Unleashing Happiness: The Power of Volunteer Therapy Dogs

Published: Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Hospitals can be a scary place. As a patient or loved one, spending time in the hospital can be stressful on the body as well as the mind. At Northeast Georgia Health System, pet therapy dogs are used to promote well-being and health for patients, visitors and staff alike.

Started in 2012 as a collaboration between the NGHS Auxiliary and Pat Mitchell, a volunteer certification specialist with Alliance of Therapy Dogs, the Volunteer Pet Therapy program serves visitors at Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC) Gainesville and Braselton.

Led by human volunteers, the therapy team starts work even before they enter the lobby. They are often flocked by visitors offering pats, asking questions, and sharing their own stories of their beloved pets. They walk the units, offering comfort at the bedside and stroll the departments to share love with the staff.

Nancy Hammond can attest to the comforting presence and healing power of therapy dogs, having served at NGMC Braselton since 2016 with her two therapy dogs – first Gus, then Jake, both retrievers.  

“Gus was a compassionate dog,” said Hammond. “Some of our most amazing experiences happened while visiting with hospice patients. I remember once, visiting a hospice patient who had been unresponsive for days, but was known for loving dogs. The nurse placed his hand on Gus’s head and he ever-so-gently gave Gus a pat. We looked around us and everyone was crying.” 

No two therapy dogs are the same. They each have their own unique personality and way of giving comfort.  

“Jake just loves people,” said Hammond. “He will make little sounds or perform tricks, so you can’t help but to acknowledge him. He makes you feel special with his attention. He can also sense your anxiety and works to remove it. It’s so rewarding for him.”

While dogs alone can’t provide medical care, they now play a well-understood role in promoting health and wellness in the hospital setting.

Learn more about the Volunteer Pet Therapy program at nghs.com/volunteer