Therapy dog helps ease students’ anxiety

Augusta University students who visit Student Health Services are likely to meet Bella, a regular volunteer and certified therapy dog.

Bella, a 6-year-old Shih Tzu, has worked as a therapy dog for the last five years.

As a puppy, Bella was enrolled in classes to become Canine Good Citizen certified. Bella’s trainers thought she had the perfect personality and disposition to become a therapy dog.

“During training, crutches were dropped and walkers and wheelchairs were squeaked next to Bella,” explained Becky Herzberg, business manager at Student Health Services. “The trainers were trying to gauge her level of angst. She did perfect. They want to make sure the dogs will go to anyone and won’t be startled.”

For several years after certification, Bella went with her trainers to different locations, but eventually Herzberg started getting requests for her. She now regularly visits nursing homes, HealthSouth Walton Rehabilitation Hospital and the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.

Studies have shown that petting or caring for a pet helps people become less frightened, more secure and diverts attention away from their own fears and anxieties, according to CNN.

Herzberg and Bella have experienced this first-hand.

“One of our first times at HealthSouth, we went in and there was a girl sitting in a chair and a physical therapist at her feet,” remembers Herzberg. “The girl was missing a piece of her skull and was blind. I asked the girl’s mother if her daughter would like to pet Bella. She put her daughter’s hands on Bella. After petting Bella, the girl’s legs went limp and the therapist was able to work on them. Her mother told me they’d been trying to get her to relax for days.”

In another instance, Bella went to visit a patient at a nursing home who recently had back surgery and was refusing to exercise. The patient was excited to spend time with Bella and eventually told her daughter she was ready to get up and exercise.

“You don’t know how much she helps people, but sometimes it’s obvious,” Herzberg said.

Prior to working at the Student Health Center, Herzberg worked with Occupational Therapy. She started bringing Bella to work. Students commented that she helped ease their nerves prior to taking a test.

Now, Herzberg brings Bella to work at the Student Health Center. Bella has a volunteer badge and is an official Augusta University employee. She has coordinating outfits and hair bows. When she’s dressed, Bella knows she is working.

Some days she has scheduled appointments.

“Recently, we had a patient with high blood pressure,” Herzberg said. “The doctors were trying to do a procedure but wanted the patient’s blood pressure down. So, they called Bella. As the patient was petting Bella, his blood pressure went down.”

On Match Day, Bella met with almost 100 first-year medical students. They requested she come back.

Other days, Bella doesn’t have any appointments. At these times, she sits at the front desk at Student Health Services.

“She’s so still and calm that people will ask if she’s real,” Herzberg said.

As Bella’s popularity has grown, students from both the Summerville and Health Sciences campuses visit Student Health specifically to see Bella.

Prior to taking a test, some students will request an appointment with Bella.

Studies have shown that stress can affect memory. This is something Augusta students are likely to experience during midterms or finals. However, stress-relieving activities can help students retain knowledge.

Bella is very active during finals week, doing her part to help students. Last week, she was at the Wellness Center. This week, she will also be available for students.

On Tuesday, May 10, and Wednesday, May 11, Bella can be found at Student Health Services, located at 1465 Laney Walker Blvd. Students may request appointments or drop-in. For more information, contact Becky Herzberg,, or call Student Health at 706-721-3448.

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Written by
Brennan Meagher

Brennan Meagher is a communications coordinator at Augusta University. Contact her at 706-446-4806 or

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Written by Brennan Meagher

Jagwire is your source for news and stories from Augusta University. Daily updates highlight the many ways students, faculty, staff, researchers and clinicians "bring their A games" in classrooms and clinics on four campuses in Augusta and locations across the state of Georgia.

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