Open Accessibility Menu

A Tail-Wagging Comeback | Altru's Therapy Dogs

A Tail-Wagging Comeback | Altru's Therapy Dogs

When Altru’s pet therapy program resumed earlier this year, few people were happier than longtime volunteer Eric Nelson. He missed bringing joy to patients and employees—and he had a new furry companion he wanted them to meet.

One day this past spring, Eric Nelson, supervisor for the City of Grand Forks mosquito control program, did something he’d done many times before the COVID-19 pandemic—he walked into Altru with a therapy dog by his side. For the large, tan-colored canine, however, visiting Altru was a new experience. Sophie the Great Dane was apprehensive.

“Sophie is quite curious, but her tail was a bit tucked for most of the day, which told me she was nervous,” Eric says. “She did well, though.” For his part, Eric was happy to be back walking the halls of the hospital and watching faces light up at the sight of his four-legged friend. After a two-year, pandemic-induced pause, the pet therapy program was back.

“I missed the interactions with people and seeing them smile,” Eric says. “Being part of the pet therapy program is extremely rewarding for the handler as well as the people we meet. It was exciting when I learned the program was coming back. I needed the therapy.”

Getting Involved

Eric has come a long way. Several years ago, when his wife, Kim, an emergency room (ER) nurse at Altru, suggested that he and his previous Great Dane, Sadie, should consider joining the pet therapy program, he was skeptical.

“I thought getting involved with the program would be well outside my comfort zone,” Eric says. “I didn’t care to visit the hospital because I felt odd in those situations, but I decided to go for it.” Easing discomfort lies at the heart of the pet therapy program, which began in 2013 and currently features three handler and- dog teams. Each team is registered with a national therapy dog association.

The teams visit various locations on the Altru campus, including lobbies, waiting areas, inpatient units, the ER and the Altru Cancer Center.

“Therapy dog visits provide a healthy distraction for patients and family members,” says Kelly Quigley, who oversees Altru’s volunteer program. “Therapy dogs can lift moods and help relieve fear, anxiety and loneliness. Visiting with a therapy dog can help comfort or normalize the hospital experience, and even motivate a patient to walk or join an activity.”

After Sadie completed her therapy dog certification, she and Eric visited Altru for more than two years until her death in September 2019. Eric hadn’t planned on getting another Great Dane—until he learned of a breeder near Minneapolis with a puppy born the day after Sadie died. When Eric and Kim visited the breeder later that fall, they immediately fell in love with the puppy. Sophie became part of their family at eight weeks old.

Passing the Torch

Eric standing in a hall with Sophie, Altru's therapy dog.Eric was sure of one thing—Sophie would follow in Sadie’s pawprints by becoming a therapy dog. By mid-2021, Sophie was certified, but the pandemic limited visiting opportunities. With the Altru pet therapy program paused since March 2020, Eric and Sophie visited a school classroom a few times. They also provided Eric’s co-workers at the Grand Forks Public Health Department a welcome distraction from administering COVID-19 vaccines and tests. What Eric most looked forward to, however, was introducing his fun-loving, 110-pound, 34-inch-tall dog to Altru.

“Sophie is your typical, goofy Great Dane,” he says. “She can be lazy most of the day, but when she wants to play and run, she’s all legs. She loves kids.” Finally, in May 2022, the opportunity to return to Altru arrived. Sophie’s nervousness during her initial visit soon turned to excitement. She and Eric now visit Altru nearly every Friday morning and sometimes on holidays.

“Now that people have gotten to know Sophie, when they see her coming and say her name in a high-pitched voice, she gets so excited,” Eric says. “She thinks visiting patients and employees is the greatest thing there is. After three hours or so, with the amount of stimulus she gets, she sleeps the rest of the day. It absolutely wears her out.”

Benefits to Bark About

Of all the Altru locations Eric and Sophie visit, they’re especially fond of interacting with children in the pediatric therapy department.

“Many kids have never seen a dog as large as Sophie, so they get extra excited,” Kelly says. “Little ones even mistake Sophie for a horse. She has a way of instantly nuzzling up to people, and she seems to sense her purpose in bringing comfort. It’s apparent that Eric finds immense joy in sharing Sophie with those in need of a smile or lift of spirits.”

Eric loves bringing a joyful distraction to patients who might be having one of their worst days. He’s happy to answer questions from patients and employees but doesn’t mind taking a back seat to the star attraction.

“Everyone always says, ‘Sophie, Sophie,’ and once in a while, they’ll tease me by saying, ‘We like you, too, Eric,’” he says. “I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I know, I’m just the person who brings Sophie.’” There’s no one else Eric would rather be.

Interested in the pet therapy program or other volunteer opportunities at Altru? Visit