EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 16, 2013

Lessons from a therapy dog

By Terri Schlichenmeyer
Correspondent

---- — “A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home,” by Sue Halpern

c.2013, Riverhead Books, $26.95, 320 pages

Sue Halpern had her work cut out for her. When she decided to train her 7-year-old Labradoodle, Pransky, to be a therapy dog, she knew it would be a challenge.

For most of her life, Pransky was a country dog, unaccustomed to a leash and used to wide-open romps in the Vermont woods. She understood all kinds of words (including every synonym for “walk”), but teaching her the tasks she needed to know to formally visit the local nursing home wouldn’t be easy.

The requirements were overwhelming, but Halpern soldiered on. Six weeks after they began, she called County Nursing and Rehabilitation Home. Not long afterward, she went through orientation, agreed to several stipulations and a criminal background check, and Pransky passed the Therapy Dog test.

It was official: The Halpern-and-Pransky team was approved to visit County’s dementia unit, yet Halpern felt uneasy. Nothing she’d ever done had prepared her for what they were about to do.

She needn’t have worried: her dog had it covered. Theologians, Halpern says, recognize seven virtues: love, faith, hope, prudence, fortitude, justice, and restraint. Once Pransky started “working,” she taught Halpern to see those virtues in herself, staff, and the residents they visited.

There was faith for Clyde, a “big flirt” who told everyone that he was leaving county on the arm of a beautiful woman; love for Dottie and Iris, dear friends who couldn’t live without one another; restraint for Scotty, who’d been a teacher before dementia set in; prudence for Stella with a “beautiful singing voice”; and fortitude for Lizzie, suffering from a rare disease.

Through it all, “Hope was the thing with wispy, tan tail feathers, that was 43 pounds, that came when called.”

Though Mom warned me not to, I have to admit that I judged this book by its cover. “A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home” looks, at first blush, like it might consist of humorous, rompish anecdotes of nursing home life.

Nope.

While you will find a few unintentional nursing home chuckles here, Halpern spends most of her pages filling readers with goodness and stories of the near-miraculous relationship between pups and people. Hers is a quiet, Zen-like book packed with philosophy, theology, and a dog. It’s more reflective, more spiritual than other dog books, and it will make you look at your canine kids with a little more wonder.

Definitely, dog lovers and TDI teams will want to read this book, but I also think there’s plenty in here for Eldercare workers, too.