Sign In

Dogs Ease Pandemic Isolation

December 31, 2020

Eileen Nagle sees her family in video chats and drive-by visits, but that hasn’t made up for the lack of warm hugs in the nine months since the pandemic led her nursing home to shut its doors to visitors.

Enter Zeus. “Zeus is a friendly little snowball, very happy,” said Nagle, 79, after the peppy bichon frise paid a visit to her room at Hebrew Home at Riverdale, overlooking the Hudson River in the Bronx. “Petting and playing with the dogs breaks up the day and gets you to forget about yourself for a while.”

Hebrew Home has had a pet therapy program for 20 years; tiny Zeus and gentle giant Marley the Great Dane are the current snugglers in residence. Now, the activities department is expanding the canine corps with two new recruits in training to give residents more of the affectionate physical contact that has become so scarce and precious in the coronavirus era.

“It’s uplifting to have Zeus come and visit me, especially with COVID and being restricted to my room,” said 80-year-old Jeff Philipson, beaming as he ran his fingers through Zeus’ silky white fur while the dog clambered on his bed. “I talk on the phone every day with my daughter and my son, but that’s as good as it can get for now.”

When the pandemic lockdown began in March, dog therapy was suspended along with most other activities at the nursing home.

“I decided we needed to re-energize the pet visiting program since there’s no outside visitation allowed,” said Daniel Reingold, founder of the pet therapy program and president and CEO of RiverSpring Health, nonprofit operator of 103-year-old Hebrew Home. “They’ve been on the floors bringing happiness and unconditional love to residents and staff alike.”

The dogs belong to staff members who bring them to work every day. But the program doesn’t allow just any dog.

“It has to be a combination of the right owner, right dog and right temperament,” said Reingold, whose own rescue dog, Kida, is one of the new recruits. “The dogs have to be assessed, follow basic commands and be able to cope with wheelchairs, elevators, medication carts and all the other things they’ll encounter on a floor.”

Cats are also used in the pet therapy program — but only robotic ones. Hebrew Home has numerous lifelike animatronic cats that purr and meow as residents hold them in their laps and stroke their fur.

“The cats are especially soothing to people with dementia,” said Catherine Farrell, director of therapeutic activities, primary dog handler and owner of Marley.

“The love of an animal is incredible,” Farrell said. “It releases endorphins, reduces blood pressure, reduces anxiety. For people here who had animals in their life history, seeing dogs triggers memories and opens communication.”

While Farrell has to remain 6 feet away from residents and wear a face mask and plastic shield, Marley can plop his head on their beds as they pet him.

“To break through the social distancing barrier is really important,” Farrell said. “It’s one of the only ways they’re able to touch another living being and gain satisfaction from that physical connection.”

But it’s not just about petting a dog, said Olivia Cohen, dog handler and assistant director of the therapeutic activities program. For some residents, the interaction can break down barriers and open communication and emotional expression, she said.

Cohen recalls one woman who was struggling with anxiety and having trouble coping with the new environment when she moved into the home. “Nothing would get through to her to help her,” Cohen said. “But when I brought the dog to her, her complete affect changed from crying to having her face light up and telling stories about her own experiences.”

For resident Elizabeth Pagan, dog visits are a welcome respite from the isolation she has endured since she’s been restricted to FaceTime visits with her children, grandchildren and terrier-dachshund mix Ruby.

“It means a lot to me, makes me feel good when I pet the dogs,” said Pagan, who’s recovering from a stroke. “My favorite is Marley. He gives me a lot of comfort.

Register Your Dog

  • Most Recent News

    Former Victoria man’s diabetic alert dog helps him get back to life

    When Luke Hengen’s diabetes worsened in his early twenties, it stripped him of the outdoor activities where the country kid felt at home. Countless wilderness adventures and years of hard-fought football games took a toll on his body, to the point where he could no longer sense when his blood sugar was too high or […]

    Read more

    Students Get Therapy Dog

    When middle school students return to class on Jan. 11, they’ll find a new face at the door: Daisy. Daisy is a therapy dog and the personal pet of Rob Kreger, principal of the Rock L. Butler Middle School. The five-year-old golden retriever is not a school pet or mascot, but rather a working dog […]

    Read more

    Therapy Dogtor

    Last March, Caroline Benzel, a third-year medical student, began to notice the stress and discomfort her nurse friends were feeling from the pressures of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “[Personal protective equipment] can be really rough on the skin,” Benzel, 31, tells PEOPLE. Benzel and her 3-year-old Rottweiler, Loki (who’s also a therapy dog) hatched a […]

    Read more

    Therapy Dog Pups

    When Stanley the miniature fox terrier’s owner passed away, the little dog started a ‘paw-some’ new role – bringing puppy love to some of the Gold Coast’s oldest residents. After Carinity Cedarbrook Diversional Therapist Julianne Staff adopted Stanley, he began visiting the aged care community at Mudgeeraba as a therapy dog. Therapy dogs help to […]

    Read more

    Puppy Cams

    A nonprofit is providing an unusual form of therapy for those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic – puppy cams! “You spend five minutes with a puppy and try not to smile,” said registered nurse Robin Lingg Lagrone. Lingg Lagrone says watching little furballs wag their tails and prance on their paws helps […]

    Read more

    Pet Committee

    When Moore County’s school doors were abruptly closed earlier in 2020, two- and four-legged volunteers from the Moore County Citizens’ Pet Responsibility Committee (PRC) were in their 12th year of presenting a six-session Pet Responsibility Education Program for fourth-graders. The PRC quickly shifted gears and placed its program materials online as part of a home […]

    Read more