Ellen Griffin recalls the first time she took Magill, her 9-year-old Golden Retriever, to meet a patient in a nursing home.
The man was blind and had Alzheimer’s disease. He had stopped responding to the people around him when Griffin brought her dog to the nursing home through a program called Happy Tails Pet Therapy.
“I told him I wished he could see Magill,” the Sandy Springs woman said. “He’s a beautiful blonde dog with a black nose.”
The man didn’t respond immediately, she said. But after a few minutes, he started petting the long-haired dog. “Then he began mumbling ‘59 down the aisle.’ “
She didn’t understand, but she didn’t ask what he meant. “We’re taught not to question what an Alzheimer’s patient says,” she said.
She debated whether to tell the wife what her husband had said. Luckily, she did.
“She started crying,” Griffin said, “and then explained it was their 59th wedding anniversary.
“He couldn’t see a calendar to know what day it was. Up until the time he started petting Magill, he hadn’t responded to his wife in a couple of weeks. She told me that if I never did another thing for anyone else, this was it.”
Griffin has been involved with Happy Tails since she took Magill to that nursing home approximately seven years ago. She’s been a team leader for the group and served as the organization’s president.
The Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine studies how people and animals influence each other’s psychological and physiological state. The research shows people who connect with animals experience decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety and a general feeling of well being.
In metro Atlanta, Happy Tails volunteers report similar reactions when they arrive at places like The Zone at Scottish Rite Hospital in Sandy Springs or at local nursing homes with their dogs, cats and rabbits.
Happy Tails, a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 by Atlanta veterinarian Dr. Carla Courtney, is Atlanta’s oldest and largest nonprofit animal-assisted therapy and animal-assisted activity organization.
Nearly 350 Happy Tails volunteers take their pets to more than 100 facilities across the metro Atlanta area. Happy Tails teams serve people of all ages with physical, social, emotional and cognitive needs.
You’ll find them in a variety of settings, including hospitals, children’s centers, shelters, nursing homes, health facilities, respite care centers and special-needs programs. There are currently 50 groups on the waiting list for future visits.
Happy Tails volunteers have been visiting Lenbrook, a continuing care retirement community in Buckhead, for nearly 10 years. “They come once a month, but I wish we could get them here more often,” said Darla Carringer, activities coordinator for healthcare at Lenbrook.
“We’re always looking for more people who want to share their love of their pets with others,” said Kristen Stone, the group’s public relations representative.
Valerie King, a Happy Tails volunteer in Dunwoody and Sandy Springs for more than two years, takes her 6-year-old dog, Daisy, on Happy Tails visits four to six times a month.
“Daisy is a good therapy dog, but I get a lot out of it as well,” King said. “I enjoy watching what happens when clients of all types interact with her. The strong bond we’ve developed also is rewarding.”
King said dogs in the therapy program need to be “proactively full of love” for meeting and interacting with other people and animals. Sometimes there are six to eight sets of hands simultaneously reaching out to pet or hold them. Dogs can’t be frightened by loud noises, wheelchairs, IV pulls or walkers. “They need the calm temperament to ignore all that and to do what they’re supposed to do,” she said.
She’s seen how animals can make a difference in the way patients react.
“There was a quiet teenage girl at Peachford who was standing apart from the other sometimes boisterous teens,” King said. “She hadn’t said anything during the two or three days she had been there. A coordinator asked her if she would like to pet Daisy. After petting the dog for a couple of minutes, the girl whispered her name. Something about petting this fluffy little white dog made her feel safe and comfortable enough to do that.”
Carringer echoes those sentiments.
She said, “Some of the residents who can’t talk or don’t respond to anybody else will pet the animals and smile. That to me is just an amazing thing.”