Pets and Mental Wellness: Taylor Chastain Griffin Of Pet Partners and The Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

Pets and Mental Wellness: Taylor Chastain Griffin Of Pet Partners and The Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals On How to Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet

Playfulness- All throughout my graduate education program in mental health counseling, our professors would talk to us about how important it is for adults to remember how to play. As a society we tend to forget that, and adults don’t always have outlets for creative expression and lightheartedness. Prioritizing play with our pets is one of the best ways to tap into the mental health benefits associated with playfulness. What does your pet find enjoyable? Depending on the species, it might be a walk, a game of fetch, scent work, or obstacle courses. Find out what your pet enjoys and see if you don’t just happen to enjoy it too.

Pets have always been more than just companions; they play a pivotal role in enhancing our mental well-being. From the unconditional love of a dog to the calming presence of a cat, pets have a unique way of alleviating stress, anxiety, and loneliness. But how do we truly harness the therapeutic potential of our furry, feathered, or scaled friends? How can they aid in promoting mindfulness, reducing depression, or even enhancing social interactions? In this interview series, we are talking to veterinarians, psychologists, therapists, pet trainers, and other experts who can shed light on how to maximize the mental health benefits of having a pet. As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Taylor Chastain Griffin.

In her roles as National Director of AAI Advancement for Pet Partners and Executive Director of the Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals, Taylor Chastain Griffin, Ph.D. focuses on supporting research and professional development within the therapy animal arena. Having witnessed hundreds of interactions between her own therapy animals and the people with whom they’ve visited, she is passionate about bolstering the intervention with empirical investigation. She obtained her doctorate in research psychology in 2018, with her studies focusing on the human-animal bond as it is experienced in contexts of shared traumatic experiences. Through her undergraduate education in psychology and animal behavior to her graduate work to become a mental health counselor, she has always strived to shape her educational and professional endeavors with the foundational goal of promoting the human-animal bond. She is also a published author, dog trainer, and Pet Partners team evaluator.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

Igrew up in a suburban town outside of Atlanta, Georgia. I was very shy and watchful as a young child and would barely talk to anyone outside of my family. As I grew up and gained confidence, I began to find a way of connecting with others through shared passions. I took my first mission trip to Africa at 12 years old and my whole perspective on life shifted. I was also the child who was continuously trying to convince her parents to add another animal to the family. We even have old home video footage of me following our dogs around with a camcorder as I try to explain their behaviors and breed traits.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Having built a career surrounding the work of therapy animals, it’s so hard to pick just one interesting story. I’ve witnessed these animals do so many things that as a researcher, I wish I could explain. Perhaps the most moving interaction I’ve been a part of happened when I worked with the Department of Juvenile Justice. I had a rescue bulldog at the time named Charley. She was in very rough shape when I adopted her. We didn’t think she would make it through the first night. She ended up healing, thriving, and having an incredible career as a therapy dog. She participated in a reading program that allowed incarcerated teens to practice reading aloud to therapy dogs. It was the first time I had ever overseen data collection, and I remember having to listen again and again to sessions to ensure that my information was correct. These kids were improving so significantly that the data seemed unreal. I’d often hear Charley’s little snorts or grunts in the recordings during moments when the teen had slipped up or gotten stuck on a word. You could literally hear her get the kid out of their head, into the present moment, and encourage them to go on. It was by witnessing those interactions between therapy animals and incarcerated youth that I knew that I had to dedicate my career to this intervention.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Probably not surprisingly, the first book that ever really stole my heart was “Where the Red Fern Grows.” We were assigned to read it at some point during elementary school, and it completely undid me! It carried such an emotional weight for me and left me having conversation after conversation about it with people like my dad who could help me dissect all of the feelings it brought up. I was desperate to try and reconcile how much love can exist between people and animals, and I wanted to know how in the world we’re supposed to cope with the fact that neither of us live forever. That book cued my first ever existential curiosity, and it made me so deeply curious to explore the range of feelings in the human experience and how they intersect with our relationships with animals.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Can you share a personal story about how a pet has helped you or someone you know to improve mental wellness?

Once again, I could share probably hundreds of stories about how a pet has helped improve mental wellness. I’ll provide two- one professional, one personal.

Professionally, I focused my dissertation research on the experiences of domestic violence survivors who owned pets. I was fortunate to work with a nonprofit that provided pet care so these survivors could focus on finding safety, and I interviewed the survivors once they had successfully fled the relationship and reclaimed their pets. These survivors shared such moving testimonies about how meaningful it was for them to know that their pets were taken care of while they were in domestic violence shelters. They often described how their pets became this beacon of hope and a motivator to keep surviving the darkest hours. Any being who can motivate such tangible hope should be empowered to the fullest degree.

For me personally, I’ll share the story of my beloved dog Harlem who recently passed away. Harlem was with me all throughout the most demanding parts of my academic journey. I had a full-time job while I was in my PhD program, so there were many nights I spent working late on my research. Harlem had a way of sensing when I was becoming stressed or drained, and he would walk up to my desk, nose my arm, and inch up into what can only be described as a hug. He brought me presence and perspective in a time when I needed it most. He showed me how important it was to rest while also motivating me to keep my eyes on my mission to be an advocate for the power of the human-animal bond.

While human interaction is essential for emotional well-being, in what ways do interactions with pets offer unique benefits that human relationships might not provide?

I’ve found throughout my career that for many people, relationships with pets are much safer than relationships with other humans. We absolutely need human connection, but the love we share with pets can be a bridge in a way that is less scary for a lot of people than human-to-human vulnerability. If you watch how people interact with their pets, you’ll probably witness silliness, playfulness, and high levels of physical affection. These are states that we all crave and need as humans. People also often have an easier time accessing empathy with pets than they do with other people. I believe pets soften our hearts similar to how a tiller softens the soil that allows for seeds to grow. This can set us up for great success in interpersonal relationships outside of the human-pet bond.

Can you explain how this works? How do pets, particularly common ones like dogs and cats, biologically and psychologically help to alleviate human stress levels and anxieties?

As a researcher, I believe we’re only beginning to scratch the surface in terms of our understanding of how pets alleviate human stress and anxiety. We know that our pets tend to be very cued into our emotional states. They can sense when we’re tense, and they tend to respond accordingly. That within itself can be a very powerful thing for humans to be aware of: how does my pet respond when I’m stressed? It allows for self-awareness and can prompt us to take steps proactively to protect our mental wellness. Pets also provide meaningful bonds to their human counterparts, boosting all kinds of feel-good hormones and serving as steady points of attachment to alleviate negative states such as isolation and loneliness.

In the backdrop of global events like pandemics or natural disasters, how have you seen pets playing a role in alleviating anxiety and providing comfort? Can you share some instances where pets have been integrated into therapeutic practices? How do they complement traditional therapeutic techniques?

The power of the human-animal bond was on full display during the COVID-19 pandemic. People were adopting pets, spending more time with existing pets, and depending on pets to provide comfort and affection when we had to maintain physical distance from other humans. As a portion of the therapy cat study recently conducted by Pet Partners and Cat Person, we asked cat owners about their relationships with cats during the pandemic. Cat owners talked about how their cats gave them a reason to get out of bed when the whole world seemed to be shutting down. They described talking and playing with their pets in a way that protected them from feeling completely socially isolated.

During my time as a mental health counselor, I integrated my therapy dogs into my work with clients. The impact was so powerful that I was motivated to continue my education to make the intervention more available, more researched, and more effective for all involved. We now have a professional association (The Association of Animal-Assisted Intervention Professionals) entirely dedicated to this mission. At the foundational level, therapy animals facilitate rapport and provide comfort to clients in therapy. On top of that foundation, professionals can develop endless treatment plans that thoughtfully and intentionally incorporate animals to meet individual client goals.

Not all pets are dogs or cats. From birds to fish to reptiles, how can individuals choose the right pet that aligns with their mental health needs?

It’s so important to carefully consider the species, breed, and even the individual animal to ensure that a person is selecting the best fit for them. Just like human relationships, we have differing levels of compatibility with different animals. A person should consider the amount of time and money they are able to spend on a new pet. They should consider the pet care needs associated with the animal they are interested in and honestly appraise whether or not the level of care will be burdensome to their lifestyle. I always encourage potential adopters to try and spend some time with the kind of animal they’re interested in to make sure that they degree of fit is there in real life. I love my German Shepherd so much, but some people spend time with her and say, “I don’t think this would be the right breed for me.” Even after a person has selected their animal, it’s important to constantly check in with your expectations. It takes time to build a relationship with a new pet. The pet won’t automatically know how to best fit into your life. Work with trainers or other animal lovers who realize the importance of fear-free, positive interactions with animals, and invest in building your relationship with your pet like you’d invest in the development of any other important family relationship.

How does the act of taking care of a pet — feeding, grooming, exercising — contribute to an individual’s sense of purpose and mental well-being?

This question touches on another finding that commonly came up in the Pet Partners/Cat Person Therapy Cat study and has appeared in a lot of the research on the intersection of pet ownership and the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that a person still had to get out of bed, stick to a routine, and keep their body moving to care for their pets was incredibly meaningful at times when all our existing routines were so deeply challenged. When we don’t feel like engaging in self-care, we can often still find motivation to care for our beloved pets, and we just happen to benefit from those actions while we’re doing them.

The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. From your experience or research, what are your “Five Ways To Maximize the Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet?” Can you please share a story or example for each?

Pets have the ability to model some of the most important principles of psychological health and wellbeing. Here are the top 5 mental health skills that we can practice with our pets:

1 . Emotional regulation- If you’re like me, it can sometimes be hard to notice that you’ve entered an emotionally challenging place until you’re already right in the middle of the negative feeling. Our pets are in tuned to our emotional states, and if we’re in tune with them, we can be empowered to take an active position in protecting our mental wellness. I have an adorable Shih-Tzu named Walter. He’s ordinarily a boisterous, confident little dude. But the moment I start to experience a negative emotional state, I can see it all over Walter’s body language. I am never upset with Walter, and my stress is never directed towards him. He can simply walk into my office when I’m responding to a troublesome email and his tail tucks and head bows. I now know to look often to my little buddy to see what he’s picking up on in me. If he’s looking stressed, it’s an opportunity for me to take a break, give him some love, and invest in just a couple of moments of awareness that end up making both of us happier beings!

2 . Boundary setting- It can sound silly to think about setting boundaries with our pets, but that’s not exactly what I mean here. I’m talking about honoring boundaries for your pets. Something we always say when working with therapy animals is that they shouldn’t simply tolerate their job. They should actively enjoy it. The same is true for our pets. If a pet doesn’t want to be touched, we shouldn’t be petting them! If they want space, we should provide that. Learning to read your animals’ body language and respond accordingly is extremely powerful. When we become advocates for our animals’ boundaries, we open the door to talk about boundary setting in humans and can see just how loving that skillset is no matter who we’re interacting with.

3 . Playfulness- All throughout my graduate education program in mental health counseling, our professors would talk to us about how important it is for adults to remember how to play. As a society we tend to forget that, and adults don’t always have outlets for creative expression and lightheartedness. Prioritizing play with our pets is one of the best ways to tap into the mental health benefits associated with playfulness. What does your pet find enjoyable? Depending on the species, it might be a walk, a game of fetch, scent work, or obstacle courses. Find out what your pet enjoys and see if you don’t just happen to enjoy it too.

4 . Unconditional positive regard- One of my favorite things about animals is how they tend to be vessels of grace and acceptance. They love us for who we are and are always excited to see us when we come home. I like to let their orientation towards others motivate me. It can be so tempting to assume the worst in others out of a state of self-protection. When we start to receive each other with more unconditional positive regard as so expertly modeled by our pets, our interactions with humans will change for the better.

5 . Rest- Us humans are busier than ever these days. Even when we think we’re resting, we’re often scrolling through our phones or the wheels in our minds are running a million miles a minute. We need to rest, and our pets love it when we rest with them. Take some intentional time each day to truly unplug and rest like your pets do! Maybe you can lay on the couch with your dog or listen to music while your cat sits under the window in the sun. The rhythm in which our pets operate in life can teach us so much about becoming healthier people.

The loss of a pet can be deeply traumatic. How can individuals navigate this grief, and how does it compare to other forms of loss in terms of mental health impact?

It’s so important to validate the complexity of grief over a pet with the awareness that a pet is a family member. Everything you read that applies to grief in human losses can be applied to the loss of our pets. You will go through stages, and at times the heartbreak will feel absolutely disorienting. I find it helpful to find little ways to honor the lives of the pets who I’ve lost. Perhaps you can make a donation in their memory or create a special place in your home where you hang their picture. The impact of your pets’ love will live on for as long as you do. Connect with other people who can understand the depth of pet loss. Your fellow pet loving community can be a real life boat for you during this overwhelming chapter.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of peace to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

One of my favorite sayings is “be the person your dog thinks you are.” I would encourage people do ask themselves, “how do you think your pet sees you?” Do they see you as reliable, gentle, loving, and kind? If we could all uphold a commitment to be the people our pets think we are, the world would be a better, more peaceful place.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

It would be a dream come true to be able to have a meeting with Dr. Brene Brown. She has mastered the art of bringing life-changing research findings to large audiences outside of academia. I want to be able to do the same thing in advocating for the power of the human-animal bond to inspire wellness and bring humans together.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We have two great websites with tons of information on therapy animals and on the human-animal bond in general. If you are interested in volunteering with your pet as a therapy animal team, check out Pet Partners. If you are a professional who wants to bring a therapy animal into your vocational practice, AAAIP is for you. You can read more about the therapy cat study mentioned above at And as always, I hope people who are interested in this work will connect with me on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at







← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment