MORRIS PLAINS — Animals used as therapy pets are not legally allowed in as many places as service animals, and instead must be invited to the places they go. But a group based in North Jersey has received plenty of invites throughout eight counties and its most prominent appearance will continue this holiday season at Newark Liberty International Airport.

Creature Comfort Pet Therapy reached 74,000 people covering some 3,500 visits in 2017. It has continued strong in 2018, making its presence known in Essex, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex, Union and Warren counties, and 200 partner facilities.

The demand is high for pet therapy, according to Executive Director Mary Beth Cooney. Her group gets numerous new requests every week, and currently has 280 pet-owner teams, 15 of which are "junior" teams represented by 12- to 18-year-old handlers.

The mission: to enhance people's lives through therapeutic visits with these caring volunteers and their pets, no matter if those pets are dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, or even a miniature goat.

"They go to the facility and they bring comfort and healing, companionship, just unconditional love," Cooney said, adding that such visits have been proven to reduce blood pressure, decrease depression and anxiety, encourage communication and socialization, reduce pain, improve mental stimulation, and — in children, specifically — improve reading skills.

All of the animals are trained and vetted, but Cooney said some are just born with the right temperament. She said that when many of them have their "work vests" put on for Creature Comfort, they adopt a completely distinct "therapy personality."

"They have to be calm and under full control of the handler, they have to be willing to approach strangers for petting, (and) they want to enjoy all types of people, children and adults," Cooney said.

Most visibly, Creature Comfort is now in its fourth year of providing pet therapy to travelers and staff alike at Newark Airport as part of a program called United Paws. Dog and owner volunteers are strategically assigned to the United Airlines terminal at the airport during heavy and strenuous travel times, like spring break, Mother's Day, and the upcoming holiday season.

As patrons pass through the corridor near the gates, they have an opportunity to hug these dogs, gaining comfort and relaxation in the often stressful world of air travel.

Cooney said for the therapy pets, the hustle and bustle of an airport is much like that of a hospital, so they are able to focus on the task at hand rather than be distracted by all the stimuli around them. She also said she is proud of the selfless efforts of all the two- and four-legged volunteers.

Creature Comfort is in constant need of more pet-owner teams to fill demand, and has evaluations once a month. For more, call 973-285-9083 or visit ccpettherapy.org.

Patrick Lavery is Senior Producer of Morning News and Special Programming for New Jersey 101.5, and is lead reporter and substitute anchor for "New Jersey's First News." His and his wife's dog Archie is not a therapy pet, but is a very good boy at hugging. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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