How animal-assisted therapy benefits people—and the pets they love.
Credit: Illustration: Na Kim

We all know the comfort that our pets bring, but their special ability to heal what ails us goes beyond our own homes. David E. Williams, MD, was working in the emergency room at a busy Washington, D.C., hospital when he spotted a woman with her golden retriever. "She was bringing it around to the patients' rooms as they were waiting for care," he recalls. "She was part of an organization called Pet Partners, and this animal was there to help calm the patients."

He was so impressed by this "animal-assisted therapy," or AAT, that he and his daughter Lauren, now 16, got one of their own dogs certified by Pet Partners. "Animals have both a therapeutic benefit—they help heal—and a social benefit—they make us feel better," says Williams, who's now Pet Partners' chief medical officer. "In a hospital setting, they help decrease stress levels and people's perception of pain and increase people's perception of well-being."

Pet Partners offers certification programs for nine types of animals—dogs, cats, horses, llamas/alpacas, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, miniature pigs, and birds—but dogs are the most common AAT pets. "They're unique in the animal kingdom in that they're one species that has been genetically bred to be a human companion," says Williams. "And dogs mirror our emotions, so they're perfect vessels for our empathy."

Whatever the type of animal, the key is having a calm temperament. Certification programs like Pet Partners provide intensive training and evaluation for animals and their handlers to ensure both can handle most any situation, from unexpected noises in a hospital to a cranky patient.

Credit: Illustration: Na Kim

Today, research is finding therapeutic benefits for animals in a wide variety of settings, from counseling breast cancer patients and easing the stress of chemotherapy to engaging elderly residents in long-term care facilities and providing emotional support for people with autism. AAT teams routinely visit pediatric wards to cheer up young patients.

"We're finding new situations around animal-assisted therapy all the time" Williams says. Notable examples include therapy pets sent to relieve stress following natural and other disasters or visiting courthouses to calm witnesses giving difficult testimony. Pet Partners also has a Read with Me program for kids, and AAT pets are now common on college campuses during finals week.

"AAT is good for handlers, too," says Williams. He's especially proud of his daughter Lauren's work with their family pets. It's an eye-opening experience for the teenager. "She has a whole new perspective on what true challenges are," says Williams. "It increased her empathy and appreciation for all that we have."

Best of all, it's fun for pets, says Erin Rice, director of UCLA's People-Animal Connection. "They love interacting with people, and they love all the attention and treats they get."