The power to heal: Therapy pets offer more than just hugs

By Pamela A. Keene
Photos courtesy Happy Tails
A visit by a pet can change the life of a nursing home resident, a child with special needs or a hospital patient. A gentle pat on the head or the sound of a cat purring contentedly can make the difference in the well-being of a patient.
“The power of connection is amazing and hard to describe,” says Christy Morrison with Happy Tails Pet Therapy, an Atlanta-based organization that brings pet-owner volunteers and their pets together to give emotional, physical and social support to people of all ages. “An elderly patient who won’t be verbal with a nurse or family member is more likely to open up to a dog or cat. Or they may be more willing to get out of bed and walk if they can take a dog with them. It’s incredible to watch how a person will light up when our Happy Tails volunteers and their pets come into the room.”

Happy Tails volunteer teams of pet owners and their pets visit with special-needs children, hospital patients, nursing home residents and schools to bring unconditional love and a chance to connect. Research shows that dogs and cats can be a great stress reliever during doctors’ visits, medical procedures, hospital stays or for students during exams at school.
“Dogs are great stress relief in all kinds of settings,” says Morrison. “Pets are non-judgmental and give their love and attention unconditionally. They can provide company for a patient or be a pleasant distraction from the fear of a medical test or procedure.”
Happy Tails volunteers and their pets have visited area elementary schools to interact with special needs children. Morrison tells the story of one such visit when her Happy Tails dog Georgia Kaye, a golden retriever, possibly saved a child’s life.
“Georgia was the most obedient dog ever, but as we prepared to go, she sat down next to a youngster and refused to leave,” she says. “Even after I called to her several times, she still remained by the child’s side. Within minutes the child experienced a full-blown seizure and Georgia was able to help keep the child safe by leaning into him and keeping him calm. Georgia had never been trained as a medical alert dog, but she instinctively knew what to do.”

For Morrison, who works in career services at the University of North Georgia and also is a dog trainer, one of the biggest problems for Happy Tails is having enough volunteers and their pets to respond to the number of requests for visits.
“We have many more requests for visits than we have volunteers and pets to fulfill these requests,” she says. “We’re always looking for more volunteers.”
The challenge, however, is that in Northeast Georgia, we really need more people and their pets to be part of our organization.”
Pet owners who are interested in being volunteers must attend a one-hour volunteer orientation and have a veterinarian provide a medical evaluation of the dog, cat or rabbit.
Happy Tails then conducts a pet/handler evaluation before completing a two-hour handler training session and a one-hour observation visit with their pet. All participants must agree to uphold the Happy Tails Code of Conduct.
“The human-animal bond is so amazing,” Morrison says. “We just need more people and their pets to volunteer with us to bring a positive influence into the lives of people who need it.”
For more information or to join Happy Tails Pet Therapy, visit www.happytailspets.org or call Christy at 706-983-2420.

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