Pet Encounter Therapy

Bringing Unconditional Love through Human-
Animal Interaction

The PET program is founded on the belief that animals can have a tremendous impact on the human spirit.

The Helen Woodward Animal Center’s animal-visitation program provides opportunities for people with special needs to experience unconditional love and a variety of physical, psychological and social benefits when interacting with specially trained therapy animals. Lowered blood pressure, increased memory recall, reduction in anxiety are just a few of the benefits that we see along with the simple enjoyment of petting a furry friend.

PET’s primary goal is to reach out to the clients who have the most need for our services. Skilled nursing centers, mental health & rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, memory care residences and child/adolescent facilities with limited or no access to animals are our priority. We also provide many one-time visits to hospice clients, special events and other facilities in need.

PET staff and a remarkable group of dedicated volunteers partner with a variety of  certified therapy animals to provide this service. Dogs, cats, rabbits, and many other species each have a special way of reaching even the most withdrawn of our clients. Regardless of whether the animal lives at the Center or with a volunteer, all of our animals are tested for both health and temperament before joining the program. It is important that the animal not only be safe but also enjoys the interactions as much as our clients.

Your Help Is Needed!

Like the rest of the Center, PET relies on private donations to fund the program. Very little revenue is generated by PET because services are offered free of charge to non-profit facilities and charge only a $30 to $52 fee per visit for other facilities; revenues generated only pay about one-twentieth of the department’s operating budget. Currently, we have a long waiting list of facilities to visit and need additional funding before we can expand our service. In addition to one-time donations, donors also have the opportunity to sponsor a facility, an animal in the program or support the program for an entire year! These sponsor opportunities are also available to corporations looking to make a difference in their community.

All donations are fully tax deductible as permitted by law.

Sponsor a PET Visit

PET Success Stories

Farley, a lovely 7-year-old Aussie, was in desperate need of a forever family to love her. A small rescue group in Central California had taken her in but they knew that she would have a better chance of finding the perfect home if they transferred her down to the Helen Woodward Animal Center.  A kind lady offered to drive her down and soon Farley was tucked into her kennel at the Center awaiting her forever person.


Meanwhile, a Center Pet Encounter Therapy (PET) volunteer named Candy was still coming to terms with the passing of her beloved Aussie that had worked in the PET department for many years. Candy knew that she wanted to adopt another Aussie that would hopefully become a therapy dog but was hesitant to start her search because the holidays were right around the corner. She planned to start looking in the new year.  But fate didn’t want to wait that long and had to work overtime to bring these two together!


First, an Education department employee decided to spend her lunch hour visiting the adoptable dogs and noticed sweet Farley. She then mentioned her in passing to a PET staff member whose ears perked up at the mention of an Aussie looking for a home. Candy was called immediately and was told to “get down here now.”


Candy got down to the Center as fast as she could and met Farley, but was still unsure about adopting considering she was driving up to her sister’s house in Central California the next day for Thanksgiving and didn’t know if it was fair to adopt a dog and immediately turn around and ask the dog to do a seven hour road trip. So she went home without Farley and called her sister who said “go back and get that dog!” She took a leap of faith that it would work out and adopted Farley as soon as the kennels opened the next day and then hit the road to visit her sister. Fast forward to the next day when Candy was sitting on her sister’s sofa with Farley and heard a knock at the door. In walked one of her sister’s friends who immediately stopped when she saw Farley and said “where did you get that dog?”.  Candy started to explain that she had just adopted her from Helen Woodward Animal Center when the woman stopped her to say “but I was the one who drove her down there from the rescue up here!”


Everyone in room was stunned to realize the full circle journey that Farley had taken to find her forever person. So many things had to fall into place to make the adoption possible and it was easy to see that Candy was always meant to be her family. And Farley was also meant to be a therapy dog because it was only a few months later when she passed her certification test with flying colors. Don’t you just love it when a plan comes together?

“My dog Hudson, a 9-year-old Italian Greyhound, and I make regular PET visits at senior facilities around San Diego. We’ve been witness to many memorable moments, but some are extra special.


Once, we were visiting Hospice patients at a large hospital when we entered the room of a tall, fragile, elderly gentleman, motionless on the bed, eyes closed, surrounded by his family. We were welcomed in and asked by his daughter if it would be OK to place Hudson on the bed, adding that her dad always loved dogs. I laid Hudson at her dad’s side, letting him snuggle gently. After several moments, Hudson raised his head looking for attention and then softly rested it on the gentleman’s hand. Almost immediately, the man began to slowly raise his hand to pet Hudson’s head, now stretched across the man’s chest. It was a long visit, but Hudson lay content being gently scratched. The man never opened his eyes.


Looking up at the end of the visit, I was concerned when I realized that everyone around me was crying. Outside the room, a nurse was waiting to tell me that this patient, until now, had been completely unresponsive since his arrival at Hospice almost two weeks earlier. This memory will live with me for a very long time. Thank you, Hudson.”

Solo, a beautiful Afghan hound, is always the topic of conversation when he enters a room on a Pet Encounter Therapy (PET) visit. At first, comments range from “ he is so handsome” to “ is that a pony or a dog?” but soon you only hear clients talk about how gentle and sweet he is as he quietly stands next to them to be pet.


Rootbeer, a handsome appaloosa mini horse, is also the main topic of conversation at any PET visit because you just don’t see a mini horse at a skilled nursing facility every day, right? Rootbeer and his best friend Edward have galloped their way into so many hearts around San Diego and Rootbeer is known for being especially patient when approaching a client and waiting for their hand to reach out and scratch his dappled coat.


Two great therapy animals but who would have thought that their gentle and kind hearts would  not only reach out to our clients but also to each other.


Solo and Rootbeer first met at an alternative high school visit in the North County. Rootbeer had just gotten off the trailer and walked around to see a very large dog looking at him with interest.  This sight is not something a prey animal really wants to see, so he backed away as Solo’s handler also backed away because we always maintain a safety buffer between animals on visits to keep everyone safe. Solo and Rootbeer, along with the other therapy teams, walked into the courtyard and spent the next hour enjoying every bit of attention from the students.  But Rootbeer also spent the whole time with his eye on Solo and he must have sensed his gentle nature because as soon as we were back out in the parking lot, Rootbeer walked toward Solo with curiosity. Both handlers agreed that they seemed to want to meet each other and cautiously let them go nose to nose. From that moment forward the friendship blossomed. Now, they always greet each other on visits like old friends and they are happy to show the world what kindness can accomplish!

We met Mary (not her real name) at one of our first visits back after Covid restrictions had eased. It felt like we were walking on air as we made our way down the memory care community hallway and watched as every resident that saw our animals lit up and immediately reached out for a pet. It felt so good to be back to in-person visits and everyone seemed to relish the soft fur, the laughter and warmth that was being shared. So it didn’t seem out of place for a woman to slowly roll her wheelchair into the room and make her way to the closest dog. Except for the look on her face which was an unnerving scowl that would make any person question if they should approach. She didn’t seem at all happy until she made contact with Kai (a handsome Pekingese). And then her face transformed into a huge smile and she quietly murmured to herself and to us a few words that sounded a lot like “beautiful.” It was magical to watch her gently pet him and lean forward in her chair to get as close as possible. Soon it was time for Kai to move on to another resident and Mary wasn’t content to wait for the next therapy dog to come to her. She was on the move again with that strong scowl back on her face. Until she found Jazzy (a beautiful spaniel blend) and once again lit up with visible joy.  One of the facility staff members was also watching her enjoy the animals and pulled us aside to say that Mary rarely engaged with anyone and seemed to be angry much of the time. The staff member couldn’t remember a time when she had last seen her smile and was so thankful that our animals could bring out Mary’s softer side.  A human may have turned away at first glance and missed the opportunity to connect with Mary but not our therapy animals!

Frequently Asked Questions about PET

The program provides opportunities for people with special needs to experience the benefits of human-animal interaction. Along with being enjoyable for the people we visit, the interactions can also provide stress reduction, relaxation, lowered blood pressure, increased attention span, increased memory recall, and improved self esteem. Benefits for the PET animals include a work schedule of one hour each day with the next day off, the love of hundreds of people and the best care and housing available. Benefits for our volunteers and staff are the satisfaction of truly touching the lives of the people we visit.

We have a large variety of animals — from dogs and cats, to rabbits, guinea pigs, snakes, and birds — working with volunteers in our program. Many of our volunteers use their own animals in our program while others, who may not have an appropriate animal at home, use the small animals housed at the Center for this purpose. Most of these small animals come from backgrounds of neglect or abandonment and are rehabilitated into the program. Only animals that enjoy the work are accepted into our program.

We visit any facility that has a client population that can benefit from animal interactions. Currently, we travel to psychiatric hospitals, skilled nursing centers, memory care residences, emergency children’s shelters, adolescent behavior centers, facilities serving veterans, and hospital sub-acute units.

Start by filling out a Volunteer Application and attend a Volunteer Orientation held here at the Center. After the orientation a PET staff member will contact you to discuss the program and to make sure this is the right match. Next you will attend a training session and then accompany the PET manager on your first few visits. We ask our volunteers to work at least one three-hour shift each week with a 6-month commitment.

We would love to see if your dog would enjoy this type of work! Any type of dog, whether it is purebred or a blend, is welcome. The important thing is that the dog loves people, is neutral with other dogs and small animals, and trained well enough to enjoy and behave in new and strange surroundings. We do like the dogs to be at least 1 – 1/2 years of age and altered. Your dog will also need to be screened by your vet for any health issues as well as to verify current vaccines. If this sounds like a good match for your dog then please contact PET staff to set up a time for an assessment.


If you feel your family member and his/her fellow residents would benefit from our program, please have the activity director of that facility call our Center for further details.




Special thanks to:

  • Steve and Sharron MacDonald Family Foundation
  • Promises2Kids
  • Charity Fair Horse Show
  • Bell Charitable Foundation


Office Hours:

9am-5pm Tuesday-Thursday-Friday
*Visits scheduled by appointment only. Call or email for more information.

Pet Encounter Therapy Specialist
Robin Cohen

P.O. Box 64, 6523 Helen Woodward Way

Rancho Santa Fe, CA 92067

858-756-4117 ext. 322

Due to Hurricane Hilary, all  departments will be closing at 3pm today.  Stay safe!