May 23, 2013


A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. By Sue Halpern. Riverhead. $26.95.

     The thing about the subtitle of Sue Halpern’s book is that one word is wrong: “unlikely.” There is nothing the slightest bit unlikely about learning elements of “the good life” from dogs, whose relationship with humans is unique and whose live-in-the-moment lifestyle is one to which we non-canines can well aspire. The book’s title sounds like the start of a joke, and may bring to mind an old and highly unethical suggestion: lock your dog and your spouse in a car trunk for a day, then open the trunk – which one is glad to see you? As unpleasant as that idea would be in reality, it encapsulates something about dogs: give them many, many unpleasant moments to live through, and they will make the best of them; and then, as soon as you give them a pleasant moment (the opened car trunk), they will live in that moment with enthusiasm. It is not that they lack memory but that they use it differently from the way people do – better, some would certainly argue.

     Whether dogs learn more from us or we from them is a philosophical question whose answer, like most such, largely depends on the thinking of the questioner. Halpern’s book includes the ways in which she teaches her labradoodle, Pransky, as well as those in which Pransky teaches her, and what is most striking about the lessons is that while Pransky learns practical things – including how to get certified as a therapy dog – Halpern learns ones that do not seem to be “practical” in the same way but that are, in the long run, even more valuable. She learns how to be a better human being.

     A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home could easily be an exercise in treacle, and it does get rather sticky at times, but by and large, the book is an adventure in which human and dog play equal but differing roles. Halpern and Pransky spend Tuesdays visiting the residents of a public nursing home, encountering pretty much all the amusing and heartbreaking events that a reader will expect, interacting and bonding with the residents in a variety of ways, with Pransky’s instinctive compassion frequently getting the better of Halpern’s more-measured concern. Halpern arranges the book according to the seven virtues as enumerated in Catholicism: love, hope, faith, prudence, justice, fortitude and restraint. The organizing device is convenient but unnecessary, since many of the events in the book fit more than one category. Some, though, fit in only one place: it makes perfect sense for Halpern to place her leash training of Pransky under “Restraint,” with Pransky resisting not out of orneriness but from over-enthusiasm. Halpern does know why this sort of training is crucial: “While to the untrained eye a nursing home may be a hotbed of lassitude, almost everything that goes on there is an accident waiting to happen – people moving slowly, pushing walkers; people breathing with oxygen, tethered to a tank; people undergoing physical therapy in the hallways; people with bad backs who want to bend over to pet your dog – and to whatever extent possible, you want to know that your dog knows how to behave, and that it will listen to you and instantly obey your commands.”

     Yes, Pransky and Halpern get certified (or there would be no book), and soon they are paying nursing-home visits that Pransky, being a dog, thoroughly enjoys. Halpern, being a human, finds them making her contemplative: “Did God or religion or faith – whatever that was – become more present and more important when you lived – not to put too fine a point on it – in the shadow of death?” And it is not just the mortality of the nursing-home patients that Halpern thinks about – she contemplates dogs’ lifespans, too, in one of her most affecting passages: “The thing about dogs – the worst thing about dogs – is that they are always dying. Even when they live relatively long lives, those lives are too short…The cratering loss experienced when a dog dies is different from the cratering loss experienced when other loved ones die because the whole relationship, at its core, is about nothing but mutual trust, a trust that is elemental, direct, and uncomplicated. The death of a dog feels like a failure. It feels like goodness itself has been extinguished.” Set against this thought are comments like the one Halpern makes about one of the nursing-home residents: “Even if Clyde did not look at his tomato plants and think, consciously, ‘Here is the cycle of life,’ growing tomatoes gave him a stake in the future, which is how hope prospers. This was a useful thought to hold onto when Clyde began to fade.” The scene that follows this observation is heartrending – as are a number of scenes in the book – but in context, it is not overdone.

     Halpern does a particularly good job of balancing the emotional elements of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home with the practicalities of the experiences that she and Pransky share. “Love was what she did at County, it was what she dispensed and what she engendered. This all came naturally, but once we stepped into County, it was also her job. For my therapy dog, specifically, as for therapy dogs in general, giving and receiving love was as much a vocation as herding was to a border collie. …This was not because she loved unconditionally, but because she loved nonjudgmentally.” And there we have, ultimately, the thinking – and feeling – at the heart of this book, and at the heart of human-canine interactions in general. “In my mind, Pransky’s love was like excess battery capacity that would dissipate if it wasn’t used, but could be shared with others who needed a boost. Once we had been at County for a while, though, I realized I was wrong about this. My dog did not have extra love to give away. Rather, she had the ability to find, tap, and release the reserves in the people she met there.” So it is for this therapy dog and her person, in a story that has something therapeutic in it for dog lovers and other humans everywhere.

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