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The following content is created in consultation with the San Francisco SPCA. It does not reflect the work or opinions of NBC BAY AREA's editorial staff. To learn more about the San Francisco SPCA, visit sfspca.org.

Who hasn’t returned home from a rough day, curled up on the couch with a favorite pet and felt their spirits instantaneously lift? From their soft fur to their understanding eyes to their unshakable loyalty, animals have an uncanny ability to make everything feel better.

In fact, it’s scientifically proven. In addition to helping us live richer, fuller lives, it’s well known that interacting with our pets has significant health benefits from lowering blood pressure to improving cardiovascular health to reducing stress and anxiety.

But animals can also actively help and assist us in many other ways. In 1981, the SF SPCA created the first humane society-based animal assisted therapy program. This year, more than 300 teams will visit more than 91,000 people across the Bay Area at schools, universities, hospitals, retirement homes, veteran facilities, prisons and even the San Francisco international airport.

SF SPCA Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) programs benefit both those receiving visits as well as those who take their animals out into the community. To see someone light up when they see a therapy animal come through the door is an unforgettable experience. In medical or nursing home situations, it’s not uncommon for AAT volunteers to hear that a patient hasn't spoken for some time, yet totally relaxes, talks to, and interacts with the therapy animal. Animals also can help with the healing process by reinforcing rehabilitative behaviors, such as throwing a ball or walking. And it's not just the patient who reaps the benefits. Family members and friends who sit in on animal visits say they feel better, too.

Though it’s not only hospital and nursing home patients that are are reaping the rewards of therapy animals. In non-medical settings, such as universities, animals can help students deal with anxiety and stress. Young children have blossomed in the SF SPCA AAT’s Puppy Dog Tales program, which provides a stress-free, non-judgmental learning environment where kids can practice reading aloud to a therapy animal. Reading to a therapy animal not only helps them improve their reading skills, it helps them to focus better, reduces self-consciousness and increases their confidence. 

Or imagine you're a traveler at SFO and you find out that your flight has been cancelled. You’re understandably angry as you try to find a new way home. Soon after, one of the SF SPCA Wag Brigade dogs strolls by, and suddenly you’re petting the dog and asking the handler a few questions. Afterwards, you realize you're smiling. You feel a little less stressed and a bit more optimistic. You can't wait to tell your family all about that charming canine. In fact, you're already looking forward to your next business trip.

The SF SPCA has more than 300 AAT teams, which consist of a pet and their guardian. Although most are dog or cat teams, the SF SPCA has a history of welcoming all kinds of animals into their AAT program, including rabbits, turtles, guinea pigs, chinchillas, bearded dragons and, most recently, a pig. The one thing all the therapy animals have in common: a calm and friendly disposition and a willingness to approach and interact with people regardless of a person’s age, gender, race, size, mobility equipment usage or apparel. On top of that, both volunteers and their animals need training to ensure that they're ready for the challenges of a therapy visit. They're tested on things like training, reactivity, and friendliness.

To find out more about the SF SPCA AAT programs or to get involved, please visit sfspca.org/aat.

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