A beloved therapy dog who made more than 630 visits to Columbus Regional Hospital patients has died.

Bonnie, a collie who had visited the hospital and nursing homes since 2012, died Wednesday night at Athens Animal Clinic from health complications, including several strokes that had caused her to lose the ability to move or stand.

Her owner, Doug Bell, who works in facilities management at the hospital, took time off Tuesday and Wednesday to spend with Bonnie, describing her “galloping in her dreams,” even though her health issues were keeping her still as Bell held her.

“This has touched me deeply,” Bell said of his relationship with the collie, who was once found starving, frozen and abandoned in Donner Park in January 2009. “It’s been a long time — decades — since I’ve taken anything this hard.”

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Bonnie’s story was profiled in a story in The Republic last June, as she was making one of her final therapy visits to the hospital.

Back in January 2009, Bell had learned from Polly Verbanic that an emaciated collie had followed her through the park in the snow to her home and after giving the dog something to eat, she had turned it over to Columbus Animal Care.

“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 in the earlier story.

When Bell went to the shelter and saw the skeletal collie with matted hair, filthy and suffering from malnutrition and exposure, he could not turn away. Even though the family had three other dogs, he adopted her and proceeded to nurse her back to health.

What emerged, after good food, grooming and training, was a spectacularly beautiful collie with a sable coat and a soft white ring around her neck that matched her four white paws.

The late Paula Pollitt, who started the therapy dog program at the hospital with her collie Laddie, suggested therapy dog classes for the collie that Bell named Bonnie.

Bell and Bonnie went through the course and visits began to nursing homes and the hospital. Bell estimates Bonnie may have had 10,000 to 15,000 contacts with people during the time she worked as a therapy dog in Columbus.

People loved Bonnie, but the visits also changed Bell, he said. Bell admits to being an introvert and said he initially hesitated to interact with people that Bonnie was visiting — but he eventually found he, too, was making new friendships that Bonnie helped foster.

Bonnie has “absolutely changed my life,” he said. “She’s made me a more caring person and allowed me to give back to the community in a way I never thought I could,” he said.

Although letting go of Bonnie on Wednesday was difficult, Bell said he hoped that those who had been touched by Bonnie’s presence, or had just learned about her through the newspaper, might be willing to donate to the city’s animal shelter or the new Paula A. Pollitt Animal Shelter in Hope, in the dog’s memory.

“There are dogs in shelters that will make someone a wonderful companion,” Bell said as he cradled Bonnie on Tuesday night. “She (Bonnie) touched so many lives and all she wanted was a smile from someone and to help take their mind off their problems.”

The work that the animal shelters do for animals that are cast off and discarded like Bonnie is incredibly important, Bell said.

“These animals have so much good in them,” he said of dogs like Bonnie. “The animal shelter workers help match up people and dogs and most times you get a flower — or sometimes an orchid like Bonnie,” he said.

Since last June, Bell has adopted a 10-month-old collie named Katy who he hopes might follow in Bonnie’s footsteps, but he’s still working on obedience and other training with the young dog.

“I hope she can become a therapy dog,” he said. “But right now she’s the therapy for me in my grieving process for Bonnie.”

The Bell family has had four dogs over the past seven years, including Bonnie. Two of those dogs have died, and with Bonnie’s death one is living, Bell said. When the fourth dies, Bell said he will take the boxes that hold each of their remains and go out to a friend’s property along Clifty Creek, where all four used to walk and play with the Bell family.

“We will bury all four there together,” he said.

In memory

If you would like to make a donation in memory of Bonnie, Doug Bell requests that donations be sent to either the city’s animal shelter or the new Hope animal shelter named in memory of the late Paula Pollitt.

  • Columbus Animal Care Services, 2730 Arnold St., Columbus, IN 47203
  • Paula A. Pollitt Animal Shelter Fund, Hope Town Hall, 404 W. Jackson St., Hope, IN 47246.
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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.