Veterans Health Administration
Friendly Canine Lifts Spirits at VA Community Living Center
Bruce the Therapy Dog takes a short break from licking faces and giving hugs at the VA Community Living Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. Photo by Gary Dale, VA West Palm Beach
Man‚Äôs Best Friend — Bruce the Therapy Dog and Charles Filler, a resident at the VA Community Living Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., get to know each other. Photo by Gary Dale, VA West Palm Beach
The Community Living Center at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center now has a new, full-time staff member. His name is Bruce. He‚Äôs two-years-old. He likes to hug.
‚ÄúWhen Bruce enters a resident‚Äôs room, the first thing he does is lay his head on their bed so they can pet him,‚ÄĚ said Bruce‚Äôs handler, VA Chaplain Gary Leopard. ‚ÄúIf they‚Äôre in a wheelchair, he lays his head on their leg. He‚Äôs also trained to hug. He puts his paws over the resident‚Äôs shoulders, and the resident gets to hug him.‚ÄĚ
Bruce the Therapy Dog, a 62-pound black Labrador, started work at the 120-bed VA Community Living Center in December of 2011. He‚Äôs already the most popular staff member there.
‚ÄúBefore we had Bruce, I‚Äôd walk down the halls here and everyone wanted to see me,‚ÄĚ Leopard said. ‚ÄúNow the only one they want to see is Bruce. ‚ÄėWhere‚Äôs Bruce?‚Äô they all ask. ‚ÄėIs Bruce with you today?‚Äô
‚ÄúThey all want Bruce to ‚Äėshake hands‚Äô with them,‚ÄĚ the chaplain added. ‚ÄúThey want to shake his paw, but he doesn‚Äôt know how to do that yet. We‚Äôre working on that.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúHis birthday was Christmas Day. So Bruce is our Christmas present to our Veterans.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄĒ Chaplain Gary Leopard
Leopard said he also brings Bruce to the 10-bed hospice wing of the Community Living Center. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs really something to see, the way Bruce approaches these residents, especially the ones closest to death,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúHe senses it. He lays his head on their bed, even if they can‚Äôt respond. He tries to get as close to them as he can. He‚Äôll nuzzle them.‚ÄĚ
Bruce and Leopard put in a full day at work, punching in a 7:30 a.m., Monday through Friday, and leaving at 4 p.m.
‚ÄúWe visit as many residents as we can,‚ÄĚ Leopard said. ‚ÄúToday we saw about 60 or 70. When they see Bruce, they always want to share stories about their own pet dog at home, or pet dogs they‚Äôve had in the past.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúI had a long-haired dachshund when I was in Germany,‚ÄĚ said 78-year-old Charles Filler, a resident at the Community Living Center. ‚ÄúWe had that dog for his entire life. I don‚Äôt have a dog now.‚ÄĚ
But in a way, Filler does have a dog, as do all the other residents at the center. ‚ÄúWhenever we see Bruce, everything changes,‚ÄĚ Filler smiled. ‚ÄúThat dog just took right to me.‚ÄĚ
Dr. Deepak Mandi, Chief of Staff at VA West Palm Beach, confirmed the instant bond that occurred between Filler and the black lab. ‚ÄúBruce licked his face for almost a whole minute!‚ÄĚ Mandi said. ‚ÄúBruce is definitely improving the quality of life of our residents here at the Community Living Center. He fits right in. He is a very busy dog. And a very loved dog.‚ÄĚ
But nothing is ever perfect. Bruce, like everyone else, has an Achilles heel. ‚ÄúWe really have to watch what he eats,‚ÄĚ Mandi said. ‚ÄúWe have to watch his weight. The residents are always trying to sneak treats to him.‚ÄĚ
Dr. Michael Silverman, Chief of Geriatrics and Extended Care at VA West Palm Beach, said Bruce the Therapy Dog makes the Community Living Center seem less like an institution and more like a home, which is what VA strives for. ‚ÄúBruce gives our residents something to look forward to,‚ÄĚ Silverman explained. ‚ÄúHe lifts them up.‚ÄĚ
Silverman said the unconditional affection provided by a pet can help alleviate the loneliness and depression that can sometimes overtake someone staying at a Community Living Center, or any nursing home, for that matter. ‚ÄúEveryone here wants to spend time with Bruce,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúHe brings them joy, warmth, and companionship.‚ÄĚ
Bruce was donated to VA by Vets Helping Heroes, a nonprofit based in Boca Raton that pays to have service dogs trained to interact with disabled Veterans.
The organization‚Äôs founder, 89-year-old Irwin Stovroff, is a World War II Veteran who flew Liberator bombers. He started Vets Helping Heroes in 2007 after learning that no funding was available to provide service dogs to disabled Veterans returning from Iraq. His organization has since donated about 65 dogs to disabled Veterans all over the United States.