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Friendly Canine Lifts Spirits at VA Community Living Center

black Labrador retriever resting on the floor

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

elderly man caressing a black Labrador retriever

Man’s 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’s two-years-old. He likes to hug.

“When Bruce enters a resident’s room, the first thing he does is lay his head on their bed so they can pet him,” said Bruce’s handler, VA Chaplain Gary Leopard. “If they’re in a wheelchair, he lays his head on their leg. He’s also trained to hug. He puts his paws over the resident’s shoulders, and the resident gets to hug him.”

Bruce the Therapy Dog, a 62-pound black Labrador, started work at the 120-bed VA Community Living Center in December of 2011. He’s already the most popular staff member there.

“Before we had Bruce, I’d walk down the halls here and everyone wanted to see me,” Leopard said. “Now the only one they want to see is Bruce. ‘Where’s Bruce?’ they all ask. ‘Is Bruce with you today?’

“They all want Bruce to ‘shake hands’ with them,” the chaplain added. “They want to shake his paw, but he doesn’t know how to do that yet. We’re working on that.”

“His birthday was Christmas Day. So Bruce is our Christmas present to our Veterans.”

— Chaplain Gary Leopard

Leopard said he also brings Bruce to the 10-bed hospice wing of the Community Living Center. “It’s really something to see, the way Bruce approaches these residents, especially the ones closest to death,” he said. “He senses it. He lays his head on their bed, even if they can’t respond. He tries to get as close to them as he can. He’ll nuzzle them.”

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.

“We visit as many residents as we can,” Leopard said. “Today 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’ve had in the past.”

“I had a long-haired dachshund when I was in Germany,” said 78-year-old Charles Filler, a resident at the Community Living Center. “We had that dog for his entire life. I don’t have a dog now.”

But in a way, Filler does have a dog, as do all the other residents at the center. “Whenever we see Bruce, everything changes,” Filler smiled. “That dog just took right to me.”

Dr. Deepak Mandi, Chief of Staff at VA West Palm Beach, confirmed the instant bond that occurred between Filler and the black lab. “Bruce licked his face for almost a whole minute!” Mandi said. “Bruce 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.”

But nothing is ever perfect. Bruce, like everyone else, has an Achilles heel. “We really have to watch what he eats,” Mandi said. “We have to watch his weight. The residents are always trying to sneak treats to him.”

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. “Bruce gives our residents something to look forward to,” Silverman explained. “He lifts them up.”

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. “Everyone here wants to spend time with Bruce,” he said. “He brings them joy, warmth, and companionship.”

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’s 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.