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Annik La Farge

Annik La Farge is a writer and web project manager. Author of the blog LivinTheHighLine.com and the book The Author Online: A Short Guide to Building Your Website, Whether You Do It Yourself (and you can!) or You Work with Pros, she lives in New York City and Hudson, N.Y., with her partner and their seven-year-old Springer Spaniel, Bucky.

Culture: DogPatch
Interview with Sue Halpern
Author of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home
Sue Halpern

In 2009, her daughter away at school and husband traveling the world for work, Sue Halpern found herself in a quiet home, and restless. Pransky, her seven-year-old dog, was bored. Both were ready for a new engagement. Halpern wondered: could Pransky call on her Labrador and Poodle roots and become a service dog? Could they work together to bring joy to some new corner of their world?

Author of five books and dozens of articles for leading publications, Halpern turned to an expansive library, delving into everything from Aristotle to Temple Grandin. After a rigorous—and occasionally hilarious—training regimen, the two became a certified therapy team and soon were making weekly rounds at a local nursing home. Halpern recounts the story in her new book, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. She spoke to Annik La Farge about their adventure.

Annik La Farge: Your book left me interested in putting my own dog to work as a therapy dog. What advice would you give us? How does a person know if she and her dog will make a good team?

Sue Halpern: For years, I thought Pransky would make an excellent therapy dog because she was smart, attentive, open and loving, which are necessary attributes, but I also knew that she was a bit too playful. I had to wait until I knew I could absolutely count on her to do the right thing— to not go frolicking down the hall if I accidentally dropped her leash, for instance. She always had the right temperament, she just had to grow into it completely, which seemed to happen when she was around five. I think you’ll know, instinctively, if your dog will do well in a therapeutic setting because you’ve watched him or her interact with people of all ages, sizes and conditions. Pransky has always been one of those dogs who sits patiently while small children pull her tail. And she never jumps up on people. Jumping is a therapy-dog sin.

La Farge: At the heart of this book is the idea that dogs love—and even need—to work, just as humans do. Pransky was a bit bored before she found her calling as a therapy dog; how did working change things for her, and what turned out to be her special gift?

Halpern: Pransky is a social animal, like most dogs. She loves to be around people and she loves to be around dogs, but most of the time, she just gets to be around me, which is not so interesting. When I say, “Today is a work day!” or “Do you want to get dressed for work?” she perks up and gets quite excited. Tuesday, the day we go to the nursing home, orients her week. I don’t know if it would be too anthropomorphic to say that she looks forward to it, but it sure seems so. Her special gift—and I’d argue that this is not really special to her, but to all therapy dogs, which doesn’t make it any less special—is the joy she brings with her and spreads around. Pransky is an enthusiast. She’s always happy to see you. Her (self-controlled) exuberance is infectious.

La Farge: Death is a constant presence in a nursing home, and you write about it with real poignancy. How does it affect Pransky?

Halpern: On a day-to-day basis, I don’t think it does affect her. But when someone is actively dying— a situation we’ve only encountered three times in four years—her compassion is visible. It’s something I write about in the book, and something I’ve found quite moving. Most of the time, though, she’s unconcerned by people’s infirmities, which is a gift. She lets people be their essential selves, which has nothing to do with being sick or being old. When they’re with her, they can forget that they had a stroke or have diabetes or a heart condition.

La Farge: I loaned your book to a friend who works with dogs for a living. Interestingly, what most captivated her was your description of life in a nursing home; she was relieved to see this institution, which fills most of us with dread, humanized— and by a dog, no less. What’s the takeaway here for institutions, and for professionals who care for the sick and aging?

Halpern: I entered the nursing home with a certain amount of trepidation and was shocked to find out how much fun it was to be there with my dog. By the end of our first day, most of my preconceptions were blown to bits, which was a very good thing, since most of my preconceptions were not only wrong, they were grim. The literature on the positive effects that dogs (and other animals) have in hospitals and nursing homes is getting more robust every year. Dogs lighten the mood for everyone, staff included. Pransky dispenses the best medicine there is, indiscriminately and without a co-pay.

La Farge: The first part of the book is about what you teach Pransky—the complex matrix of training and behaviors required for a professional therapy dog. What did she end up teaching you?

Halpern: My dog has taught me that with her by my side, I can do things that my normally reticent self would never be able to do, like spend time with infirm strangers. But more importantly, and somewhat paradoxically, she’s taught me that by following her lead and being more like her—which is to say, not seeing people as a collection of disabilities, but simply as potential friends—I become a better human.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Homer
Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins

Homer: Ancient Greek author of literature’s greatest story about the longing for home and the journey to get there.

Homer: A baseball player’s ultimate goal — hit the ball far and quickly return home.

Homer: A wise dog who sits on the porch and watches the world go by, happy to be where he most truly belongs. Home.

In Elisha Cooper’s marvelous and inspiring new children’s book, the other dogs and their human folk are in a state of constant motion. They run on the beach, swim, visit the market, shuck corn. Homer, always invited, prefers to say put. “No, no,” he tells them. “I’m fine right here.” And there he sits, looking out at the ocean, sniffing the air.

The others return with glorious reports. “The waves were big and wild! We got so many good things to eat.” Dad steps out of the kitchen to ask if he needs anything. Homer, surrounded by friends, family and the deep blue sea, has a simple reply.

“No, I have everything I want.” Imagine that.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Rin Tin Tin
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., 2011; $26.99

With Susan Orlean’s much-awaited Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, readers face a sad story, but not for the reason you might think — that a wonderful, heroic dog will die in the end. In fact, this dog lived many lives, first in silent movies in the 1920s and again in the 1950s in one of the most popular television series in American history. And to some degree, Rinty still lives, though when I mentioned this book to my 45-year-old, dog-loving sister, she struggled to recall him. “He was a famous dog, right? On TV?”

The story begins with Lee Duncan, a man whose entire life was defined by two things: his boyhood years in an orphanage and his unshakable belief in the puppy he rescued from a World War I battlefield in France and named Rin Tin Tin.

Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, follows the story with the passion of an investigative reporter who’s also a lover of dogs, and her research is stunningly deep and comprehensive. Like the best of nonfiction, her book casts a wide net, and off the spine of Rinty’s biography she hangs a great many narrative excursions: the history of dogs in war; Hitler’s unsettling devotion to animal welfare; the story of Hollywood, from silent movies to color TV; the evolution of marketing in popular culture. But at the heart of Rin Tin Tin is “Lee’s private story about the possibility that love can be constant,” and that “a dog could make you whole.” This is what the dream, and the entire franchise, was built on.

The parts I liked best describe Rinty’s amazing acting talent: his ability to display an extraordinary range of emotion and his uncommon agility and physical grace. Unfortunately there’s little here to explain how Duncan actually trained the dog, and it’s not until halfway through the book that we learn about his first efforts at obedience training, which began in the 1930s after Rinty became a star.

Ultimately, Lee Duncan’s story is a lonely one of unfulfilled dreams, fortunes made and lost, and human connections that were at best tenuous. Despite the many hours she spent with his memoirs and archive, Orlean felt that he was “at once ingenuous and impenetrable … he remained a mystery.” The same can be said of Rin Tin Tin, the dog who has, for almost a century, stood as the embodiment of “bravery, loyalty and courage against evil of all kinds.”

This book leaves us hanging because, in the end, no dog is truly knowable. In this age of relentless human exhibitionism, it is perhaps this mystery that explains why we admire and revere dogs so much.
 

Author Susan Orlean describes Clash of The Wolves, a 1925 silent film starring Rin Tin Tin:

“The wolves, led by Lobo, attack a steer and the ranchers set out after them. The chase is fast and frightening, and when Rin Tin Tin weaves through the horses’ churning legs, it looks like he’s about to be trampled. He runs faster and for longer than seems possible. He outruns the horses, his body flattened and stretched as he bullets along the desert floor, and if you didn’t see the little puffs of dust when his feet touch the ground, you’d swear he was floating. He scrambles up a tree — a stunt so startling that I had to replay it a few times to believe it. Can dogs climb trees? Evidently. At least certain dogs can. And they can climb down, too, and then tear along a rock ridge, and then come to a halt at the narrow crest of the ridge. The other side of the gorge is miles away. Rin Tin Tin stops, pivots; you feel him calculating his options; then he crouches and leaps, and the half-second before he lands safely feels very long and fraught. His feet touch ground and he scrambles on, but a moment later he somersaults off the ledge of another cliff, slamming through the branches of a cactus, collapsing in a heap, with a cactus needle skewered through the pad of his foot.”

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
On Losing a Veterinarian
When the one who’s always there suddenly isn’t

On the day duncan arrived, i began to dread his death. He was a seven-week-old puppy and I was 36; we were both young, but I knew I would outlive him. It’s a fact that every dog person conjures up, and each of us wonders at one time or another why we put ourselves through this guarantee of grief.

But for all the time I spent worrying about Duncan’s well-being, the one thing I never contemplated was the possibility that his vet would die.

Jay Shapiro had practiced in Manhattan for decades before becoming an “at home” vet. He made the rounds like an old-fashioned country doctor, and by the time we met him, we had two patients for his care: Bucky, a guileless puppy who was afraid of children and skateboards, and Duncan, a 10-year-old who was afraid of nothing except the shadows that were creeping across his field of vision, signaling the end of his ball-playing days.

Duncan rebelled madly, futilely, against the aging process. He was a field dog who was designed to work. By living in New York City, we had deprived him of his main calling — fetching fallen birds in the marsh — but we provided a worthy substitute: a tennis ball in perpetual flight, which he caught again and again with acrobatic grace and pure joy. He was the Derek Jeter of dogs, and when his eyesight dimmed, he suffered in a place we couldn’t reach. He snarled, he bit, he withdrew.

Jay would come over, stand patiently in the brightest patch of light he could find and let the old dog come to him. He seemed to understand in his bones the particular mix of physical and emotional pain Duncan was experiencing. He referred us to an animal behaviorist and eventually, with medication and special care, Duncan passed through the bad patch. He was creaky, yes, but he was present. We and our little team of medics had enabled Duncan to re-engage, and it was perhaps our greatest gift to him.

A few years ago, while on vacation with his young son, Jordan, Jay had an accident on an ATV. He managed to throw the boy off the machine before it rolled on him, but he wound up spending several weeks in the hospital and almost lost his foot. A year later, he was hospitalized again, and this time, all 10 of his toes were amputated. It took him months to become fully mobile, but he was determined to walk on his own steam. He ordered a special pair of sneakers — two sizes smaller than his previous shoe size — and at first, he hobbled, then he limped, then he walked. He dragged his little hospital-on-wheels behind him and seemingly could do anything, including getting to his knees on a cement floor to examine a dog who was in too much pain to be hoisted up on a table.

At the very end, a week shy of his 16th birthday, Duncan couldn’t stand up for his evening walk. That morning in the country, he had trotted around the yard. Just a few strides, really, but he was himself, smelling the air, even managing to find and pick up an old tennis ball. But by 8:30, we were back in the city and he was ailing. We called Jay. “I’m getting in the car and I’ll be there in an hour,” he said. “We’ll see what we need to do. You just hang on. I’ll be there soon.”

It was the last night of the July 4th weekend and Jay lived on Long Island; the traffic was bad, and it took him more like two hours. He arrived with another man, a young technician in hospital scrubs. What I remember from that night is Jay talking to us, helping us make the decision. Making it clear that it was a decision. He would get in his car and return to Long Island, he said, then come back in a few days and see how Duncan was doing. We could wait.

But it was clear it was time, and the peace of Duncan’s passing was punctuated only by the fireworks that simultaneously erupted along the Hudson River. I asked the tech to carry him downstairs in a blanket because I didn’t want to upset anyone in the elevator. This fellow — alas, I never learned his name — had probably been settled in front of the television with a baseball game and a beer when Jay called and asked him to drive to Manhattan in holiday beach traffic to help out an old dog. Obviously, he didn’t think twice; Jay was going to work and so would he. All the way down five long flights with a heavy load in his arms, this young man spoke about how Jay inspired him — of his dedication, his kindness, his intelligence.

The next morning, Jay called; he had done a late-night necropsy and found pervasive cancer. “I just wanted you to know for sure that you made the right decision,” he said. “You saved him suffering.”

Six weeks later, Jay was back to remove a strange growth from Bucky’s paw. I wrestled the dog onto a table and held on for dear life as Jay anaesthetized the spot and cut it away. I was terrified. Also, it was August in Manhattan; it was over 100 degrees and I was embracing 60 pounds of writhing fur. Jay had brought Jordan, now eight, who was playing a video game on the couch; they were leaving for a week’s vacation the next day. “You’re doing great,” he smiled. “Are you okay?” There he was, more than six feet tall and teetering on toosmall feet, doing the most precise surgical maneuver I’ve ever seen on a jittery animal in mediocre light on a kitchen table, and he was checking on me.

Then in the background: “Dad, can I download an app on your iPhone?”

Four days later, Jay was dead. His last email to me, written the day before he died, assured us that Bucky’s growth, while a tumor, was benign, and his surgery was curative. “The leaves are starting to change color in New Hampshire,” he wrote. “Hope all is well, will check in next week.”

We didn’t know about his death until several weeks later. His phone had been disconnected and he wasn’t replying to emails, so I finally called his sister. On the phone, she told me many things about Jay, including that when he was hospitalized the previous year, he had spent a week in a coma. She, his best friend, sat beside him, holding his hand. Finally, he emerged and, at age 62, taught himself how to walk, and work, again.

We hadn’t known. He was so stoic, so tough. Like Duncan, he just soldiered on, got to the other side of whatever pain he was feeling, whatever obstacle his body threw at him. And no matter what, he was always there. We never had to worry, never had to dread. All we had to do was pick up the phone and call. “You just hang on, I’ll be there soon.”

He was loyal, constant and true. It hit me like a gale force, the realization that I had taken so much for granted about this man and the role he played in our lives. By the time I understood, he was gone, and it was too late to say goodbye.