Therapy dogs show heart for healing those in need in Niles

Turning the key in the front door lock after a long day, there is always a great consolation to see a pet eagerly awaiting your return. Whether it is the wagging tail of a dog or rapturous purrs of a cat, animals have a knack for relieving stress and easing daily woes. Perhaps this is why these furry friends have long taken on a bigger role than comforting people on the couch at home.
In Niles, therapy dogs have been helping the young and old alike to cope with the day’s challenges — from students roaming the hallways of the high school to a family grieving the loss of a loved one. With the right training, pets can be one of nature’s best medicines.

NILES HIGH SCHOOL
When the bell sounds for passing period and teenagers begin pouring into the hallway and rushing to their respective lockers, sophomore Shaye Webb often makes her way through the crowd and to the office of guidance counselor Carrie Rinehart.
There, the hustle and bustle of jostling students, classroom deadlines and pressures of being a teen fall away for a moment. It is not just the bright office backlit by afternoon sun that provides solace to students, but rather Rinehart’s counterpart: Derby the therapy dog, who greets everyone who enters the space like an old friend.
Since the Niles school board approved a therapy dog in early 2017, Webb has been a frequent visitor of the 7-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever, whose chocolate brown fur and tail wags entice students and staff alike.
“Even if I am having a rough day, she will put a smile on my face,” Webb said.
On an average Friday, Webb is not the only one to spend part of his lunch hour or passing period fawning over the dog. As many as 15 students will cram into the office to pet Derby and sneak her treats from their lunch.
“She is innately intuitive,” Rinehart said. “If she hears a student crying down the hall, she will be by the door.”
The idea to bring a therapy dog on board was a collaboration between Rinehart and Niles High School Principal Molly Brawley. It was partially spurred by the death of a student in 2016, whose suicide attempt shook the whole community. The faculty poured over every possible tool to give students measures of coping with their grief.
Derby was one such tool.
“She has been an avenue to start a conversation with the roughly 905 students [who] attend Niles High School,” Rinehart said. “The students genuinely love and feel loved by her.”
Derby received her official Therapy Dog Certification before joining the Niles High School team.
Since Derby’s arrival, more students than ever have been visiting Rinehart’s office. As they pet the dog, they tend to open up more, whether by simply telling Rinehart about their day or telling her about their troubles. Rinehart said Derby has been the catalyst for change, allowing her to talk more easily with students and take action if they need help with something.
When Rinehart was first mulling over the idea, she called Tim Brown, a funeral home director who had recently acquired a therapy dog himself.

BROWN FUNERAL HOME
It has been more than a year since that fateful day when Tim Brown visited Bennignton Hills in Fenton, Michigan, with the hopes of finding the perfect therapy dog. Brown is the owner and operator of Brown Funeral Home, and has run the business on Niles’ Main Street since 2004.
That day, as he peered down at the litter of playfully pouncing and fluffy English golden retriever puppies, one dog stuck out among the others. The puppy caught Brown’s eye and began strutting about the kennel with his chest puffed out, almost as if in that moment he knew that he had been chosen.
Brown noticed the puppy’s confidence, but noticed that he, while just as playful as his brothers and sisters, also possessed a unique sense of calm.
Brown said he knew then that he had found the perfect addition to the staff at Brown Funeral Home. Since then the puppy, Sir Winston Bailey Brown, has been a staff member as well as a family member to those who work at or visit Brown Funeral Home.
It may seem a bit unprecedented to have a dog become part of the staff at a funeral home — where most who visit go to grieve, but Brown did some research and noted that therapy dogs had become an integral part of nursing homes, hospitals and schools, offering a sense of comfort and understanding to those who need it most. These stories compelled Brown to offer the same to those who walk through the doors of the funeral home.
Research also showed that some of the most common breeds with an aptitude for healing are golden retrievers, golden doodles and lab retrievers, Brown said.
“I think it’s the floppy ears,” Brown said.
When Brown first opened the doors of his business in 2004, he served between 30 to 40 families a year — a far cry from the roughly 300 families the funeral home now serves annually.
A brief tour of the facility shows the number of efforts that staff take to make the place feel like one of comfort. Inside the double wooden doors, neatly lined packages of individual Kleenex are at ready disposal. Farther inside, a well-decorated kitchen area, reminiscent of home, offers patrons a hot cup of coffee or tea. The area is complete with an oven, comfy chairs and a phone with a notepad and pen nearby.
Much like Winston, these comforts cannot absolve the loss of a loved one, but the environment is created to be a place that offers a bit of refuge and peace during a turbulent time. Winston shares a similar goal.
“[Winston] doesn’t diminish grief,” Brown said. “Grief is there and grief is grief, but somehow [Winston] does add a sense of calmness and reassurance. There is a presence that he has about him.”
For the past year, Winston has been training to become a certified therapy dog. Once a week, his trainer comes to work with him and helps him to develop a keen sense for when a person is hurting. He is also trained to recognize those who do not want him to jump on their lap or provide wet puppy kisses. Winston is expected to receive official certification at the beginning of 2018.
At the funeral home, Winston can be requested at services or provide comfort as a family grieves for their lost loved one.
Brown has seen several occasions first hand where Winston has consoled those who are hurting.
One day, a grief-stricken boy was sitting on the stairs of the funeral home while crying. When Brown noticed the child, he set Winston down beside him. Winston turned to the boy and licked the tears from his face. The boy laughed.
Since his earliest training days at the funeral home, Winston has become a local celebrity.
“We walk Main Street a lot,” Brown said. “People will honk and they say, ‘hi, Winston.’ People automatically know who he is. He’s become quite a popular dog, and he takes it all in stride.”
On a wall inside the funeral home, several wooden plaques hold newspaper stories written about Winston’s adoption into the funeral home family, a further sign of the legacy for healing the dog leaves in his wake.

Photography by Emily Sobecki

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