A nearly starved and injured collie who ended up at the Columbus animal shelter found a way through her adopted family to comfort hundreds of people trying to heal.

Bonnie the therapy dog retired June 29 with a final visit to Columbus Regional Hospital’s rehab unit, wrapping up more than 630 visits to patients at the hospital, including its mental health unit, and area nursing homes.

The collie — she’s a ringer for “Lassie” — and her owner, Doug Bell, who works in facilities management at the hospital, have been a familiar pair around the hospital campus, stopping often just to cheer those passing by on the way to visit a patient.

She has been a therapy dog since 2012. Bell has had her for seven years, but it’s unknown how old she was when found nearly frozen in January 2009 in Donner Park and later taken to the animal shelter. Best guess is she is probably at least 12 years old.

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“Oh my gosh, she’s beautiful,” said Alberta Harris, Paris Crossing, who was sitting in a hospital waiting room as she continued her recovery after spending time in the hospital about a month ago. “I could have used some of this love when I was in here,” she said, smiling as Bonnie nuzzled closer and Harris stroked her golden coat.

Bonnie and Bell found each other through kismet.

Bell was on the Bartholomew Library Associates committee with Polly Verbanic, who came to a meeting in January 2009 and asked everyone to tell their friends she had taken a collie to the pound. That collie, who would later be named Bonnie, had followed Verbanic and her dog through Donner Park in the bitter cold and snow. Verbanic could clearly see the dog was starving.

Verbanic took the collie home, gave her something to eat and vowed to help her find a good home.

“Polly had no idea what a good thing she was doing for the dog, for me and my family, and hundreds of people in the community,” Bell said.

Bell was intrigued with the collie because he had collie mixes as pets before — but the Bell family already had three dogs.

So he decided to go to the shelter with a camera and email the picture to all his friends who had dogs with a story about the collie’s great personality to help her find a home.

When he and his wife, Becky, saw the dog at the shelter, they were shocked.

The dog was a skeleton, with matted hair from one end to the other, filthy and suffering from malnutrition and exposure, he said.

Later, after deciding that four dogs wasn’t that much different than having three and agreeing to adopt her, they would learn she had a broken pelvis and a huge scar on her side, probably from being hit by a car and then healing on her own.

They believe Bonnie had taken shelter after being hit and followed Verbanic out of the park when she felt well enough to move.

“It was clear no one else was interested in a large hairy dog in that shape. So if she was going to be rescued, it was up to us,” Bell said.

They embarked on nursing her back to health.

Within six months, with good food, grooming and training, Bell said Bonnie was a different dog. The matted hair turned to a beautiful sable coat with the softest white ring around her neck — which matched her four white feet. She began obedience lessons and agility class.

Bell then read an article from The Republic in 2010 about a collie therapy dog known as Laddie that was retiring from hospital duty. It got him to thinking that perhaps Bonnie could do that, as so many people approached Bell asking to pet Bonnie and talk about how beautiful she was.

In November 2011, a woman approached Bell and told him how much Bonnie reminded her of Laddie, who had just been put down, which made a big impact on him. In another coincidence, Nick Woolls, owner of Dog World, mentioned to him that they were offering their first therapy dog class and wanted to know whether he was interested.

They signed up and began therapy dog visits at nursing homes, followed by visits to the hospital.

Launching a career

“People loved her,” Bell said. And it wasn’t just the patients or the nursing home residents. Family and friends also had a chance to interact with Bonnie on her visits.“It would trigger discussions of dogs they had in the past, and bring memories of happy times,” Bell said. There’s a lot of stress and difficult situations, and Bonnie was a bright spot in their day.

Something else happened too, Bell said.

“Bonnie was getting scratched on the head and being told she was a beautiful girl. Who wouldn’t like that job? And me? I just wanted to stand in the doorway and blend into the woodwork while people talked to my dog,” he said.

But something else happened.

“People started talking to me, and gave me gifts of friendship that I can never repay,” Bell said.

Bell, who describes himself as being born an introvert, said it has taken him 60 years to fake being an extrovert. He’s getting good at it, because of Bonnie.

“So many people in nursing homes or in the hospital don’t get enough visits,” he said.

As Bell and Bonnie made more connections and those connections became friendships, weekly visits became the norm and patients looked forward to those visits.

On her final therapy dog assignment at the hospital last week, Bonnie was moving a little slower. Her hips are deteriorating and the long-ago accident and damage to her pelvis are complicating her ability to walk.

But she soldiered on, spending time with patients in the waiting area on the hospital’s first floor and then heading up to the rehab unit, where she’s on a first-name basis with an entire floor of patients.

Karl Mills caught sight of her in the hallway and from his wheelchair called out her name, and Bonnie responded immediately. He has had three visits with Bonnie while a patient in the hospital and was preparing to go home.

“I am so glad to see you guys one more time,” Mills said as Bonnie snuggled close to the wheelchair.

Visibly affected by seeing the dog again, Mills looked up and said to Bell, “You know, it means something, it makes you feel good.”

Collecting himself, Mills then said, “Well I better get moving before I get teary-eyed.”

Bonnie stopped by several more rooms during the visit, moving to the bedside to allow patients to pat her on the head and tell her she was beautiful.

She stopped at the nursing station, too, always on the lookout for the dog treat that may be waiting there, and shared some love and stress relief with the nurses and aides.

Bell confides that perhaps because she was so hungry earlier in her life, Bonnie has never forgotten to find crumbs of food wherever she goes, and is on the hunt for the stray animal cracker or dropped treat underfoot wherever she goes.

During visits at the hospital’s mental health unit, she usually cruises the room for 10 minutes looking for crumbs and then plops down next to someone, who will immediately begin petting her. Those visits to the mental health unit will continue for a bit while she eases into retirement, and there may be a few cameos at the hospital if a patient specifically requests her, Bell said.

The therapy dog program at the hospital continues on with several other dogs and their owners, although Bell said some patients have said they will miss Bonnie very much.

Special thanks

As Bonnie ends her active work, Bell said he owes a great deal to Laddie, and the late Paula Pollitt who was his handler who got the hospital therapy program going all those years ago.

And he’s grateful to Verbanic for rescuing a stray dog on a bitter winter night, and Columbus Animal Care for taking that dog in. And also he’s thankful for Nick Woolls for the ticket into the therapy dog program for Bonnie.

He’s grateful to all the facilities that let Bonnie visit, saying it’s been one of the best experiences of his life and led to friendships that would not have happened without Bonnie leading the way. And he’s thankful that his wife was open to having another dog in the family.

Bell has notified a collie rescue group that he’s thinking about beginning the search for another rescue collie with a good personality who could pick up the work that Bonnie began. But he’s in no hurry. If the right dog comes along, perhaps with a similar set of coincidences leading Bell to adopting, that will be the path.

He described Bonnie’s story as an object lesson.

“Some of the least of us can provide so much,” he said of Bonnie. “We need to find out gifts by realizing we have them and putting them to use,” he said.

“Who would have thought that a cast-off dog pound dog would become so beautiful and provide so much joy to others,” he said. “What a story of redemption.”

Pull Quote

“It was clear no one else was interested in a large hairy dog in that shape. So if she was going to be rescued, it was up to us.”

— Owner Doug Bell, speaking about therapy dog Bonnie

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.