Sue Halpern’s Labradoodle Finds Dream Job: Interview

Pransky stayed home in Vermont with her sitters, possibly listening to Bach while her two humans came to lunch at Bloomberg.

Sue Halpern is the author of “A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home.” Husband Bill McKibben, author and environmentalist, is the force behind, the grassroots movement to stop global warming.

We talked about President Barack Obama’s coming decision on the Keystone XL pipeline -- a watershed moment in his administration -- but quickly focused on Pransky, their 11-year-old Labradoodle. Pransky, a very special dog who comforts the afflicted with her tender paws and searching eyes, trembles when it thunders.

Hoelterhoff: So Bach helps?

Halpern: I read a study of how dogs with anxiety issues related to music. They played heavy metal and then classical music. It turned out the dog’s anxiety levels came down the most when listening to Bach.

Hoelterhoff: The Matthew Passion?

Halpern: She’s really not into the masses but the fugues, she likes the fugues. Something about the repetition.

Hoelterhoff: How could you tell Pransky wanted a job? You say you could tell she was bored.

Pransky’s Job

Halpern: Well, you know many dogs are careerists, we just don’t know it.

At some point, it was basically the two of us in the house and every single time I would move from one place to another, she would just like -- whoosh -- be there. It became clear that she wanted to do something and I was a very dull person.

I had to find people for her that were more interesting. And they turned out to be elderly people in wheelchairs in the nursing home.

Hoelterhoff: How do you get to be a therapy dog?

Halpern: I trained her for about four months and then we had to take a terrifying test. She had to prove she could handle chaos, for example. They had volunteers marching toward us banging on pots and pans and pushing wheelchairs. The dog had to walk through and not be fazed at all.

Hoelterhoff: How was your first visit?

Halpern: We walked in the door, and there’s this guy sitting there and he has no legs. His stumps are wrapped in what looked like ace bandages, and she just goes right to them. It’s like: Wow, this is pretty interesting, where are his legs? And she’s sniffing around, and I’m wondering what am I supposed to do?

And then I realized, I’m not supposed to do anything. I’m just supposed to be there and let the dog do what the dog does because the man was really thrilled to have her there.

One of the things that we all know but we don’t see is that diabetes is an epidemic. In the nursing home there are plenty of people who aren’t that old but who have this disease and it’s devastating.

Alzheimer Patients

Hoelterhoff: How does Pransky relate to Alzheimer’s patients?

Halpern: There was a man who almost seemed to me mute. He wasn’t really functioning in a reactive way to anything that was going on. Pransky kind of put her head near his lap and he almost instinctively reached out and started to pet her.

So I asked, “Did you have a dog when you were growing up?” -- not knowing whether he understood anything I said or whether he was listening even. And then he started talking about being a hunter and having hunting dogs. The dog can trigger long-term memories which are much more accessible to people with Alzheimer’s.

Hoelterhoff: Do you foresee a day when care for the aged includes a residential dog or any other kind of animal?

Halpern: All the studies show benefits. Stress levels go down, and not only for the people in the bed -- they go down for the people who are caring for the people in the bed, which means that you’re actually increasing the capacity of that facility to care for the people who are there and who are sick.

One private place has something like 10 dogs and three cats and it sounded like a pet store. But they were finding that it was making everybody happy. There is this movement to try to bring some of that into public facilities, like ours with its cinder blocks and linoleum floors, which does have a resident cat in the memory-care unit.

She is actually really interested in the fish tank and less interested in the patients than in the fish.

Every Tuesday

Hoelterhoff: Always narcissistic, cats! You visit the home every Tuesday. Does Pransky know when it’s Tuesday?

Halpern: Yes, when I clip on her special collar with her hospital ID. She’s very proud, she knows what she’s doing.

Hoelterhoff: How long is her workday?

Halpern: About two hours and it’s very exhausting hours. We both lie down on the couch together afterwards.

“A Dog Walks Into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life From an Unlikely Teacher” is published by Riverhead (312 pages, $26.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.)

Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars, Warwick Thompson on directors.