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Happy Tails therapy dogs bring comfort and joy to hospital patients

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Sept. 15, 2017

Imagine you're in a hospital room recovering from surgery. You don't have any visitors at the moment, and you're not expected to go anywhere for days. You miss your home, familiar surroundings. But then there's a knock at the door and a person with a smiling face appears with a dog on a leash. "Would you like to meet our dog?" they ask. You think about it. After a moment, you say yes, and suddenly, that lonely hospital room is a lot less lonely.

At Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital, this scenario is a reality. Happy Tails Pet Therapy dogs started visiting Saint Joseph's in 2011.

The program started small, explains hospital CEO Heather Dexter. "One of our managers approached me and asked me if I was in favor of doing it, and I said 'absolutely.'

Ellen Griffin is a volunteer with Happy Tails. She's seen the change in patients before and after they've had a visit by a furry friend. "A lot of times we go in and the patient is just down — I mean not smiling, very depressed, and by the time we leave they're laughing, they're talking, they're interacting with us. And that's just what we do — we try to brighten brighten their day."

Dexter knows from personal experience firsthand experience the comfort a therapy dog can bring to patients and their loved ones. Years ago, her brother was involved in a serious accident and was in a coma for almost a year. During that time, a Happy Tails volunteer repeatly brought a therapy dog to his hospital room. "He was in a coma he wasn't responding a significant amount," she recalls, "but when that dog came in, you could see him relax, you could see him engage a little bit with the world around him, and I would also notice that my parents would relax." Although Dexter's brother never recovered from his injuries, his own pet golden retriever would go on to become a comfort dog. "My mom decided to honor my brother's memory by training his dog for Happy Tails, and so his golden retriever was actually a Happy Tails dog for many years after his death.

Happy Tails involvement at Saint Joseph's began with a team of two dogs and and visits to the radiation room and in the infusion center. Through the years the program has grown so popular that volunteers now visit seven areas in the hospital and there are now about 30 dogs involved in the program.

Of the program's therapy dogs, Dexter says, "They bring joy, so that helps with the healing process, but they also bring normalcy, and it gives them something, it gives them some sense of a stress-free environment, some balance and ultimately joy."