Jerry Coker’s golden retriever Norma Jean knows when it’s show time.

Coker, a retired lawyer, is a volunteer with Happy Tails Pet Therapy, a Roswell-based nonprofit now in its 30th year of “sharing the comfort, healing and connection of the human-animal bond.”

Jerry Coker with Norma Jean, his golden retriever

Coker, who lives in Buckhead, leads a Happy Tails team that began visiting patients at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital in Buckhead in 2019. During visits to the hospital, his dog wears a red Happy Tails vest identifying her as “Norma Jean The Love Machine.”

Happy Tails volunteers and their dogs at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital

 “When I pull that out of the drawer, she comes trotting over,” Coker said, “and when I slip it on her, she walks to the door because she knows we’re headed to the car. And then, when we get to the hospital, I think she gets a spring in her step and a very confident air about her as she strides down the hallway.

“The experience at times is overwhelming. It’s a combination of seeing how much the interaction with the dog helps the patients and the staff members and realizing what an awesome privilege and responsibility it is to share our dogs with them. … I was on a visit one time and the patient who had been stroking Norma Jean’s face reached up and stroked my face just to say thank you.”

Holiday joy, even in a pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Happy Tails’ visits with Piedmont Atlanta patients were suspended for safety reasons. But, by summer, talks began on how Happy Tails might safely do visits with Piedmont Atlanta staff, whose stress from dealing with COVID-19 was “palpable,” said Pam Redman, director of Patient Experience at Piedmont Atlanta.

The first visit came on a sunny day in December, with a couple of the five dogs in attendance dressed up in Christmas attire. Several more visits with staffers have been held since then. 

“Staff are so grateful for these visits,” Redman said. “These dogs provide time for the staff to come out, decompress, have some respite and then love on a dog that’s going to love them back and not ask for anything.”

Joan Macdonald, a clinical researcher and a member of Happy Tails’ board of directors, helped the organization navigate the pandemic as its risk assessment manager. She said that first visit for Piedmont Atlanta’s healthcare workers was “so heartwarming to see.”

“Just the shrieks of joy — ‘Norma Jean!’ They all clearly missed her and she missed them and they were all happy to have a little reunion,” the Brookhaven resident said.

Serving the community

Happy Tails currently has 314 members and 250 pets serving 182 facilities including nursing homes, mental health facilities, rehab centers and just about every metro Atlanta hospital. About 150 more facilities are on Happy Tails’ waiting list, says the group, which constantly recruits new members to help shorten that list.

In addition to pet visits, the organization has a program in which pets take part in physical and occupational therapy sessions and a READing Paws program that takes pets into schools, libraries and other settings as reading companions for children. “Special visits” may include parades, college campus, or summer camp gatherings.

Membership is open to pet owners with dogs, cats or rabbits. Dogs must meet a set of stringent requirements while cats and bunnies just need to be able to tolerate a harness, be docile, and not mind being petted.

Patrice and Gary Hosmer with their cat, Bella

Macdonald started volunteering in 2012 with Max, her white German shepherd, who passed away last summer. They mostly visited psychiatric hospitals where Max, who could be “a very serious dog,” gravitated toward people who were sullen or disengaged “and would just go over and stick his head in their lap,” she said.

On one of these visits, to a Veterans Administration facility, a young man in a corner responded to Max’s lap hug by burying his face in his fur, Macdonald said. She says he told her he’d been in the psych rehab for two weeks and hadn’t talked to anyone nor even smiled until his visit from Max.

“There were certainly times where you really felt like you helped provide someone an avenue on their path to healing,” Macdonald said.

Patrice Hosmer, speaker’s bureau rep for Happy Tails, said she has seen pet visits bring a light of recognition to some Alzheimer’s patients’ eyes.

She calls such times “moments of high grace, because you get to witness something that is very special.”

The retired high school teacher and East Cobb County resident has volunteered with her cat Bella since 2012 and is writing a book about pet therapy. Her husband, Gary, volunteers with their dog Lily. 

Coker looks forward to the day his team can get back to visiting patients, staff members and others throughout Piedmont Atlanta Hospital.

Before the pandemic, he always tried to get to the hospital early so Norma Jean could interact with people in a waiting room before her one-hour visit to patient areas began.

One day, he says, a woman tapped his shoulder as they left the hospital and told him, “You and your dog were in the waiting room earlier, and I just wanted to let you know that your dog lifted the mood of the entire waiting room.”

Redman praises Happy Tails for the level of training and commitment required of the volunteers and their dogs.

“We just truly cherish and are so thankful for the times that the dogs and their handlers are able to come,” she said. “I think if we could have dogs here all of the time on our campus it would be a happier place.”

For More Information

For information on how to join, request a visit, or make a donation to Happy Tails Pet Therapy, visit happytailspets.org.

Donna Williams Lewis

Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.