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Innovation and Research

Puppies with Purpose: The Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Eli and Mia

There’s no way of getting around it, going into the doctor’s office is rarely something most people look forward to. But for many of the children treated at Gillette Children’s, going in for numerous appointments and procedures is just a fact of life.

Our clinicians are aware of this and employ different methods to try to make our hospital and clinic spaces feel friendlier, and what’s more friendly than a four-legged friend?

“Therapy dogs are an amazing tool we can use to facilitate physical and emotional healing with our patients,” says Emily DeBreto, an occupational therapist at Gillette. “Incorporating therapy dogs into a child’s plan of care can help them acclimate to the hospital environment and motivate them to achieve their rehabilitation goals. Children shift their focus away from their pain, anxiety and frustration and instead experience the simple joy of brushing or feeding the therapy dog.”

While many are familiar with the concept of having trained dogs in the hospital to provide comfort to patients and their families just by being around, what differentiates Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is that the dogs are employed during a child’s speech, physical or occupational therapy session to promote participation in challenging therapeutic activities. It may look like play, but the patient’s interactions with the dog are providing functional therapy. Dogs are highly motivating! 

Eli and Mia Therapy

The fact that it feels like play to the patient is half the point and it’s not just a theory. The current research on the application of AAT suggests that children who have a therapy dog participate in therapy with them experience a reduction in physical and emotional pain, reduced levels of Cortisol (the stress hormone), lowered blood pressure, increased levels of Oxytocin (the bonding hormone) as well as increases in spontaneous language and social skills.

It Really Works

Eli Weber has a rare condition called Joubert Syndrome and he’s been coming to Gillette for physical, occupational and speech therapy since he was 8 months old. He’s recently made a new friend, Mia, a trained Sheltie who has assisted in his last four speech therapy sessions. Eli’s mother, Krystal says that having Mia around has been an incredibly positive experience.

“Eli has always done well in his therapy sessions, but there are aspects of the repetition that can become monotonous over time,” Krystal says. “Knowing that Mia was going to be at his appointments gave him something to look forward to and overall, made for a much more engaging experience. ”Eli Having a Blast

Mia's owners, John and Ardie, have two additional registered dogs at home (for those wondering their names, Murray and Mandy). Ardie has been volunteering for over 14 years and John has been volunteering for 5. Both have sat in on countless appointments over the years and encourage those with therapy dogs who are interested to volunteer for the AAT program at Gillette.

“It’s just so wonderful to watch these children get better. It’s also very rewarding to see the connection that forms between the children and my dogs. They become friends,” Ardie says. “There’ve been plenty of sessions that I’ve left with tears running down my face. The progress you get to see over time is amazing. For anyone who loves children and has a trained therapy dog at home, I would highly recommend volunteering as an AAT team.”

If you are interested in the Animal-Assisted Therapy program at Gillette and would like to volunteer, please visit our website or contact Emily DeBreto at

The AAT program at Gillette is funded entirely by charitable giving. Your gift could put a smile on a child’s face today. Those interested in giving can do so by visiting: animal-assisted-therapy-at-Gillette

Mia looks on