Firstpaw: Adopted dog Bobbi, 9, a furry therapist for terminally ill in S'pore

The best form of medicine.

Julia Yee | November 12, 2023, 10:15 AM



Humans like to make life more complicated than it has to be.

Some of them get angry at the smallest of things. They twist their faces into frowns, which scares the people around them away.

Then there are those who constantly look troubled and don’t feel better even after being offered treats.

As a smiley 9-year-old Samoyed, Bobbi knows little of such complex emotions like depression and dread.

She spends her days chasing birds in the park, dozing on the couch, and making others smile.

Not all dogs get to have such good lives. But she’s one of the lucky ones.

Photo from Bobbi's Instagram

Puppy love

Bobbi was adopted by her current parents, Eddy Lim and Jenn Choo, when she was six months old.

She came to them scrawny, tick-ridden, and nursing a weak hind leg inherited from birth.

"We understood [from a mutual friend] that her previous family had no time for her and she was looking for a new home," Choo tells Mothership, explaining that Bobbi had often been locked and left in the toilet by her former owners.

The couple had never planned to open their home to a dog, but that all changed when they met Bobbi.

"The day we met [Bobbi], she lifted up her paw to us," Choo recounts.

It was as if the pup had claimed her new family and was asking: "Can I follow you home?"

Her "signature smiling Samoyed face" vanished any doubts that the pair had about taking her in.

Afterwards, it wasn’t long before the puppy left her paw prints all over their hearts (and their living room floor).

Photo from Bobbi's Instagram

"Bobbi is a blessing to us," Choo says with pride.

Humans are a dog's best friends

Canines are great and all, but Bobbi's always been more of a people kind of dog.

"Samoyeds are naturally very personable and close to humans," Choo informs us.

She calls Bobbi a "natural" with kids.

Each time she nears the neighbourhood playground on her walks, the Samoyed pricks up her ears at the sound of delighted shrieks and bubbly chatter.

She strains against the leash until her owners give in and release her. Once free, she bounds up to join the frolicking children.

Hanging out with the little humans is a blast.

Sometimes they hug her a tad too tight, and tangle things like tiaras and hair clips in her fur, but their simple emotions are easy to understand.

Photo from Bobbi's Instagram

Easier, at least, than that of the more elderly humans Bobbi meets. The kind who move slower and speak in more subdued tones — who pet her with gentler hands.

It's never been explicitly told to her, but the dog knows that they won't appreciate her sharp barks and vigorous energy as much. So she refrains from pouncing on them and licking their face.

"She knows that at home, she can be a naughty devil, but outside, she needs to behave," Choo says.

Some people might call it two-faced, but Bobbi's parents have nicer words for it: “emotionally intelligent”.

In fact, Bobbi's ability to code-switch was what landed her her current job.

Bobbi gets a job

Upon discovering that Bobbi had the ability to interact with the elderly, Lim and Choo decided to make her an honourable ambassador of Therapy Dogs Singapore (TDS), a non-profit welfare group that helps connect the disadvantaged in society with dogs.

Having been rescued from a place of neglect and loneliness herself, it seemed fitting for the dog to help pull others out of similar gloom.

To earn the title, three-year-old Bobbi underwent a temperament assessment to see if she was able to adapt to different environments and interact with people comfortably.

She was exposed to loud noises and things she'd never seen before like basketballs, umbrellas, crutches, and wheelchairs.

Some of the objects looked funny to Bobbi, who sniffed at them curiously.

Then she just sat back and wagged her tail.

This would be what her parents later dubbed her "work persona", after she passed the test with flying colours and began work as an official therapy dog in 2017.

Photo via Bobbi's Instagram

Bobbi doesn't know much about what's going on.

She just knows that every month on a Saturday, her humans bring her to a place called Assisi Hospice, which is very unlike the outside world that she's familiar with.

Here, where the air is heavy with a mix of resignation and hope, is where the dog got her first taste of those confusing feelings that plague people.

Patients who are admitted here are under palliative care, most of whom only have a few months to live.

The Samoyed trots enthusiastically around the ward for about an hour, meeting those who are dog lovers.

"Bobbi can tell that it’s a unique environment," says Choo.

The dog knows that it warrants a different attitude from her usual playful demeanour, and softens her energy to match that of lower spirits.

"She’s somehow able to understand the environment and the needs [of the humans there]. Every time she goes to the hospice, she knows that she needs to stay calm and obedient."

The dog adores the attention she receives at the hospice.

And the grass there tastes pretty good too.

Gif by Julia Yee

The best medicine

When Bobbi pads into the ward, the faces of patients and caregivers alike light up.

She's a celebrity with the stage name "cute white bear", who can't take two steps without being recognised and attacked with cuddles and photographs.

Photo by Julia Yee

"With Bobbi around, it definitely makes the whole environment very different," Choo remarks.

"She’s brought smiles to many patients, and many actually request for us to stay longer. It's really heartwarming."

Some on their deathbeds have even requested to see Bobbi for the last time.

For many of the patients here battling terminal illnesses, the unbearable weight on their shoulders eases just a little with a smiling Samoyed by their side.

I try to imagine what it's like to be Bobbi, whose inability to fully grasp human afflictions allows her to lift the mood of others without being dragged down herself.

What is it like to remember the faces you meet each week — to see some for a couple of times and then never again, and to not know why?

By now Bobbi's probably figured out that humans really do have more on their plates than dogs do.

Maybe being human comes with greater burdens, greater problems that can't always be solved, only managed.

That's what dogs are here for.

There's inherent power in animal therapy that no amount of prescriptions and medical treatment can replicate.

"Having a therapy dog around helps them forget their pain and discomfort for a while. To have that kind of comfort come forth to them, that’s priceless," Choo states.

"Sometimes [patients] show signs of loneliness and not wanting to talk much, but when they have Bobbi around, it changes everything."

Photo via Assisi Hospice

According to Choo, Bobbi is the perfect ice breaker.

Patients that grow withdrawn and quiet find it easy to open up with a fluffy ball of happiness nudging their hand for a pet.

It’s hard for people to put the pain they feel into words and communicate it to other human beings.

But the dog sees the smiles and hears the laughter from the hospice patients that play with her. It makes me think that maybe we don’t always need words to feel better.

Dogs can't voice any words of wisdom or comfort. But they offer us companionship and affection, the kind of light that we seek in times of darkness.

"Many patients and [their] family members come up to us and tell us: 'You don’t know what kind of difference you’ve made today. You've made us feel so much better despite all these challenges we're facing,'" Choo says.

It’s been six years on the job, and Bobbi still doesn’t completely understand why humans get so sad sometimes, or why they come and go.

But for the moment she’s there, they are smiling. And that is enough.

Photo by Julia Yee

Top images via Mothership and Assisi Hospice