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Changing the World Through AAI: The History of Pet Partners

Haley Etheridge, OTD, OTR/L
Michael & Bill McCulloch | Pet Partners
Michael & Bill McCulloch | Pet Partners

Pet Partners, formerly the Delta Society, is renowned today as the gold standard in the field of animal-assisted interventions. This has a lot to do with the work of our amazing founders. Settle in, grab some pupcorn, and learn how we have grown from one veterinarian’s idea to an organization that provides more than three million therapy animal visits annually.

The Roots of Animal-Assisted Interventions

Florence Nightingale quote | Pet Partners

The benefits of the human-animal bond in the U.S. can be traced back to the 19th century. Florence Nightingale, who is regarded as the founder of modern nursing, commented on the healing benefits of animals for children and adults in psychiatric institutions.

A century later, child psychologist Dr. Boris Levinson discovered that therapy sessions were much more productive when his dog, Jingles, was present. This discovery aligned with earlier findings by Sigmund Freud, who also noted that patients were more willing to communicate when his chow chow, Jofi, attended sessions. Levinson was scoffed at when he presented his ideas about animal-assisted therapy to colleagues, and decided more research was needed to support the field.

Enter: Dr. William McCulloch.

The Journey Begins

Michael & Bill McCulloch | Pet Partners
Michael and Bill McCulloch

William ‘Bill’ McCullough, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, stated:

“[T]he journey of how Delta [Society] began for me was in 1959 when a client said she appreciated how sensitive I was to her and her [husband with disabilities’] feelings that their beagle was a member of their family as they could not have children. This story and many others were shared with Dr. Aubrey Fine for his classic book, Our Faithful Companions. It would once again ‘ring my bell’ in the mid-1960s by reading the late Dr. Boris Levinson’s publications on the need for more research on the human–animal bond and the mental health role of the veterinarian.”

Bill realized that in order to pioneer research in the field, he needed a physician on his side. He shared his idea with his brother, Michael McCulloch, who studied at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. This idea piqued Michael’s interest, and Bill says, “the rest was history!”

Creation of the Delta Society

Leo Bustad and Brigid
Dr. Leo Bustad

The brothers teamed up with veterinarians Dr. Leo K. Bustad, Dr. R.K. Anderson, Dr. Stanley L. Diesch, Dr. Joe Quigley, and Dr. Alton Hopkins. Despite doubt from critics, this group was committed to studying each side of the “Delta Triangle”: the animal, the client, and the veterinarian. With the primary purpose of conducting research about the human–animal bond, the Delta Foundation was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1977, with Dr. Michael McCulloch as the first president. The Delta Foundation’s name was changed to Delta Society in 1981, symbolizing the rapid expansion of a group of interested researchers and medical practitioners in both human and animal fields. Dr. Bustad became President, and today he is widely credited with introducing the term “human–animal bond.”

Expanding the Field

The Delta Society hit the ground running. Between 1981 and 1987, the organization made great strides in conducting research and promoting the value of the human–animal bond, which included these accomplishments:

  • Creating the American Veterinary Medical Association Human–Animal Bond Task Force.
  • Providing leadership to pass the Urban Rural Recovery Act of 1983 in order to prevent discrimination against pet owners in federal housing.
  • Establishing Anthrozoös, Delta Society’s peer-reviewed research journal, which eventually became a stand-alone organization that is the largest publisher of human–animal interaction research to date.

The Pet Partners Program is Born

As the founders continued to blaze the trail in HAB research, they focused on making the power of the human–animal bond more widely available in their communities. In 1991, the Pet Partners program was established as the first comprehensive, standardized training in animal-assisted activities and therapy for volunteers and healthcare professionals. Ann Howie, ACSW, and her dog Falstaff were the first registered Pet Partners team in the nation.

Pet Partners Evolves

In February of 2012, the Delta Society changed its name to Pet Partners to more accurately reflect the program’s mission: To improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond. Today, over 10,000 volunteers across the U.S. and in several other countries work to spread the benefits of the human-animal bond.

And we have continued to find new ways to bring AAI to people and expand the scope of our work.

Dr. Bill Mc Culloch | Pet Partners

  • In 2015 we created National Therapy Animal Day, to recognize and celebrate therapy animals and their handlers.
  • In 2016, the Read With Me™ initiative began, along with our international expansion.
  • This was followed by the launch of our advocacy platform, our Walk With Me™ initiative, and our 40th anniversary and the return of the Pet Partners conference in 2017.

Watch our 40th anniversary video about the history of Pet Partners with Dr. Bill McCulloch.

  • In 2018, Pet Partners hosted several advocacy events, and humans and animals around the world participated in Pet Partners’ inaugural World’s Largest Pet Walk. We also published a white paper on animals in the workplace, and significantly expanded our animal-assisted workplace well-being program.
  • In 2019, we launched our animal-assisted crisis response program, to meet increasing need for this type of AAI around the country. We also held the second edition of our conference, with the theme Partnering with a Purpose, in San Antonio. And we visited the U.S. Capitol for our first (and hopefully not last) Meet the Pets event, to familiarize congressional lawmakers and staff with the work of therapy animal teams and the need for expanded access and thoughtful legislation around AAI.
  • 2020 provided enormous challenges to Pet Partners, as it did for the world, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But we found ways to continue delivering on our mission, with the development of alternative visiting options designed to work with the challenges presented by pandemic restrictions. Dr. Taylor Chastain Griffin with Pet Partners created the term animal-related engagement and co-authored a white paper outlining the ways that this concept supports AAI. And we launched We Are All Ears, a reading project designed to keep children reading with pets in support of at-home learning.

Looking Forward

Pet Partners continues to grow and touch the lives of millions each year. We will continue to screen and register the best therapy animal teams in the U.S., and are actively working to increase the number of teams in our Therapy Animal Program. We are also committed to creating a volunteer force that is more representative of the diverse populations we serve.

The challenges of COVID-19 led us to explore new options for recruiting and training the volunteer leaders who are so vital to creating new therapy animal teams, and we’re excited about the possibilities.

As always, we are dedicated to supporting and expanding research to further the field of animal-assisted interventions, just as our founders set out to do more than four decades ago. And we have exciting new activity in process to provide greater support for professionals who incorporate therapy animals into their professional practice.

Pet Partners has been a leader in the field of AAI since the beginning of our organization. We plan to continue leading the way and breaking new ground, in support of the legacy built by our founders.