Man holding small dog

Volunteer Tomasz Cienkowski ’22 is in good spirits as he holds Pepper, waiting for a resident to pass by the hallway. “I love the opportunity this program creates to make elderly people feel happier and less lonely. Even a very simple design where we just borrow a few dogs from Harvard faculty for a couple of hours and then visit the nursing center can still make a huge impact on lives of others,” he said.

Photos by Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

The simple joy of pets

Phillips Brooks House program brings dogs to rehab center to interact with residents

4 min read

The Pets as Therapy program at the Phillips Brooks House Association partners with the Cambridge Rehabilitation and Nursing Center to bring dogs to interact with residents. Volunteers shepherd dogs lent by members of the Harvard community to visit the center twice each week.

Organizers say that the program, which is designed to offer companionship and therapeutic benefits, actually helps all involved: the residents, student volunteers who experience a break from their routines, and even the dogs, who forge relationships with residents and other animals.

Student and dog visiting residents of rehab center.
Whitney Schroeder ’21 chats with John, whose wife, Ella (not pictured), lives at the rehab center.
Dog and woman
Elderly woman patting dog

Lita greets Cori, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, in her room. Another resident, Ella, reaches to pet Cheetah, a black Labrador managed by Harvard student Paul Yanez ’20, as Ella’s husband, John, looks on. “The thing that always surprises me is when our visits inspire the residents to share their memories with their dogs. They remember them so well and listening to these stories is a beautiful feeling for us all,” said volunteer Tomasz Cienkowski ’22.

Man petting dog, women kneeling with dog
Monica Hinojosa Diaz ’22 (left) admires Rory’s quiet demeanor as Ella smiles from her bed.

William, a resident (left), pets Pika, held by Elizabeth Kinard ’22, as Rory waits his turn with Michelle Wang ’20.

Man petting dog, woman kneely with dog
4 dogs looking at camera
Visiting canines Rory (from left), Donovan, Cheetah, and Pepper pose for a group portrait. “I guess the most amusing thing about our dogs is that they quickly became a good friends pack. Now, they have very interesting relationships with each other and specific preferences for which dogs they want to work or play with,” said Tomasz Cienkowski.

Robert (left) pets Pika, a golden retriever managed by Elizabeth Kinard, as his wife, Gail, sits with Pepper, a black Lab. “Initially I volunteered as a way to hang out with dogs since I missed my dog back home, but as I kept doing it I realized how much our visits meant to the people at CRANC. I’ve lost track of how many times someone has said that we and the dogs made their week, and then proceeded to tell us a story about their past,” said Paul Yanez.

Man in wheelchair petting dog.
Elderly man in wheelchair, small dog in background.
Woman feeds dog a treat with man in wheelchair.

John visits with his wife, Ella, in the Cambridge Rehab as Rory looks on. In a common room, volunteer and former program director Winnie Wang ’20 chats with Rudy, another resident. “I find the visits to be the highlight of my week,” says Wang. “CRANC, the nursing home we visit, is home to a lot of residents who don’t have regular visitors. I believe that the residents, the volunteers, and even the dogs end up with smiles on their faces after we complete a visit.”

Student holds dog while elderly woman pat dog.
Tomasz Cienkowski (left) holds Pepper for resident Shirley to pet. “There are people who I have been talking to for three years, and in a way, they really have become part of my Harvard experience. There’s Al, who always shows us his new postcards; Rudy, who loves to joke around and play with the dogs; and Tom, who enjoys asking us about what new things we learned in our classes,” said Winnie Wang.
Group shot, eight therapy volunteers and 5 dogs.
Volunteers gather with their canines for a group portrait. Monica Hinojosa Diaz ’22 with Rory (from left), Cristina Trápaga ’22, Winnie Wang ’20 with Cori, Molly Baxter ’20 with Pepper, Elizabeth Kinard ’22 with Pika, Tomasz Cienkowski ’22, Anastasiia Antiukhina ’22, and Paul Yanez ’20 with Cheetah.