Thursday Book Feature- A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home:

A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher

by Sue Halpern

Copyright 2012

This title sounds like the start of a joke, but it really isn’t. The author describes how she trained her Labradoodle, Pransky, to be a therapy dog, and how for years, they visited a county nursing home in Vermont once a week. She starts by talking about how she acquired Pransky and came up with her name. Years later after her daughter left home to go away to school, Halpern decided she and Pransky needed something to do, since her job as a stay-at-home mom no longer existed. Hence, she decided to train Pransky to be a therapy dog.

She describes the arduous process, which wasn’t easy for her or Pransky. Nevertheless, Pransky managed to pass the test.

Halpern then relates many experiences with residents at the nursing home who’s lives Pransky touched, like Dottie, hard of hearing, who enjoyed taking Pransky for walks with her wheelchair, Lizzie, who had difficulty speaking due to a rare genetic disorder but greeted Pransky whenever she saw her, and the Carters, a couple who always had plenty of dog biscuits to spare. Then there was Janis, who loved telling jokes but not about a dog walking into a nursing home. The author also touches on the history of therapy dogs and reflects on nursing homes and other topics related to aging.

The book is divided into seven chapters centered around each of the seven Catholic virtues. This is one thing I didn’t like about it, maybe because I’m not Catholic. I found her reflections on this and other religious and philosophical subjects irrelevant to her story. In fact, they either distracted me or put me to sleep.

Also, the ending was a bit up in the air. She talks about her daughter going off to study in Norway and then returning home briefly to accept a scholarship and give a speech. This had nothing to do with Pransky’s visit to the county nursing home. It might have been better to end by explaining how long she and Pransky volunteered there or if she and the dog were still visiting the facility on a regular basis when she finished writing the book.

On the other hand, having worked as a registered music therapist in a nursing home for fifteen years, I could relate to some of Halpern’s stories, since I had similar experiences. I could also understand her feelings of rejection when residents refused a visit from Pransky, since not all residents I encountered enjoyed music activities or wanted me to visit them in their rooms.

Since October is National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, I thought this would be a fun book to read, and it was, although Pransky didn’t come from a shelter. There’s no reason why a shelter dog couldn’t be a therapy dog if the pooch has the right disposition and receives proper training.

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Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

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Riding Waves with a Dog

Dogs can do incredible things. When I first started reading Ricochet: Riding a Wave of Hope with the Dog Who Inspired Millions by Judy Fridono, I thought it was just another one of those uplifting dog stories I enjoy reading from time to time. Although the book starts out as a story of a service dog in the making, it turns into something totally unexpected, at least for me.

Judy Fridono starts out talking about how she spent a year raising a service dog puppy while living in Chicago. She describes the agony of having to return the dog to the training facility for service dogs once her year was up. After that, she talks about her life growing up in a tough Chicago neighborhood. Her father was an alcoholic and a drug user, and this made her childhood difficult at times. When she was a teen-ager, both her parents died. She was attacked once and robbed another time, and all this caused her to have nightmares and panic attacks. She also contracted rheumatoid arthritis which didn’t help matters.

She then talks about how Rena, the puppy she raised for a year, helped her overcome her fears and inspired her to train service dogs. After she returned Rena, she moved to San Diego, California, to attend a dog training school. Through a miraculous twist of fate, Rena was returned to her, and after completing a dog training course, she formed her own service dog training organization.

Ricochet was part of a litter of Golden Retriever puppies, and Fridono started training her soon after she was born. However, although Ricochet was intelligent, after several months, she became stubborn, reminding me of the Irish setters we had when we were growing up who would only do something for us if it pleased them. Ricochet loved to chase birds, and since this is not a good trait for a service dog, Fridono became increasingly frustrated with her.

Ricochet also loved to surf, and on a whim, Fridono entered her into a competition. She feared it would be a disaster because of the dog’s obsession with birds. Fridono was afraid the dog would jump off the surf board after a flock of seagulls instead of focusing on her task. To her astonishment though, Ricochet stayed on the board through several waves and didn’t even look at a bird. She then realized that Ricochet had a different purpose in life and started looking for other ways the dog could be of service.

Fridono then describes how Ricochet inspired many people through surfing and other activities: children with autism and physical disabilities, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, even a teen-aged boy in Florida with terminal cancer. Ricochet put smiles on their faces and gave them the courage to go on, despite their limitations.

Ricochet also raised money for therapy and other essentials. She even helped Fridono when she underwent open heart surgery. The dog’s efforts gained world-wide attention through Facebook and other media. I’d never heard of Ricochet until I read this book, but I was touched by her story. To learn more about Judy Fridono and Ricochet, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8tUI3EC66M . This video consists of an interview with Fridono and footage of Ricochet in action.

In the summer of 2005 before my late husband Bill suffered the strokes that paralyzed him, we took a trip to California to visit friends and relatives for a couple of weeks. One of our stops was in Valley Village, near L.A., where my uncle lived. After he demonstrated how he does sound effects for movies, Bill asked, “Is there any chance I could work for you?”

At the time, we were living here in Sheridan, Wyoming, and I had no inclination to move anywhere else so I laughed, and nothing more was said. After reading Ricochet’s story, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if we did move to California. Although Judy Fridono lived in San Diego, she and Ricochet didn’t just work with people in that area. Would synchronicity have brought Bill and Ricochet together? He would have loved surfing with this dog. Would Bill still be alive if Ricochet had given him a reason not to give up?

I’m just a 53-year-old writer living in Sheridan, Wyoming. I’m able to walk and care for myself, and I don’t have any serious emotional problems. The only parts of me that don’t work well are my eyes. Because others need Ricochet’s care more than I do, I doubt I’ll have an opportunity to surf with this incredible dog, but maybe I’ll give boogie boarding another try the next time I go to Florida. When I visited my brother in Jupiter last summer, we went to the beach, and I borrowed a boogie board from one of my nieces. After I paddled around in the shallow water for a while, my brother offered to pull me into deeper water so I could catch a wave. The sky was growing cloudy, and the waves were getting choppy so I chickened out. Perhaps next time if the sea and weather are calm, I’ll take him up on his offer. Who knows? Maybe I’ll ride the wave of my life for Bill.

Abbie Johnson Taylor, Author of We Shall Overcome, How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver, and That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

Order That’s Life from Finishing Line Press.

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