Above: Dave Hobe and Fergus have made many visits to hospitals and other facilities. Photo courtesy of TGA Communications, LLC.

Happy Tails volunteer Robyn Bernstein is excited by what she’s seen working with the program where pets help people heal.

“The patients just light up,” the retired educator said.

Through the Happy Tails Pet Therapy program, Bernstein and her pet dog Lylahregularly visitthe high-risk pregnancy unit at Northside Hospital Atlanta. Many of the women on this unit have been assigned to complete bed rest and their days can be unusually long. Volunteers like Bernstein share the love of their personal pets with Northside patients.

Since 1991, volunteers with the Roswell-based Happy Tails organization have been bringing physical and emotional comfort to people in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, rehabilitation centers and other facilities. While there are similar programs across the U.S., Happy Tails is one of the few that serves the Atlanta area.

“Many patients are separated from their pets for extended periods during their hospital stay,” said Lana Robinson, Northside Hospital’s High Risk Perinatal manager. “They look forward to a little bit of a home-like feeling each week, when the dogs visit.”

With wagging tails, the dogs take patients “away from a hospital environment, even if it’s just temporarily,” said Robinson.

And the pets make a difference medically, too. Studies going back 35 to 40 years support the health benefits pets provide people, according to Harvard Medical School.

Robyn Bernstein and Lylah are regular visitors at Northside Hospital Atlanta. Photo courtesy of TGA Communications, LLC.

Bernstein said Northside nurses have noticed that fetal heart monitors, which measure fetal heart rates, show those heart rates slow down when a dog comes to visit. That’s a good thing. It shows the fetus is relaxing.

Northside Hospital’s high-risk, perinatal supervisor Gail Janatik, says that the Happy Tails program has been a blessing. “It’s a welcome break in the daily routine for everyone,” she said.

Bernstein and Lylah are also regular visitors at Peachford Hospital in Dunwoody, through a similar Happy Tails program. At Peachford, patients often are healing from emotional, psychiatric or addictive diseases.

“Our stay at Peachford is centered around a special adolescent unit,” Bernstein said. “We can walk the hallways with the teens and the dogs.”

Here again, Bernstein says that the visit is a distraction from what can be very long days for emotionally distressed or traumatized patients.

“At Peachford, the teens run to greet the dogs,” she said.

Dave Hobe, 74, is a regular at Northside’s high-risk pregnancy area, too. After retiring four years ago, Hobe brings joy to a special group of patients with the help of his bearded collie, Fergus.

“Some of the women on this unit have been on bed rest for weeks,” says Hobe. “They are particularly excited to get a visit from a therapy dog,” he said. “You can just feel the stress leave the room as they rub the dog’s belly or stroke the dog’s head.” It’s a happy moment for Fergus and Hobe, too.

“My daughter initially told me about Happy Tails and the great joy therapy dogs can bring,” Hobe said. “I was eager to join once I retired and it’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

Hobe says that during the past four years, he’s been fortunate to share two dogs —Colby and Fergus, both bearded collies. Their visits have reached hundreds of hospital patients, nursing home residents and school students.

“It’s amazing how intuitively therapy dogs react to individuals,” Hobe added. “Dogs seem to know who needs a friendly lick or a wagging tail.”

In 2016, the Spiritual Health & Education Department at Northside Hospital Atlanta welcomed Ranger as a staff member, along with his owner, Dave Frew. Ranger’s background includes being a comfort ‘crisis response’ dog for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), providing relief to people dealing with disasters.

Ranger and owner Dave Frew are part of Northside Hospital’s Spiritual Health & Education Department. Photo courtesy of Northside Hospital Atlanta.

The English setter is a regular with the Northside medical personnel. Staff members say that Ranger is willing to sit quietly, and they believe that the dog has a special emotional and spiritual healing capacity.

“We know that happiness impacts medical outcomes, so there is an actual physical component to this,” said Rev. Amani Legagneur, manager of spiritual health and education.

Healing happens when we interact with sources of love, “and Ranger is a big source of love,” Legagneur said.

Happy Tails pets are available for more than just hospital visits. Both Bernstein’s and Hobe’s dogs participate in a reading program that takes place at libraries and schools. Hobe takes Fergus to the East Roswell Library each month, while Bernstein and Lylah head to special needs classes at Sope Creek Elementary in East Cobb.

“Fergus—and Lylah—cannot be judgmental,” said Hobe. “Dogs don’t mind if the young readers make a mistake or mispronounce a word.”

Having a friendly dog listen to them read out loud gives the children confidence with their reading skills, he says.

Is Your Pet Ready to Volunteer?

Based on the settings these therapy dogs encounter, there are some requirements that pets must meet before making a hospital, library or school visit. Learn more at:

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.