14/01/2013 11:08 GMT | Updated 15/03/2013 05:12 GMT

Warm and Fuzzy Healing: Animal-Assisted Therapy in Hospitals and Communities

The students of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut resumed classes on January 3, less than a month after the massacre that killed 20 of their fellow students and six staff members. At the newly refurbished school in a neighbouring town, administrators prepared for the students' return with stuffed toys, on-site counsellors, and a team of friendly, bouncing golden retrievers.

Tim Hentzner, president of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC), uses the term "furry counsellors" to describe the comfort dogs his organisation provides. LCC launched K-9 Parish Comfort Dogs in 2008, after observing the vital role that pets played in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. "[Pets] are safe. They show unconditional love. And dogs have a unique ability to sense hurt in people," Hentzer explains.

In Connecticut, parents of Sandy Hook students told LCC volunteers that their children had initially been reluctant to return to school after the tragedy. "[T]hey changed their minds when they found out the dogs would be there for them," LCC member Deb Kinne told reporters. "The dogs just created a bridge of sorts to help bring people back from a dark period...into a place where they can begin the healing process."

Founded in 1983, Pets As Therapy (PAT) is a community-led charity that certifies and places pets and volunteers in hospitals, care homes and schools across the United Kingdom. "The act of stroking a dog reduces both blood pressure and stress levels and brings a little bit of comfort and normality to a life which might be spent mainly in a hospital or hospice," Maureen Hennis, chief executive of PAT, explains. "We've had a wonderful response from healthcare professionals, especially when we work with people who are clinically depressed."

In a controversial move last year, the U.S. Veterans Association pulled funding for mental health service dogs, citing health and safety concerns and inconclusive evidence of the benefits. "I understand the need for further published scientific evidence, but the overwhelming anecdotal personal stories of veterans who say they've gotten their lives back as a result of a service dog should matter," says Amy McCullough, director of National Animal-Assisted Therapy at the American Humane Association. Critics of the new regulations also point out that while veterinary care for service dogs can be pricey, anti-anxiety medication and therapy arguably rack up more expenses in the long-term.

A recent study by Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of Goldsmiths College, University of London assessed canine responses to individuals in distress. "Regardless of whether it was their owner or the stranger, when an individual cried most of the dogs went up to them in a quiet, submissive way suggesting comfort-giving," Mayer observed. "They didn't go up to their owner when the stranger cried, which would have been seeking comfort for their own distress rather like infants who cry when another baby cries...they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs." Custance tempers their findings by clarifying, "We're not saying this is definitive evidence that dogs have empathy--but I can certainly understand why people would think they do, at least."

The demand for animal-assisted therapy in the UK is increasing: last year, Pets As Therapy had over 900 establishments on their waiting list. PAT relies on charitable donations and the work of volunteers. PAT's team--numbering approximately 5,000 dogs and 120 cats--provides comfort and companionship to over 150,000 people every week, including the elderly, disabled and terminally ill. Beyond healing, PAT's furry charges also help build social skills and confidence in children. The charity's new "Read to Dogs" programme aims to improve young students' reading abilities.

"When humans show us affection, it's quite a complicated thing that involves expectations and judgments," Custance explains. "But with a dog, it's a very uncomplicated, non-challenging interaction with no consequences. And if you've been through a hard time, it's lovely to have that."