(AP) -- Eileen Nagle sees her family in video chats and drive-by visits, but that hasn't made up for the lack of warm hugs in the nine months since the pandemic led her nursing home to shut its doors to visitors.
"Zeus is a friendly little snowball, very happy," said Nagle, 79, after the peppy bichon frise paid a visit to her room at Hebrew Home at Riverdale, overlooking the Hudson River in the Bronx. "Petting and playing with the dogs breaks up the day and gets you to forget about yourself for a while."
Hebrew Home has had a pet therapy program for 20 years; tiny Zeus and gentle giant Marley the Great Dane are the current snugglers in residence. Now, the activities department is expanding the canine corps with two new recruits in training to give residents more of the affectionate physical contact that has become so scarce and precious in the coronavirus era.
"It's uplifting to have Zeus come and visit me, especially with COVID and being restricted to my room," said 80-year-old Jeff Philipson, beaming as he ran his fingers through Zeus' silky white fur while the dog clambered on his bed. "I talk on the phone every day with my daughter and my son, but that's as good as it can get for now."
When the pandemic lockdown began in March, dog therapy was suspended along with most other activities at the nursing home.
"I decided we needed to re-energize the pet visiting program since there's no outside visitation allowed," said Daniel Reingold, founder of the pet therapy program and president and CEO of RiverSpring Health, nonprofit operator of 103-year-old Hebrew Home. "They've been on the floors bringing happiness and unconditional love to residents and staff alike."
The dogs belong to staff members who bring them to work every day. But the program doesn't allow just any dog.
"It has to be a combination of the right owner, right dog and right temperament," said Reingold, whose own rescue dog, Kida, is one of the new recruits. "The dogs have to be assessed, follow basic commands and be able to cope with wheelchairs, elevators, medication carts and all the other things they'll encounter on a floor."
Cats are also used in the pet therapy program -- but only robotic ones. Hebrew Home has numerous lifelike animatronic cats that purr and meow as residents hold them in their laps and stroke their fur. "The cats are especially soothing to people with dementia," said Catherine Farrell, director of therapeutic activities, primary dog handler and owner of Marley.
"The love of an animal is incredible," Farrell said. "It releases endorphins, reduces blood pressure, reduces anxiety. For people here who had animals in their life history, seeing dogs triggers memories and opens communication."
While Farrell has to remain 6 feet away from residents and wear a face mask and plastic shield, Marley can plop his head on their beds as they pet him.
"To break through the social distancing barrier is really important," Farrell said. "It's one of the only ways they're able to touch another living being and gain satisfaction from that physical connection."
But it's not just about petting a dog, said Olivia Cohen, dog handler and assistant director of the therapeutic activities program. For some residents, the interaction can break down barriers and open communication and emotional expression, she said.
Cohen recalls one woman who was struggling with anxiety and having trouble coping with the new environment when she moved into the home. "Nothing would get through to her to help her," Cohen said. "But when I brought the dog to her, her complete affect changed from crying to having her face light up and telling stories about her own experiences."
For resident Elizabeth Pagan, dog visits are a welcome respite from the isolation she has endured since she's been restricted to FaceTime visits with her children, grandchildren and terrier-dachshund mix Ruby.
"It means a lot to me, makes me feel good when I pet the dogs," said Pagan, who's recovering from a stroke. "My favorite is Marley. He gives me a lot of comfort."