A golden retriever provided comfort and calm to gymnasts at the Olympic trials. How pet therapy works.

Therapy dog Beacon sis among competitors at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships in Fort Worth, Texas.
Therapy dog Beacon at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on June 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Julio Cortez/AP)

At the U.S. Olympic gymnastics trials, a furry friend was on the sidelines providing comfort and calm for the athletes. Beacon, a 4-year-old golden retriever, is a newer member of the USA Gymnastics organization and holds the title of "Goodest Boy” (yes, that’s official, he even wore credentials at the Minneapolis competition).

Hiring Beacon — as well as other canine companions for major events — was part of a larger effort to build USAG back up and place athletes first after scandal rocked the organization, the Associated Press reports. Gymnast Joscelyn Roberson told the New York Times that bringing therapy dogs in “is the best thing that USA Gymnastics can do for us.”

Tracey Callahan Molnar, Beacon’s handler, is a former gymnast and coach and calls their work a great privilege. "We have a front row seat to witnessing their commitment to excellence and collaborative efforts to get there," she shared on Instagram after the trials. "I am proud that USA Gymnastics has brought pet therapy to the sport, and not just brought it — but truly embraced and supported it.”

The benefits of pet therapy go beyond the mat. Studies have shown that therapy dogs can have very real benefits for people in all manner of stressful situations, whether we’re grieving a loss, hospitalized with an illness, coping with PTSD, feeling shy at school or just trying out for the Olympics.

In case you were in doubt: Here are the therapeutic benefits of dogs and how to tap into your pet’s healing potential, according to experts.

Becoming a therapy dog requires training and a certification process, but any breed has the potential to fulfill the role, Linda Keehn, a certified trainer and therapy dog evaluator with Positive Canine Training and Services, tells Yahoo Life. “A pet dog is everybody’s dog,” she explains. “Even if I go visit my friend who’s not feeling well, it’s still my dog. A therapy dog is trained and tested to act as comfort and companionship to persons other than their owners.”

Service dogs are distinct from both pets and therapy dogs, in that they are highly trained to perform specific tasks to mitigate a person’s disability, and they’re the only group that are permitted in all public spaces. Therapy dogs require fewer qualifications. They have to demonstrate good obedience skills and can remain calm and gentle in nearly all situations, but they don’t have to perform specific tasks. Otherwise, what makes a good therapy dog is based much more on personality and disposition than particular abilities. If you want your pet to perform therapeutic services, “you do need to make sure that your dog wants the job,” says Keehn. They are generally friendly but not overly excitable canines who like people.

An ever-growing number of studies show that there are many benefits. College students report better moods after interacting with therapeutic pooches. They tend to act as noninvasive (unless you’re counting personal space), furry painkillers for emergency department patients. And kids are measurably less stressed after snuggle sessions with pups. Pairing veterans living with PTSD with more highly trained service dogs has also been hugely successful.

Anecdotally, experts say they see these benefits echoed throughout the scientific reports and their own practices, while more research awaits. “People really are, in many instances, feeling love from the dogs,” Colleen Dell, a University of Saskatchewan researcher who both studies the benefits of therapy canines and works with them. “The literature shows an increase in love hormones” such as oxytocin “which make us feel really good,” she says.

Simply petting a dog is like a neurochemical filter for our bodies’ stress responses: It softens the rough edges of the hormone cortisol, brings down blood pressure a bit and imbues the whole scene with the warm glow of that love hormone, oxytocin. Yes, that’s according to research. “No matter whether the dogs are visiting a jail or at a university or in the emergency department, or with the would-be Olympic hopefuls, [therapy dog] programs are about offering comfort and support,” says Dell, whose own research has demonstrated these benefits.

Keehn adds that therapy dogs not only offer relief from stress and anxiety, but also are “so intuitive” about who needs their support. “They can recognize changes — I don’t know if it’s a scent or body language change — but it tells them a human needs something from them,” she says.

It’s important for a dog to be trained and certified before its owner takes them to provide comfort and support to strangers. However, dogs that are comfortable with you and want to be pet, played with and generally loved on have the potential to provide stress relief.

“Being with a dog is about being in the moment as well,” says Dell. A type of mindfulness practice is part of the process of introducing therapy pooches to prisoners during visits, for example. She instructs people to “pet the dog slowly from their head down their back all the way, and do that again and breathe with the dog to regulate your breathing.”

Dogs, especially young ones, also help to coax people into playing, something “adults don’t do as much” but can benefit from, adds Dell. And, for both dogs and humans, time spent together, in any capacity — whether playing, training, taking walks or simply sitting together on the couch — is a reward unto itself, she adds.

Looking after an animal isn’t all fun and games, but that can be a good thing too. “Whether a therapy dog or a pet or a service dog … there’s a lot of of caretaking involved. You have to get out in the morning and walk your dog, you may feed your dog at a certain time, brush your dog’s teeth. … Sometimes it’s easier to build your own routines around them,” Dell says, which can be especially helpful for elderly people or those dealing with depression.

But the most important health benefits you have to feel for yourself, behind the ears or on the belly of a dog. “Some of this you can’t measure; you can’t even put words to it,” Dell says.