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For more information about pet therapy, contact one of the organizations listed in the box below right.


For more information about equine massage therapy, contact:



Samantha Hartford Royster, ESMT, BA, MA

Telephone: (919) 656-6187



Samantha Hartford Royster is a free-lance writer, an Equine Sports Massage Therapist, and has a Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies from NC State University focused on the Human-Animal Bond. She currently works at Triangle Equine Mobile Veterinary Service in Cary, NC.

Stressed? Hug a Dog!

By Samantha Hartford Royster, ESMT, BA, MA

If you are an animal lover like me, you may have noticed that spending some quality time with your pets can have a positive impact on your mood. In fact, there is now a wealth of research material available that documents the real psychological and physiological benefits of being around animals. It may be as simple as taking your dog for a walk, or as complex and organized as having an animal present for a psychotherapy session. However it’s done, ever since our furry friends worked their way from our fireside to our bedside, they have been working some magic on the human psyche.

The author with her horse, Lestat, a close companion for 18 of his 29 years. She now shares her life with a Quarter Horse, Forrest; certified Therapy Dog, Penny; and cats Houston, Chelsea Grace, and Cheyenne.

As early as 1980, scientists were looking at the benefits of pet ownership in patients recovering from heart attacks. What they found was remarkable: 5.7 percent of pet owners died within one year of discharge, compared with 28.2 percent of non-pet owners. The same researchers expanded this study 15 years later, looking at 369 patients and reported, in the American Journal of Cardiology, an increase in one-year survival in dog owners by a factor of 8.6 over patients who did not own dogs. Findings of significant health benefits from pets have been reported in many other studies—including decreased depression after the death of a spouse, decreased symptoms related to Alzheimer’s Disease, and lowered blood pressure and heart rate.

Trevor obviously enjoys the “bedtime story”being read to him by his human friend.

How Pets Help

What is it about being around animals that is so beneficial? When we are sick, we often feel disconnec-ted from friends, maybe even unable to function normally. Chronic illness or disability can intensify these feelings of separation and isolation. Our illness may also make our human loved ones feel concerned, afraid, or even guilty, which adds to our own stress levels. Animals, however, accept us just as we are whether we are sick or well, able-bodied or challenged. They are delighted just to spend unlimited time with us, and help us to see that we are still valuable to and needed by another living being. Patients with chronic illness or disability can become quite dependent on the presence of this unfaltering love and devotion, and can be sustained by it both emotionally and physically. Scientifically speaking, the simple act of petting a dog actually does lower blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones.

Learn More, Get Involved


    • Delta Society:
    • Therapy Dogs, Inc.:
    • Therapy Dogs International:


  • B.A.R.K.S.:http://
  • Canines for Service:http://www.
  • COPE: http://www.copeeldercare.
  • Heads Up! Therapeutic Riding Program: http://
  • Helping Horse Therapeutic Riding Program:
  • Helping Paws International:
  • Horse and Buddy Therapeutic Riding Program: http://www.
  • Horses for Hope: http://www.
  • North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center:
  • Rex Hospital:
  • See Spot Read: http://www
  • Start Them Right: http://
  • Teamworks Dog Training:http://www.
  • WakeMed Hospital Pet Program:http://www.

Pet Therapists

To promote the benefits of animal interactions, there are today many organized activities devoted to the cause. One of the most well-known and popular activities are “therapy dog” programs, in which trained volunteers take their dogs to visit patients in hospitals and nursing homes. Properly termed Animal-Assisted Activities (AAA), pet “therapy” incorporates animals (usually dogs) into the daily activities of patients through recreation, education, and companionship.

In the Triangle area, Compassionate Options for Progressive Eldercare (COPE) has been teamed with Start Them Right Dog Training since 2004, providing the training necessary for dog/handler teams to be admitted to area health care facilities. To become a therapy dog, applicants must be current on all vaccines, and have some obedience training. Most training programs either offer, or require that dogs already have, a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification from the American Kennel Club. This is proof that the dog has good manners, is friendly, and has a good attitude toward people and other animals.

There also are programs in which the animals play a more integrative role in therapy for patients. Termed Animal-Assisted Therapy, these animals may have further training to assist a health care professional or their mere presence may be therapeutic.

Just having a dog in the room, even if they are not actively involved in the therapy, can lower stress for children and adults alike. Swimming with dolphins has been used as a mechanism to improve strength in patients, and there are horseback riding programs for emotionally and physically challenged individuals that build core strength and confidence in riders. Even reading to a dog can be beneficial for children who are too shy to read aloud in class. (Dogs, unlike adults, never correct the child’s reading!) Many school libraries now have dogs coming in for special reading time with the kids.

Animals are helping to heal military personnel returning from war with traumatic brain injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); they are in our prisons, helping inmates learn empathy and training skills, and they are in dentists’ offices, reducing stress for fearful patients. Even the aquariums popping up in hospitals are not just for show—watching fish swim is documented to decrease pulse rate, tension, and anxiety.

A Shared Benefit

These interactions are largely beneficial to the animals, as well. In fact, the definition of “Human-Animal Bond” from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is: “a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors that are essential to the health and well-being of both.” Not only do our pets benefit psychologically from spending positive time with us, animals who are involved in some type of animal-assisted activity tend to receive better veterinary care as well, partially because regular wellness exams and vaccines are required for participation in the activities, and also because owners may notice problems sooner when they are spending more time with their pets.

Sounds like a win for all involved. Next time you feel that stress headache coming on, hug your dog or pet your cat. You’ll feel better for it—and so will they!