Lots of dogs have a knack for comforting people. 

Their bright eyes and wagging tails have even been proven to lower stress levels and blood pressure, a unique kind of therapy used in some hospitals.

"They want to be needed," said Stephanie Johnson, founder of the local Tiger H.A.T.S. pet therapy program sponsored by the LSU Veterinary School. "They want to give things to us. They want to be there for us."

Recently, Johnson's therapy dog, Nash, a long-haired dachshund, visited Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital and curled up in the bed of Olivia Cotten, a 6-year-old recovering from surgery. 

Olivia quietly stroked Nash's head and stared into his dark eyes. Her mother, Gabrielle Cotten, looked on, smiling.

"It makes me very happy," Gabrielle Cotten said. "She hasn’t really stayed awake that much and hasn’t had any interaction with anybody. It’s good to see her awake and actually doing something."

Animal-assisted therapy, as researchers call it, uses pets to heal patients' spirits and, in turn, their bodies. 

An American Heart Association study found that in a 12-minute visit with a therapy dog, heart patients' anxiety dropped and levels of harmful hormones were diminished.  

When Johnson takes Nash to visit hospitals and nursing homes, the friendly pup climbs into some patients' beds.

"It gives them a moment to forget about everything else they might be struggling with," Johnson said.

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Johnson created the Tiger H.A.T.S. program in 1991, when she was an intern at the LSU School of Social Work. The local organization is aligned with Pet Partners, a national organization that registers animal therapy pets and ensures the animals and their handlers are trained to deal with hospitals and similar environments. 

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While the majority of therapy pets are dogs — about 95 percent, according to Pet Partners — there are cats, pigs, rabbits and other cuddly animals. 

Not all "good dogs" are right for pet therapy, said Traci Pryor, director of strategic partnerships with Pet Partners. 

"Most of the time, the animal needs to love being around people," she said. "They need to be social, they need to be well-behaved, have good obedience, safe."

The animal needs to be "bombproof," as some trainers call the ability to recover from startling noises. They also need a strong bond with their handlers.

"By the time you get to this point, they are really a team," said Annie Peters, president of Pet Partners. "The human and the animal work together to make the visit happen."

Registering a therapy dog can cost $50 to $95, and it helps the hospital know where the dogs are allowed. It takes a higher level of training to go into rooms with more delicate patients and those using certain devices that could get jostled or damaged.

Last month, both Pryor and Peters came to Baton Rouge to meet local pet therapy teams at Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital when Raising Cane's donated $100,000 to Pet Partners. The fast food company raised the money from selling plush stuffed golden retrievers based on their mascot, Raising Cane II, who died last year at 16. 

Cane II was a therapy dog who visited medical centers with his handler, Gwen Graves, co-owner of Raising Cane's. 

"You would see the patients light up, and they would forget about their pain," Graves said while visiting the hospital. 

At the Lake's Children's Hospital, Noah, a calm 70-pound Bernese mountain dog, lumbered through the intensive care unit before coming to the bed of 13-year-old Thomas Whittaker, who was there for an operation.

"Oh my gosh!" Thomas said at the sight of Noah. He's an animal lover, and seeing the big dog gave him a feeling of "comfort," he said.

"I don't know how to explain it," he said.

"Children are so innocent, and dogs sense that,"said Sarah Whittaker, Thomas' mother. "And they give unconditional love."


Follow Kyle Peveto on Twitter, @kylepeveto.