A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacherby Sue Halpern
A layabout mutt turned therapy dog leads her owner to a new understanding of the good life.
At loose ends with her daughter leaving home and her husband on the road, Sue Halpern decided to give herself and Pransky, her under-occupied Labradoodle, a new leash—er, lease—on life by getting the two of them certified as a therapy dog team. Smart,/b>… See more details below
A layabout mutt turned therapy dog leads her owner to a new understanding of the good life.
At loose ends with her daughter leaving home and her husband on the road, Sue Halpern decided to give herself and Pransky, her under-occupied Labradoodle, a new leash—er, lease—on life by getting the two of them certified as a therapy dog team. Smart, spirited, and instinctively compassionate, Pransky turned out to be not only a terrific therapist but an unerring moral compass. In the unlikely sounding arena of a public nursing home, she led her teammate into a series of encounters with the residents that revealed depths of warmth, humor, and insight Halpern hadn’t expected. And little by little, their adventures expanded and illuminated Halpern’s sense of what virtue is and does—how acts of kindness transform the giver as well as the given-to.
Funny, moving, and profound, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home is the story of how one faithful, charitable, loving, and sometimes prudent mutt—showing great hope, fortitude, and restraint along the way (the occasional begged or stolen treat notwithstanding)—taught a well-meaning woman the true nature and pleasures of the good life.
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Read an Excerpt
Pransky, my soon-to-be ten-year-old dog, is lying on the living room couch, her body filling it end to end, for though she is not a big dog, she is double-
jointed, which means that her hips lay out flat. If I weren’t typing this I’d be stretched out next to her because I’m tired, too, as I often am on Tuesday afternoons. Every other day of the week, Pransky is a carefree country dog who operates by instinct, roaming the meadow around our house. But Tuesday mornings we spend time at the county nursing home, going door-to-door dispensing canine companionship and good cheer. Working at the nursing home requires us to pay attention—Pransky to me, to her surroundings, and to the people she is meeting, and me to her, to our surroundings, and to the people we are meeting. After three years you’d think we would have gotten tougher or more robust, but that’s never happened and probably never will.
When I first considered training Pransky to be a therapy dog she was in her late adolescence. Dog years being what they are, she is now about the same age as most of the people in the nursing home. Even so, the words
“work” and “walk” still get her to her feet in a unit of time that is less than a second. Is she better at her job,
more empathetic, now that she, too, is of a certain age? I
doubt it. I doubt it because I don’t think she could be more empathetic.
As foreign as the nursing home environment was to both of us when we first started visiting County, it was a little less so to me, since my first job was at a medical school in a teaching hospital where I sometimes went on rounds. I was in my late twenties, with a newly minted doctorate, hired to teach ethics to second-year students. This should tell you all you need to know about how seriously that place took the ethical part of medical education: at that age I had about as much experience with the complicated ethical dilemmas of sick people and their families as the second-years in my class had treating sick people and dealing with those ethical dilemmas,
which is to say, basically, none. Still, reality was not our mandate. We were supposed to consider what might happen “if,” and then think through the best
The one thing you need to know about modern philosophy is that the operative word in the previous sentence is “best.” The first thing we had to do in that class was figure out what it meant. Was it what the person in the bed said she wanted, what the doctor wanted, what the hospital’s risk manager wanted, what the church
(whatever church it was) wanted, what the husband wanted,
what the other doctor wanted, what the wife wanted,
what the parents wanted, what the partner wanted, what the children wanted? Sorting out what was best was, to say the least, challenging. For guidance, we read works by
Kant and Aristotle and Bentham that were harder to get through than the textbooks on human anatomy and organic chemistry, and, for my students, who were itching to get into the clinic, largely beside the point. While I
didn’t think for a minute that an abstract principle, like
Kant’s categorical imperative, say, was actually going to lead to the right decision on whether or not to give a new heart to a homeless man, it seemed like a reasonable idea,
in a place where right answers were often not as black-
and-white as they might appear, to inject some of these notions into the future doctors’ heads. If ideas like these could become part of their mental landscape, then in the future, confronted with that homeless man, they might see the terrain with greater definition.
Historically, when people looked for guidance on how to conduct their lives, they turned to philosophy or religion or both.
That’s less true now, as formal religious affiliations drop away and academic philosophy becomes more and more arcane. It’s not that people are less inclined to examine their lives or to seek wisdom, it’s just that they are more likely to look for it in other places: in support groups, on radio call-in shows, from life coaches, on the
Internet, in books, or, in my case, inadvertently, with my dog, in a nursing home.
When Pransky and I started working at County, I
expected to learn things—how could I not?—though what those things would be I had no clue. I assumed I’d learn something about old people, and about the thera-
peutic value of animals in a medical setting, and about myself in that setting, which was alien and not a little scary. What I found myself learning quickly sorted itself into a template that anyone with a Catholic education,
especially—which would not include me—would recognize as the seven virtues: love, hope, faith, prudence,
justice, fortitude, restraint.
It should be said that the Catholics didn’t have a corner on virtue, in general, or on these seven in particular;
they just happened to enumerate and, in a sense, popularize them, so when we think of virtue, we tend to think in sevens. But well before Catholic theologians codified their list, Greek philosophers, most notably Plato and Aristotle,
offered advice as to the traits and behaviors that should be cultivated in order to live a good, productive, meaningful life, a life with and for others. It was to Plato’s original four—
courage, wisdom, justice, and restraint—that, centuries later,
Saint Augustine added love, hope, and faith—what are commonly called “the theological virtues.” These, he believed, both came from
God and delivered one to God and, ultimately, to a place in heaven. In our own time, for most people, love and hope and even faith, if you think of it as loyalty and consistency, are unmoored from visions of an afterlife. Still, the virtues remain as guides not only to good conduct but to our better—and possibly happier, more harmonious, most humane—selves.
Happiness, as it happened, was the dominant emotion for both Pransky and me when we were at the nursing home, strange as that sounds, and strange as it was. I
didn’t go there to be happy any more than I did to learn about hope or fortitude, or to think about courage and faith, but that’s what happened. You could say I was lucky,
and, in fact, by landing at County, I was lucky. County happens to be blessed with tremendous leadership, a devoted staff, and a larger community that embraces rather than isolates it. I wouldn’t presume that it is comparable to any other nursing home. But I do believe that in settings like nursing homes, as well as hospitals and hospices and any other place where life is in the balance, we get to essentials,
which is what the virtues are.
More than luck was at work, too. My dog was at work,
and she brought to it a lightness and easiness that seemed to expand outward and encompass almost everyone she encountered. We often talk about “getting out of our comfort zone,” but rarely about entering someone else’s.
Pransky made that possible. With her by my side, and sometimes in the lead, I was able to be a better, more responsive, less reticent version of myself. One day a man
I didn’t know was sitting idly by himself in the nursing home hall. He was wearing a badly tied hospital johnny that exposed part of his back, and nothing else. It was rare for people at County not to be dressed in street clothes, but it wasn’t his attire that caught my attention.
The man was jaundiced and almost as yellow as the liquid running through the tube that started under his hospital gown and ended in a bag on the side of his wheelchair.
That, and he had no legs. This was not Joe, another double amputee who became one of our regulars and will appear in these pages, but someone I’d never seen before and never saw again. If I had been alone, I might have nodded in his direction and kept going, because that man represented most of the things that scared me about nursing homes: debilitating illness, a lack of privacy, bodily fluids. But I was not alone, and my partner veered in his direction, which meant that I had no choice but to go over and talk to him. What a nice guy! We talked dogs
(he had two Yorkies at home), sports (he was a Steelers fan), and dogs some more. I was in his comfort zone,
and Pransky’s, and then, ultimately, mine. It was, in the scheme of things, a small thing, but small things add up.
My mommy would like your doggie,” a youngish woman with developmental disabilities said to me the first time we met her at County.
“My doggie would like your mommy,” I said. “Where does she live?”
“In heaven,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Pransky has a lot of friends in heaven.”
And after what was by then a year at County, it was true.
A certain amount of death is inevitable in a nursing home. This is where the virtues can be helpful. They point us at what’s important and valuable in life. They can offer perspective and frames of reference, and if a dog is in the frame, all the better.
As I was working on this book, and friends asked me what it was about, I would say “right living and dogs” or “moral philosophy and dogs” or “old people and dogs.” Eventually I realized that every one of those descriptions was wrong. I was saying “dogs,” plural,
when it was actually about one singular, faithful, charitable,
loving, and sometimes prudent dog. That dog has risen from her slumber and is standing behind me now,
showing great hope, restraint, and fortitude as she waits for me to stop typing and go for a walk.
What People are saying about this
“Massively insightful… Consider it a meditation on morality, aging and friendship, as well as affirmation that, no matter our physical conditions or economic circumstances, ‘We are rich in life.’” –O Magazine (one of O’s Only Dog Books You’ll Ever Need to Own)
“This book delves far deeper into human nature than that old theme of 'we all love our dogs, don't we?'… her book is more about humanity and how wonderful, fulfilling and even surprising experiences can be had in the most unlikely of places… Amen.” –USA Today (3 ½ / 4 starred rating)
“A terrific, bighearted book that anyone interested in the human-dog bond cannot fail to be delighted by… Honest and touching, this book illuminates the lessons owners and dogs teach each other, as well as the transformative nature of acts of kindness—and not just for the recipient. Thoughtful, inspiring, and often joyous, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home is, at heart, about nothing less than what it is to be human, hopefully with a good dog by your side.” –Modern Dog
“[Fills] 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.” –Massachusetts Eagle-Tribune
“Heartwarming… intellectual, thoughtful and deeply perceptive… Halpern is a gifted writer who effortlessly weaves philosophy, theology, psychology and neuroscience into gently humorous, vividly descriptive storytelling… A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home is an unexpectedly profound and informative read, even as it entertains and, yes, warms the heart.” –Seven Days
“Skilled in the art of combining vivid in-the-moment storytelling with thoughtful analysis… [Halpern is] a deeply ethical thinker with a bright sense of humor… A profoundly affecting and edifying chronicle brimming with practical wisdom.” –Booklist (starred review)
“Halpern’s love of life and openness to its infinite possibilities shine through in this powerful and engaging account… Time and again, anecdotes bolster her contention that in places where ‘life is in the balance,’ it is possible to get to the essentials about human nature.” –Publishers Weekly
“Witty and compassionate… readers will take away the knowledge that we are each given one life and we had best not squander how we live it.” –Kirkus
“It proved more challenging than she had anticipated to teach Pransky, accustomed to roving through meadows unleashed, to ignore everything from food to wheelchairs to other dogs and interact politely with people who were ill, fragile, sometimes uprooted and often demented… But Pransky and her human succeeded, and Ms. Halpern’s new book tells about their adventures—an appropriate word… perceptive and unsentimental.” –The New York Times, "The New Old Age" blog
“A therapy dog opens many doors of deeper human communication. All people interesting in improving the lives of others should read this insightful book.” –Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human
“Affectionate and deeply affecting, written with a light hand and a keen eye, this is a wonderful story of great things—namely, love, life, human kindness, and dogs.” –Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend and The Orchid Thief
“A joyous and moving account of how seemingly small gifts of kindness can make a profound difference. And not to the recipient alone.” –Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March, People of the Book, and Caleb’s Crossing
"This is a gem of a book, a beautiful, wise, and big-hearted story about companionship and the true nature of virtue." –Diane Ackerman, author of One Hundred Names for Love
“A book about a dog that is ultimately a book about humanity… a beautiful, honest, joyful accounting of what matters.” –Terry Tempest Williams, author of Refuge and When Women Were Birds
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