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Meet 10 Therapy Animals—Think Dogs, Horses, Monkeys and More—That Are Helping Humans Live Their Best Lives

Gundackerphoto/Canine Companions for Independence

What do Chuck Norris the pig, Farah the monkey, Rojo the llama, Archie the black Lab and Cezar the cockatoo have in common? They’re all service animals who just want to help their humans live their best lives.

Animals and humans have worked together since we lived in caves, but the latest wave of furry and feathered helpers take the animal-human relationship to a new level, says Jessi Gold, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. “The idea that animals can help emotional health is definitely more widespread,” she says. Today you’ll see critters at work as service animals, therapy animals and emotional support animals, guiding the blind through busy intersections, cheering up children in hospitals and easing the anxieties of veterans with PTSD. Some have spent years in training to perform their tasks, others help just by being themselves. But they’re all part of an explosion in the use of animals to cope with depression, anxiety and disability.

Can they really help? At least one study confirms that therapy animals can improve our social and communication skills, ease our anxiety, brighten our mood and make us more empathetic. Other studies show that just hanging out with a friendly dog lowers our stress: our breathing gets more regular, our heartbeat slows down and our muscles relax.

You may feel more relaxed just reading about some of these animals who are making lives better.

Related: Moving Stories About People, the Animals They Love and How They Saved Each Other

Confetti the miniature horse-FTR

The Galloping Guide

The lunch crowd at the Country Cabin in Jacksonville, Florida, was tucking in for a meal when an unusual patron walked into the restaurant.

It was a miniature horse, just under 3 feet tall. Walking on a leash.

The horse’s human, Cheryl Spencer, introduced Confetti, who is Spencer’s guide horse, to her fellow diners. Confetti, an 18-year-old mare, goes everywhere with Spencer, who is blind: to her job, on planes, on the city bus, to the doctor. They even went to a Tom Jones concert last year. Confetti’s job is to be Spencer’s eyes. “When I need her, she’s with me,” Spencer says. “I couldn’t be as independent without her.”

Related: Miranda Lambert, Andy Cohen and Other Stars Who've Adopted Shelter Pets

by Ashley Hylbert

The Pig That Teaches Empathy

The kids at the Sapling Center, a drop-in facility for at-risk youth in Hazard, Kentucky, burst into smiles when Chuck Norris walks into the room. No, not the two-legged Chuck Norris of 1990s TV fame. This Chuck Norris is a therapy pig. A Juliana miniature pig, to be precise (, and he works with kids at the center suffering from anxiety and emotional trauma. “He has an incredible calming effect on them,” says Angie Bush, a licensed counselor who’s the director of youth services at the facility.

Many of the 50 or so kids Bush sees have trouble connecting to others. They’re withdrawn and fearful, and hesitant to trust. “Chuck bridges the gap,” Bush says. “He comes up wagging his tail and nudging the kids with his nose, and their barriers melt.” The kids take care of Chuck, feeding him and walking him. It teaches them empathy and independent living skills, Bush says. “He’s a catalyst for them to pick up life skills.”

Chuck works 15 to 20 hours a week. He has an employee badge, with his photo and name, that he wears on his harness. He’s the ultimate ice breaker, entertaining the kids by ringing a bell on cue, and he can sit, stay and come, just like a dog.

Why a pig? “Pigs have an ability to empathize, they’re highly intelligent and they’re good with children and old people,” Bush says. The novelty of a therapy pig trumps a more predictable animal like a dog, she says. Because how can you resist a wiggly spotted pig who likes hugs?

Still doubting the pig thing? Chuck’s therapy certification training included an obedience class, which he took at a pet store along with a gaggle of dogs. Chuck finished the class two weeks before his canine classmates. “He mastered the skills much faster than the dogs,” Bush says.

Take that, border collies.

Related: Jon Stewart and Other Stars Rescue Animals With Farm Sanctuary

courtesy Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers

The Companion Capuchin

When Kent Converse of Western Massachusetts was paralyzed in an auto accident 13 years ago, his wife, Nancy, realized he needed a hand to make his life easier. A pair of monkey hands, to be specific. Enter Farah, a 35-year-old capuchin monkey. She opens doors for Kent, brings him the phone, gets him a drink from the fridge and puts a straw in it.

Farah spent three years being trained as a service animal by Helping Hands Monkey Helpers, a Boston nonprofit. Helping Hands puts its animals through a three- to five-year training program at its Monkey College. Farah knows 40 one-word commands. Converse tells her “sun” and she turns on the light. He says “fetch,” and she picks up the TV remote he dropped. She’ll even put Kent’s foot back on his wheelchair if it slips off.

But Farah’s more than a set of hands. She’s also a companion. “Kent will get home and Farah will run and jump on him and give him a monkey hug,” Nancy says. “She wraps her legs, arms and tail around him. It’s so pure, so real. It fills your heart with love.” They eat meals with Farah and plan their days around spending time together, just the three of them. “We have a tight family bond,” Nancy says.

The six-pound monkey brought a spark back into their lives that went out after Kent was injured, Nancy says. “Farah was like a magical light that came back on. She made us laugh again and lighten up. [Getting her] is one of the best things we ever did.”

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Fatima With Mercury the miniature horse-FTR

The Happy Horse

Five-year-old Fatima Butler had been living with her family at the Ronald McDonald House in Gainesville, Florida, for two months while her big brother, Christopher, had a heart transplant and brain surgery.  She needed a little pick-me-up—and she got it when in walked Mercury, a therapy horse who looks like a My Little Pony toy come to life. Fatima walked with him in the facility’s butterfly garden. She kissed the horse, and the horse nuzzled her back. Then her family FaceTimed her brother so he could see Mercury, too. “He was smiling,” said Michael Butler, the children’s father. “It was nice to see him smile, after all he’s been through.”

Mercury is one of 21 therapy horses from Gentle Carousel, a Gainesville nonprofit that sends the tiny equines to console around 25,000 people a year in hospitals, hospice programs and anywhere there’s been a trauma. Gentle Carousel horses go through a two-year training program where they learn skills ranging from riding in elevators to staying calm around sirens and hospital helicopters. They’re also house-trained.

The little horses bring a lot of joy. Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, the group’s education director, tells of a girl dying from a heart ailment whose last wish was to have a tea party with horses. “We brought them in tuxedos and put sparkles in their manes and tails and told her it was fairy dust,” she says. “The little girl was over the moon. Sometimes you can’t fix things, but you can make someone smile and give them a happy day.”

Rojo the Llama-FTR

The Kissing Llama

When therapy llamas Rojo and Smokey walk into an assisted-living facility, a memory-care center or a room full of at-risk kids with autism, everyone wants to pet them. “We’ve seen kids who at first are hesitant to even be in the room with the llamas get comfortable enough to ask to hug and walk them,” says Shannon Joy of the Mtn Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas in Woodland, Washington.

Joy tells of an elderly woman in a nursing home who hadn’t spoken in months. When Rojo nuzzled her, she laughed, touched him and said he was adorable. “The staff was teary-eyed,” she says. “It was the first time the woman had responded to anyone.” The llamas break down barriers for those who are withdrawn or mistrusting in ways a human can’t, she says.

Joy and her mother started Mtn Peaks 12 years ago. The llamas do two to three visits a week and Joy says they’ve helped more people than she can count; four years ago, they did their 1,000th visit. “I’ve lost count of how many places we’ve been to.” One of the highlights of a visit from the llamas: Carrot kisses. A person puts a carrot in their mouth. A 400-pound llama takes it from the them and touches their lips.

“It brings down the house,” Joy says. “It’s pure, genuine joy.”

Related: Animal Shelters Are Overrun With Kittens—Here's How You Can Help

by Marissa Overbaugh/Parrots for Patriots

The Calming Cockatoo

Chris Driggins, a veteran who was battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) long after his Army career ended, knows firsthand how powerful a medicine parrot can be. It all began with Cezar, his Goffin’s cockatoo. The Vancouver, Washington, man found out about a family that no longer wanted their bird. He went to get the creature and found him living alone in a tiny cage in a dark garage. It was Cezar. Driggins took him home that day, and soon realized they were a lot alike. They were both lonely, withdrawn and wary of people. He and Cezar became inseparable, and the two of them began to heal one another. Cezar got more sociable, and so did Driggins. Cezar calmed down, and so did Driggins. “My nightmares stopped. I wasn’t anxious anymore,” Driggins says.

He realized if a parrot could help him, parrots could help other veterans. He founded Parrots for Patriots in 2015, and since then he’s placed more than 220 parrots with veterans. “Parrots observe everything you do. They’re more sensitive than a cat or dog, and they’re smarter,” Driggins says. “They bond with a person totally.”  Since parrots can live around 60 years, they also help break through a traumatized vet’s fear of loss. A veteran’s “cup is full of sadness. They’ve lost loved ones. A bird lives for decades, so a vet can bond with him with less fear of losing another companion,” Driggins says.

Driggins has his own parrots and he fosters birds awaiting an adopter, so his house is full of parrots singing and squawking. On a recent phone call, he had to talk over a parrot yelling “Meow! Meow!” It’s loud and funny, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Parrots saved me. Now I save them so they can help other vets,” Driggins says. “Everybody wins.”

Dogs That Empower

Dogs are the O.G. assistance animals. They’ve been guiding the blind, comforting the sick and calming the distressed for more than a century. Sigmund Freud used his own dog in psychoanalysis sessions, and the first guide dog school opened in 1916 to train dogs to care for World War I veterans. There are nearly 16,000 dogs working as assistance animals in the U.S. Throw in therapy and emotional support dogs, and that number goes into the hundreds of thousands.

by Renee Brereton

Jim Dickson has relied on guide dogs for 27 years since he lost his sight to macular degeneration. Archie, a nearly 4-year-old black Lab, helps him get to his job in Washington, D.C. as an organizer for the National Council on Independent Living. Archie helps him make the mile-long walk from his home to the bus stop, then guides him from the bus to the Metro station, onto the open door of the train, and from the train to his office. Archie even guides Dickson’s hand to the traffic signals at intersections so he can hit the pedestrian button. Dickson’s previous guide dog, Pearson, pulled Dickson out of the path of a car that ran the stop light at an intersection. Not once, but twice. “He saved my life,” Dickson says.

Cori the swim teaching dog-FTR

Then there’s Cori, a Labrador/golden retriever mix who teaches kids with disabilities how to swim. Cori, who’s in training to be a service dog, wears a life vest with handles on it. She lets a child hang on to her and gently pulls them through the water in a pool. “A nonverbal child is hard to reach,” says Judy Fridono, Cori’s owner and the founder of Escondido, California–based Puppy Prodigies. “A dog is better at reaching these kids than a human teacher because the communication between the dog and child is different. It’s more powerful.”

Cori worked with a 4-year-old boy with autism who was terrified of the water. He screamed and cried when he got near the pool, and Cori’s handler couldn’t calm him. Since drowning is one of the leading causes of death for kids with autism, teaching the boy to swim is not a luxury but a life-saver. Fridono asked the boy to throw a ball into the pool for Cori. Cori jumped into the pool to get the ball, and within minutes the boy was in the pool, too, holding onto Cori’s jacket. The boy was swimming a few weeks later. There’s no denying it, says Fridono: “Dogs are magical beings.”

Gundackerphoto/Canine Companions for Independence

Lauren Armstrong certainly thinks so. The 22-year-old Ph.D. student in audiology was just paired in May with a golden Lab named Elroy to be her ears. Trained by nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence to assist the hearing impaired, Elroy has changed Armstrong’s life in many ways.

“He’s helped me become more independent and given me a new confidence,” she says. “He wakes me up in the mornings to an alarm that I can’t hear, helps me with cooking and even when I am driving. Recently he alerted me to a police siren long before the car passed us!” Elroy goes with Armstrong to her audiology appointments and will attend her graduate school classes this fall in Knoxville, Tennessee. Best of all, she says: Elroy has learned to alert her when her name is called at her local coffee shop. No more cold coffee!

Related: Meet 6 Working Dogs That Have Changes Their Owners' Lives

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