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Partnering with a Purpose: Looking Back at the 2019 Pet Partners Conference

Elisabeth Van Every
Pet Partners Partnering for a Purpose Conference Logo
Pet Partners Partnering for a Purpose Conference Logo

The 2019 Pet Partners Conference, Partnering with a Purpose, took place September 20-21 in San Antonio, TX. It was a wonderful opportunity to bring together handlers, professionals in the AAI field, practitioners and facilities, and Pet Partners staff to network, learn, and inspire.

The conference was full of informative sessions covering a wide range of topics relating to AAI. Here are some of the topics that were presented during conference sessions:

  • Keynote speaker Victoria Stilwell talked about how to inspire confidence and resilience in our dogs through giving them more choices. She provided guidance on how doing less and giving your dog more choice in daily life enhances your dog’s ability to learn, increases confidence, and strengthens the relationship between dogs and their owners. Her advice on methods for doing this was a topic of conversation among attendees throughout the weekend.

    Victoria Stilwell speaking at the 2019 Conference
    Victoria Stilwell delivers the keynote address at the 2019 Pet Partners conference
  • Nancy Gee provided a summary of what we know about how animals help students learn, with a focus on the latest and strongest evidence available on the subject. Her session offered discussion on where and how animals are involved in educational settings and how and why animals may impact variables such as student social skills, attention, memory, stress and anxiety, and executive functioning.
  • Melissa Winkle talked about developing relationships between therapy animal teams and practitioners, with emphasis on opportunities for teams to move toward becoming interdisciplinary team members in healthcare, human service, and education, and how to create healthy interactions and support animal welfare in these relationships.
  • Steve Dale reminded us that dogs are not wolves, discussing how recent trends in treating our canine companions like their wild ancestors is detrimental to their health, learning, and to the human-animal bond, with a fascinating overview of the evidence showing how dogs truly evolved. He also presented a session on ways to enrich the lives and health of our dogs and cats and why this kind of enrichment is so vital.
  • Zenny Ng talked about the obligation of AAI providers and therapy animal handlers to protect the well-being of their animal partners, emphasizing how important it is to be mindful of the variables that can lead to both fulfillment and stress for therapy animals and why the animal’s welfare is crucial to the success of AAI.
  • Colleen Pelar presented strategies for improving resilience to help therapy animal handlers be more effective in visiting and advocating for their animals, such as refocusing on positive events rather than negative; identifying and navigating emotional responses; and common emotional triggers that can impair interactions and how to manage and improve those situations.
  • Leslie Stewart discussed why the human end of the leash is so important in animal-assisted crisis response (AACR), including an overview of the biophysical effects of crisis, and why additional training for handlers is vital in making AACR effective and allowing handlers to protect themselves and their animal partners when providing crisis response.
  • Amy Showalter offered a workshop in effective advocacy strategies, providing information on what works in communicating with elected officials and how to create personal stories that have an impact, as well as opportunities for engagement.
  • Steven Feldman, Executive Director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, provided a comprehensive look at pet-friendly rental housing in the U.S. based on recent survey data, including challenges faced by pet owners in rental housing and potential policy changes.
  • Cynthia Chandler provided an overview of the science underlying human-animal relational moments, including how these relationships enhance client well-being and move clients toward goal achievement, and the role of the handler in these interactions.
  • Aubrey Fine closed the conference sessions with his talk about the importance of remembering our therapy animals who have passed away. He discussed why honoring and understanding the impact of therapy animals in the lives of both handlers and clients helps us grieve, and how handlers can help model and support expressions of loss for clients.
Aubrey Fine and Jennifer VonLintel at the 2019 Conference
Aubrey Fine and Jennifer VonLintel, the 2018 Magic Award recipient

In addition, Dr. Fine provided support and information throughout the weekend for the Magic Award, the annual scholarship he established to promote personal/professional development for Pet Partners handlers. He had the opportunity to meet the 2018 recipient, Jennifer VonLintel, which provided evidence of how the Magic Award creates greater opportunity for AAI to expand.

The weekend wasn’t only about the sessions, though. There were opportunities throughout both days for handlers, volunteer leaders, practitioners, and Pet Partners staff to network and learn from each other.

Colorful ribbons and species stickers on conference badges gave people ways to connect over their pets and the type of work they do.  And the the Wall of Honor offered attendees the chance to celebrate their therapy animal partners and pets who have made such a difference in the lives of those they visit.

The Friday evening celebration dinner encouraged attendees to have fun with the San Antonio location by dressing up in their finest western wear, and Pet Partners Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Williams and Chief Mission Officer Mary Margaret Callahan led an entertaining participation game to show the wide range of species, settings, and activities that conference attendees work in.


There were also some topic-specific events before and after the main conference, as part of Pet Partners’ dedication to supporting all facets of AAI.

On Thursday September 19, Dr. Taylor Chastain, Pet Partners National Director of AAI Advancement, held a summit with AAI professionals working in a broad range of specialties to find out more about the challenges they face and to workshop options they would like to see and ways to improve support for AAI practitioners.

On Sunday September 22, President and CEO C. Annie Peters held a town hall meeting with members of Community Partners and Community Groups to discuss how Pet Partners can assist and support local groups in serving their communities.

It was a wonderful weekend full of learning and connection, and a powerful reminder of why the work we do in support of the human-animal bond is so important. Pet Partners is proud to support so many dedicated volunteers and skilled professionals in this work, and this year’s conference demonstrated how all of us partner with a purpose to make our mission possible.

At the close of the conference, we announced the location for our 2021 conference: Chicago, IL! We’re looking forward to welcoming people to our event there in September 2021 and sharing more of how the field of AAI develops in the next two years. See you there!

Five people in front of a photo of a Chicago sign at 2019 Conference
Celebrating the announcement of the 2021 conference location: Delta Society/Pet Partners founder Dr. Bill McCulloch; Dr. Aubrey Fine; Mary Margaret Callahan; Annie Peters; and Dr. David Williams

Our thanks to our 2019 Conference sponsors, who helped make this year’s event possible:

PetSmart Charities


US Storage Centers

Oakland University Center for Human Animal Interventions