Lending a Helping Paw

Interacting with cats, dogs, and other trained animals can help children find emotional solace. 

“Pets can cut through many of the anxieties we feel in our culture,” says Cara Kiggins, chief programs officer at Gabriel’s Angels. 

The nonprofit organization, which is named for the founder’s late therapy dog, Gabriel, is based in Phoenix, Arizona. It provides pet therapy programs for children across the state. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), regular interactions with dogs can help boost children’s confidence and self-esteem. Bonding with a dog can also provide joy and comfort to a child. 

Founded in 2000, Gabriel’s Angels focuses on helping children between the ages of 6 and 18. School counselors identify a child who may need emotional support for one of a variety of reasons. These include a recent illness, a traumatic situation, or academic challenges.

Pet therapy teams visit with the child at school or other designated facility for up to two hours at a time. In the past year alone, more than 2,100 children in Arizona have benefited from the pet therapy services. 


Zoya talks with Cara Kiggins, chief programs officer at Gabriel’s Angels.


The work of Gabriel’s Angels focuses on enhancing core strengths identified by trauma experts as important for healthy human development: affiliation, attachment, awareness, confidence, respect, self-regulation, and tolerance. The skills are practiced in a variety of ways during the therapy. These include giving children time to play with the animals and read to them.

“Several kids find a support structure from a dog when they may not have much support,” Kiggins said. She cited a powerful connection that occurred at a rehabilitation center. When a dog named Lloyd was playing fetch with an eager circle of patients, he would repeatedly return to a withdrawn teenage girl sitting outside the circle. Lloyd continued to bring the ball to the girl to throw it. Soon, she had a smile on her face.

“That might not seem like a lot,” Kiggins said. “But when you’re in psychological pain, it’s huge.”   

Today, Gabriel’s Angels is home to 109 pet therapy teams, and 16 Helping Hand volunteers. The organization has partnered with 74 schools and nonprofits. 

“We’re the only organization,” Kiggins said, “that has partnerships with this many nonprofits and schools.” 



Children play with a therapy dog provided by Gabriel’s Angels. 


Top and bottom photos courtesy of Gabriel’s Angels; middle photo courtesy of the author