Nova Scotia

Four-legged research assistants aim to prove dogs can live with owners at nursing homes

When a senior is forced to leave a dog behind to move into a nursing home, it can make the move even more difficult. A MSVU researcher is trying to change that by proving that pet dogs can live with their owners in a nursing home.

'These dogs that are coming in bring that unconditional love,' says Northwood CEO

Bill Johnson holds a treat between his fingers to safely feed Bella, a dog that's been spending time at a nursing home as part of a research project. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

After gobbling up jerky treats from Bill Johnson, Bella, a long-haired collie, laps up water from her bowl and circles her bed a couple of times in a common room.

Then she wanders down the hall to Brenda McAskill's room. 

Johnson and McAskill are among the 150 residents at Northwood in Bedford, N.S., where dogs aren't allowed — except on occasion.

But Bella, a 35-kilogram walking fur ball, spends entire mornings or afternoons here, off-leash, several times a week.

She's a four-legged research assistant in a project that's trying to show it's not only possible for seniors to live in a long-term care facility with their pet dogs, it's actually better for them.

Shilo gives and receives love from residents and workers alike at Northwood. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

At most nursing homes, residents aren't allowed to bring their dogs when they move in, although some facilities may make exceptions for some pets.

McAskill, a 72-year-old melanoma survivor, had dogs and cats when she lived independently. Now living in a facility where people are "going back and forth and sometimes there's just too much conversation," Bella brings her snuggles and peace.

'She comes in and she just relaxes'

"She comes in and she just relaxes and I relax with her and I talk to her," she says while contentedly watching Bella rest on her bed.

Research shows that leaving a furry best friend to family, friends — or even surrendering to a shelter — creates a "grieving process" that can make the transition into a nursing home even more difficult, according to Ardra Cole.

Ardra Cole photographs while Susan MacLeod sketches how the dogs behave at the nursing home. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Cole is a professor of lifelong learning at Halifax's Mount Saint Vincent University. She's leading the year-long research project in collaboration with Northwood, Atlantic Canada's largest not-for-profit continuing care organization.

"We're trying to address those issues, to ease a transition, to make a care-home feel more like home, and also to provide comfort, and attachment, and continuity of relationships that's really important," says Cole.

Bella has help from a fellow furry assistant, Shilo, a pug beagle.

At Northwood's facility in downtown Halifax, a tiny dog named Itsy is the research canine. But these canine companions are not on the job, unless licks and snuggles are considered work.

The middle illustration shows Bill Johnson and Bella. Cole says family and residents will be offered the finished artwork by Susan MacLeod. (Robert Short/CBC)

"These dogs that are coming in bring that unconditional love," says Janet Simm, Northwood's CEO. She hopes this research will provide the evidence that creates change.

"This is about bringing happiness and allowing people to flourish in a community of belonging, dignity and choice," she says.

Interactions documented

For the past year, the interactions with residents have been documented in notes, photographs, and watercolour illustrations. The research has already been presented at a conference, and more presentations and publication of the work is planned.

Artist Susan MacLeod says she's "lucky" to be able to make drawings of scenes that have touched her heart.   

"I think it gives them a sense of being alive and being unique and being still a valued person," says MacLeod. She says the dogs reduce the loneliness and isolation she saw at a long-term care facility where her mother resided.

In her studio, Susan MacLeod finishes some of her drawings with paint. (Robert Short/CBC)

The project is sorting out the practical aspects of a dog living at a nursing home.

Cole says dogs would be required to pass Northwood's screening assessment primarily for temperament, as Bella and Shilo did to participate in the research.

Researchers have been given swipe cards to ensure they can unlock doors when nature calls for the dogs. 

Cole says if dogs were ever allowed to live at nursing homes, she anticipates volunteers with ElderDog, an organization dedicated to keeping aging people with their aging dogs connected, would ensure dogs get their daily walks and to appointments.

While the project has focused on allowing the dogs freedom to roam to simulate the experience of actually living there, they aren't allowed in the dining room during meal times. They also aren't allowed on an upper floor where Northwood has a communal cat.

Brenda McAskill enjoys the 'pleasure of watching' Bella relax on her bed. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

So far, allergies haven't been an issue thanks to the modern air quality equipment at the Bedford location.

A recommendation on the maximum number of pet dogs is undetermined, says Cole.

Dogs can take a hint

But for residents who aren't "dog people," Bella and Shilo, both seniors themselves, know how to take a hint.

"They gravitate towards those people they know and appreciate their presence and invite their presence," she says. "They tend to just pass by those they know are not really welcoming of their presence."

Cole says the project, which ends at the end of this month, has been "100 per cent positive." 

Shilo was adopted by a 94-year-old woman who still lives in her own home. Her niece, Margie Knickle, one of the researchers on the project, brings Shilo and "cannot keep up with her because she's just so excited to be here."

Knickle hopes the research might lead to the possibility that Shilo could join her aunt if she moves into a nursing home.

She tears up when she thinks about how a woman with memory problems never remembers her name, but always remembers Bella's.

Shilo and Bella are free to roam, and sometimes just flake out in the hallway at Northwood. (Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

"That actually speaks to that relationship component between the human and dog that sometimes we don't understand," she says, stressing the importance of the research.

For Marina Johnson, Bill Johnson's daughter, "it's brilliant, absolutely brilliant," that her dad has benefited from the project.

Bill used to own dogs and cats, and his move into Northwood was delayed because "his biggest stress" was about what would happen to his cats, knowing the separation would be hard on them as well. His daughter has taken them.

Give something, get something

Bill, who is 81 and has Alzheimer's, has a drawer filled with dog treats. He demonstrates how to feed a dog a treat without getting nipped — a trick he remembers from when he was young.

"It lightens them up, it gives them that contact. They give something and they get something back from it. And it's just natural for animals to do that," said Johnson.

While occasional visits from Shilo and Bella will continue with help from ElderDog volunteers, McAskill says she hates that the research project is coming to an end.

"She just gives me the pleasure of watching her and giving her a snuggle and she doesn't run away," she says. "And I get the enjoyment of having a dog."



Elizabeth Chiu is a reporter in Nova Scotia and hosts Atlantic Tonight on Saturdays at 7 p.m., 7:30 p.m. in Newfoundland. If you have a story idea for her, contact her at


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