PLANT CITY – Carl Mullis had been a patient at South Florida Baptist Hospital for a few days when a 14-pound, tail-wagging bundle of joy came for a visit.
Mullis beamed as Bonnie, a therapy dog that makes weekly rounds at the hospital, snuggled into his lap.
“It's wonderful,” he said. “It brings a smile to my face. I'm a dog lover anyway.”
For seven years, dogs and their handlers have been making the rounds at the 147-bed hospital. The critters bring cheer and lift the spirits of patients, many of whom have pets at home.
Barbie Frost, volunteer head of the therapy dog program, said the patients aren't the only ones who enjoy helping spread a little canine love.
“We sometimes get more blessings out of the visits than they do. People will tell us how much they love seeing one of our dogs come into their room,” she said.
Frost, who brings in an 8-year-old boxer named Mack, said there are currently four dog-owner teams who take turns visiting patients at the hospital at 301 N. Alexander St. The volunteers go from room to room, asking if the patient would care for a little canine company.
“You'll have a few people who say no but most of the time they say yes. They love to interact with the dogs,” she said.
A sister hospital, St. Joseph's in Tampa, started allowing therapy dogs in 1991. Currently, 20 dogs and even a miniature horse visit patients at St. Joseph's, spokeswoman Beverly Littlejohn said.
Frost, who lives in Valrico, said she loves animals and first heard about pet therapy several years ago. She called St. Joseph's to inquire about helping out there, but the hospital referred her to South Florida Baptist because it's closer to her home.
She became head of the local program shortly after she started volunteering in 2007.
Cassandra Banning, who owns Bonnie, said she heard of pet therapy a few months ago and loved the concept. Banning and the brown and white Shih tzu had to undergo weeks of training before they were allowed to start.
Pet therapy animals can't be aggressive and of course must tolerate being held by patients and others they may encounter.
Teresa Knight, who was a patient at South Florida Baptist a few weeks ago, said she was delighted when Banning handed her 3-year-old Bonnie.
Knight had been in the hospital for several days and said she was missing her own pets.
“It's such a cute dog,” Knight said. “I'd just keep him if you let me.”
Frost said she can always use more volunteers. To lend a hand, contact her at [email protected] or (813) 625-8366.