paul 1990, p. 382) to
exploratory behavior. Her deficient attachment behavior
resembled what Lieberman and Paul (1990) identified in
2-year old children whose safety was threatened by reckless behavior. When she was 3 years old, Beaulys life was
threatened by a rattlesnake bite (she evidently pushed her
face under a bush where it was sleeping), an injury from
which she did recover, and during which, unable to avoid
my care, she slowly began to overcome her tendency to be
avoidant. She became more responsive, for example,
coming around to be petted and more enthusiastic about
activities such as going for a walk. Although she did show
signs of deactivated detachment behavior the rest of her
life, she acted more like a family dog, even becoming a
favorite of neighborhood children.
After I heard Stern (2003) describe Fischer-Mamblonas
(2000) experiment with Feli, a deprived and disturbed
goose, in his talk at an attachment conference in Los
Angeles, the premise of what altered the gooses damaged
behavior reminded me of how Beaulys having to give into
my care may have helped change her behavior. FischerMamblona, an ethologist who is also trained in psychoanalysis, described how Feli had been put into isolation
when she was hatched, and then set free at 8 weeks. When
approached by other geese or humans, she was a bundle
of anxiety, fleeing like a fugitive on the run (p. 10).
Following unsuccessful attempts to have her mate with
geese and care for her goslings, she overcame her fear and
escape motivation when ducklings (whose eggs were used
to replace Felis) insisted on snuggling up to her. From then
on, Feli responded to them, and once, while they were
together walking, was approached by an older gander. The
two became a pair, and had goslings which they reared

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normally. Fischer-Mamblona, like Stern, used Feli to


illustrate that research with geese has implications for both
theory and psychotherapy, for example, that by cultivating
a climate of trust (Fischer-Mamblona 2000, p. 19), as I
evidently accomplished to some degree with Beauly and as
we strive to develop with our clients, attachment behavior
can be activated, resulting in a more adaptive balance
between the attachment and exploratory systems.

Clinical Practice
With his integration of psychoanalysis and ethology, and
his call for theory to be based on research, Bowlby (1969,
1973, 1980) revolutionized theory about child development
and highlighted the impact of separation and loss on
affectional relationships. Stating that he is trying to bring
Bowlby into neuroscience, Panksepp (2011) alleges that
because of what we share with animals, brain research of
the emotional systems in animals, including dogs, is giving
us general principles for understanding how human
feelings are generated. In particular, Panksepp (2009), like
Bowlby, sees human emotions rooted in ancient, inherited
tools for living (p. 5) that are gradually linked to real
experiences. The way personal experiences come to shape
instinctive emotional behaviors (Panksepp 2009, p. 19)
is at the core of understanding and treating our clients
distress.
In terms of psychotherapy and pets, it is important to
understand how much pets mean to some people. If animal
companions provide certain functions of attachment, it can
be clinically useful to ask about the presence of pets in our
patients lives, both current and past, paying attention to
how they describe their feelings and relationships with
them. It may be necessary to express interest in the history
of these ties because patients might consider the topic
irrelevant or they may be reluctant to acknowledge how
deeply they care about a pet. Examining feelings about the
close bond they share with a pet may lead to further
awareness of their attachment experiences with others. This
idea is now supported by research evidence, for example,
that the attachment style of humans and their relationships
with other people can be classified based on the classification with the persons pet (Sable 2000). Likewise, if
clients interpret their pets behavior, they may be attributing something about themselves onto their pet which can
then be explored (Knapp 1998).
Clinicians today may be faced with relatively uncharted
practice decisions about pets. For instance, a patient may
ask to bring a dog to a session, or ask to have a reference
testifying that to preserve his/her mental health it is crucial
to take a pet on an airplane or keep one in an apartment
against regulations. Therapists themselves may want to

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consider having their own dog with them in sessionslike


Freud did (Gay 1988). For these kinds of issues, it is
helpful to be informed of both the scientific facts about pet
ownership as well as the nature of attachment. I have found
it informative to see clients interacting with their dogs or to
bring one of my dogs into a session when clients request
this. One time it was unplanned. In a session with a couple,
one of my dogs managed to get into the room. The man,
whose spouse had sought help for what she described as a
cold and distant relationship, got down on the floor, and
started petting and talking to the dog. Not only did this lead
to noting his interest and ability to be caring and close, it
gave me a way to help him begin to examine and reveal
how some of his experiences, both present and past, could
be blocking the relationship that he did want with his wife.
When clients come for help around a pet-related problem, they may be dealing with difficult decisions such as
euthanasia or pet-custody disputes. The most common
presenting complaint, however, is the overwhelming sadness and grief over the death of a cherished pet, with distress often compounded by the feeling there is lack of
sympathy from others. Doty (2007, p. 9), writing about his
anguish over the death of his dog, put it eloquently: One
of the unspoken truths of American life is how deeply
people grieve over the animals who live and die with them,
how real that emptiness is, how profound the silence is
these creatures leave in their wake. Our culture expects us
not only to bear these losses alone, but to be ashamed of
how deeply we feel them.
Social workers need to understand that the illness or
death of a pet can be traumatic (Pace 2011). According to
attachment theory, the loss of a loved figure can be the loss
of an attachment relationshipincluding a petand
therefore could unleash a process of grief and mourning
that feels almost unbearable. Although the process tends to
last a shorter time, bereaved pet owners describe responses
of sadness, anxiety, anger and longing that are similar to
those reactions evoked by the loss of a human bond. An
attachment perspective on grief (see Bowlby 1980; Marris
1958; and Parkes 1965, 1969), emphasizes that these
emotions are basically adaptive responses (Mikulincer
and Shaver 2007, p. 75), part of the biological function of
attachment to protest separation and preserve affectional
relationships. The process of grief, therefore, after a brief
period of numbing, is followed by a yearning and
searching phase that is associated with a strenuous effort
to recover the missing figure. During this phase, the
bereaved may experience moments of intense distress,
characterized by preoccupation with events surrounding
the loss and physical difficulties such as lack of appetite or
insomnia. This is the phase when clinicians can explain
how yearning and sadness is a natural response to loss of a
close figure, built into us over the course of evolution to

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ensure protection and actual survival. Affirmation of their


pain as normative grieving (Mikulincer and Shaver
2007, p. 77) takes a tremendous burden off grieving pet
owners and can be pivotal in helping them adjust to their
loss through the subsequent phases of disorganization and
despair and reorganization, during which the hope of
re-establishing the bond is slowly relinquished.
Clients have told me of comments such as it was only a
dog, it was old, or you should be over this by now
that made them feel unsupported and worried that there
was something wrong with the intensity of their grief. This
was the situation with Carol, a woman in middle adulthood,
who came into therapy to focus on inconsolable grief over
the death of her beloved dog, Tony. Divorced and living
alone, Tony was her only companion and a source of her
security for almost 10 years, but her friends and family
distracted her from any mention of her loss. It proved to be
a relief for Carol when I supported her expressions of loss
and sorrow, and also when I explained and validated the
depth of her distress as a natural response when there is the
loss of a loved figure, that is, an attachment bond. I
encouraged and supported her talking about her pet,
including to bring and show me pictures of Tony. I also
tried to help her connect the pet loss to other losses, and
though she had sought therapy over her dogs death, a
variety of attachment wounds and losses did begin to
emerge during sessions. One especially profound hour was
the day she revealed that several months before her dog
died and she had begun therapy, her son had been deployed
to Iraq. It appears the loss of her dog compounded the
apprehension over her sons safety, and was the event that
increased her distress to the point of needing treatment. In
other words, until she lost her dog, she found a comfort that
may have eased worry over her son.

Pet Attachment, Social Work Policy and Prevention


We now have convincing evidence that people who live
with pets are getting something extraordinary from them.
The chemistry that ties people to their pets creates an
emotional attachment that helps explain why pets mean so
much to so many people, and attests to how they have
come to be regarded as members of the family. The
increasing recognition that furry companions give people a
wide array of psychological, social and health-related
benefits has important implications for social work,
including for policy and prevention. As a profession which
promotes an environment of well-being, social workers can
be involved in policy issues related to both human and
animal welfare. For example, society has begun to take a
firmer stand against animal cruelty and puppy mills, and
we are also more aware of the heart wrenching plight of

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pets confined in shelters. We still need better laws to


protect these creatures and our connection to them, for
example, by eliminating puppy mills (which is also one
way of reducing the millions of pets that are euthanized
each year), or allowing the elderly to keep their pets in
apartments or retirement communities. Another law which
would protect pets is a current drive to make pets official
members of the family. If there is such a law, pets, for
example, would be rescued in a disaster, avoiding the tragic
separation and loss of so many pets that occurred during
the Katrina flood. As social workers it is part of our profession to advocate for these changes since they can make a
major difference in peoples lives.
As social workers we also have the skills to help facilitate successful adoptions from animal shelters. One has
only to visit an animal shelter to experience the anguish
and despair of pets that have been abused, abandoned or
neglected. When these pets are adopted, they are likely to
carry the consequences and difficulties of their previous
misery with them, and yet, these same pets can flourish if
the new pet parent can be helped to understand certain
attachment dynamics. In particular, it can be explained that
it takes time to cement a bond, especially when there is a
history of ruptured attachment. Schores (1994) expansion
of the dynamics of caregiving with the premise that a
caregiver is responsive to both positive and negative feelings suggests that being patient, comforting and protective
when the pet acts afraid, as well as engaging in play, will
further building a bond. Finally, Panksepps (1998) concept
of animal affective neuroscience (p. 5), echoes Bowlbys
(1969) view that behavior reflects real experiences that are
incorporated into instinctive tendencies for protection and
survival.
These guidelines proved to be useful for understanding
and promoting a bond with Joe, my Chihuahua mix, who
showed signs of having been mistreated. I have also suggested an attachment approach for therapists treating
children or adolescents who abuse animals. In a section on
attachment written for the AniCare Child manual, animal
abuse is seen as a form of disordered attachment behavior.
There is focus on the family system and how problems of
attachment may be misdirected onto helpless animals. As
the therapist becomes a trusted companion (Bowlby
1988, p. 138) for the family, the members can be taught
about animals and their behavior, for example, that they
might be stoic and not overtly show pain. Explaining the
animals vulnerability from an evolutionary point of view
can give the members a new perspective and has the
potential to curb violence as well as develop empathy for
animals and others (Sable 2005).
Because we now have substantial evidence that there is
a link between early animal abuse and serious adult violence against people (Randour et al. 2005), the AniCare

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Child treatment manual introduces an innovative approach


for prevention.

Conclusion
It is no longer just myth or conjecture: Science has shown
that companion animals make an amazing difference in the
lives of their human parents. Whatever it is that draws
people to pets, there is something uncomplicated, comforting and healing in a pets sheer presence that Knapp
(1998) sees as a new way of experiencing attachment
(p. 7). From an adult attachment perspective, the need for
reliable and responsive affectional relationships to help
maintain or reestablish psychobiological equilibrium is
lifelong (Amini et al. 1996; Holmes 1996). A threat to the
figures accessibility will evoke protest and other measures
to ward off separation or loss, and a permanent loss will
evoke grief and mourning (Bowlby 1973, 1980). Once we
understand these aspects of attachment, the devotion to pets
begins to make sense. An adults attachment figure may be
a spouse, or other committed partnership, family member,
close friendor pet. Our pets, especially dogs and cats,
provide proximity, and prompt positive feelings such as joy
and laughter that make people feel less alone and lonely; in
other words, they furnish a component of attachment that
promotes well-being and security, as well as affording
opportunities for caregiving and commitment. Although
pets may sometimes substitute for an absence of human
attachment, they generally expand relationships and social
contacts, while also ameliorating distress during difficult
periods of transition such as divorce or bereavement (Sable
2000).
In the United States today, more than 50 % of all
households include a dog or cat (Pace 2011). Our canine
population exceeds 77 million (Humane Society 2009) and
the feline population is even larger. We are in the midst of
a historic change that compels social work professionals
and social work students to be educated about the humananimal bond and the various issues relating to owning these
creatures. Social workers are involved in many different
settings where they can teach others about the significance
of these ties, and in direct practice they can explore and
support clients bonds with their pets as a positive part of
their lives (Pace 2011). Whether helping people through
painful transitions, reducing stress in the elderly, or treating
returning warriors with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
(PTSD), the value of our furry friends should be affirmed,
and must also include concern for their well-being. Like
humans, companion animals need the protection and survival functions of attachment; and like humans, they are
affected by disruptions such as separation and loss (Sable
2000).

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To feel attached is to feel connected, protected and safe.


Though the relationship with a pet is not identical to one
with a person, it taps into a need for attachment, a need that
Bowlby (1969) conceived as coming out of our evolutionary past. The current day integration of attachment
theory and neurobiology is giving us an even deeper
understanding of the particular brand of closeness
(Knapp 1998, p. 227) that our animal companions provide,
and this knowledge is relevant to our therapeutic work. If,
indeed, our pets do make us happier and healthier, it is
because they are also showing us how to give and receive
affection, and how to find comfort and joy in the simple
presence of a nonhuman family member. Jennings (2010)
sums it up well when, in writing about his dog, he could
have been saying the same thing about any of our treasured
companions: they illuminate our lives, giving us big lessons on life, love, and healing.

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Author Biography
Pat Sable Adjunct Professor, School of Social Work, University of
Southern California. Private practice of psychotherapy in Los
Angeles.

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