- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

PITTSFIELD, Mass. (AP) - When Amber VanBramer’s grandmother passed away, she had a difficult time deciding if she should bring her 7-year-old son, Khaydin, to the wake.

“My grandfather on the other side of the family passed away last year and I took him,” she said. “It was his first funeral and he took it pretty hard, talking about it all the time afterward and asking, ‘Am I going to die?’”

But when she walked into her grandmother’s wake at Dwyer Funeral Home on a rainy Friday afternoon with Khaydin and her 3-year-old son, Keyonei, to pay their respects, she and her children weren’t immediately met with death, but instead the wagging tail of a Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Greyce.

The boys immediately lifted the somber mood, asking Greyce’s handler, Jody Tierney, important questions about their new friend, who calmly stood watch over the mourners while Keyonei crawled under her to inspect her furry belly.

“Does he like dog food?” asked the 3-year-old, innocently, while relatives looking on laughed.

It’s not the scene you’d expect at a funeral home, and that’s why when Tierney approached Rob Dwyer Jr., about the possibility of using a certified therapy dog at funeral services, he jumped at the opportunity.

“It’s such a great thing,” said Dwyer, owner of the family owned funeral home at 776 North St. “The dog immediately changes the mood of the room.”

Greyce is a 2-year-old chocolate brown retriever, with kind eyes and a love for children. Tierney said she knew early on that the dog was meant to do something more.

“Chesapeake Bay Retrievers are normally a one-person dog,” she said. “But not Greyce. She was a big love right from the start and wanted to be around people. She’s very gentle, very calming.”

Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs are not trained to assist their owner with physical or psychological challenges. They are, however, subjected to a level of testing and evaluation to make sure the dogs can handle different situations with people of all ages. Tierney and Greyce are certified through the K9to5 National Dog Registry and were trained and evaluated by Lenox-based Certified Professional Dog Trainer Leea Foran. Greyce went through at six-week training and testing course and was also required to pass an AKC Canine Good Citizen test.

Greyce also volunteers her tail-wagging time at the Pediatric Development Center in Pittsfield, where she helps non-verbal children open up by just being there for a pat, hug or wet kiss.

“Some therapy dogs are trained to do tricks,” Tierney said. “But we don’t do anything like that. It’s a presence.”

Greyce’s presence is a welcomed one for the family of the deceased, Christine VanBramer of Pittsfield, a mother of seven children, and grandmother to 15 grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. A tribute video played in the background, showing a smiling woman constantly surrounded by children.

“I was really close to my grandmother,” said her granddaughter, Cassandra Sears. “I would do anything for her.”

A visibly upset Sears, clutching a tissue in one hand, stroked Greyce’s head with the other.

“Having a dog here definitely helps,” said the 19-year-old with a smile.

“You are sure making me feel better,” said Meaghan VanBramer, another granddaughter, as she bent over to scratch behind the retriever’s ears.

For the many grandchildren and great grandchildren in the room, the dog proved to be a positive distraction, something Dwyer finds important.

“It doesn’t matter what age group you’re working with, no one likes to walk into a funeral home,” he said. “But for young people, kids, who get to play with the dog, for the rest of their life they’ll remember this. You don’t want your child’s first experience at a funeral to be a bad memory. It will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

This is only Greyce’s second funeral service as a therapy dog since Tierney first offered their services in September. It’s still a new idea, said Dwyer, and some families aren’t interested in it. While it’s not for everyone, he said, he thinks the more people learn about it the more in demand Greyce will be. Greyce’s services are completely free.

“It’s her calling,” Tierney said, remembering how the dog acted at the first funeral she attended as a therapy dog. The family was burying a small child, said Tierney, and Greyce calmly worked the room, stopping for pats, hugs and sniffing the small children in attendance. Then, Tierney said, the dog noticed an older gentleman sitting in the corner sobbing with his head in his hands.

“She just walked up to him and put her head in his lap and looked up him with those big brown eyes,” said Tierney. “She just knew.”

It’s that instinct that is perhaps Greyce’s best attribute. Her height is perfect for finding laps, sitting watch over deceased loved ones, and her nose seeks out hands. She gathers a crowd in the viewing room, for a moment, giving a grieving family the opportunity to smile.

“Dogs are amazing,” said Marie VanBramer, one of Christine’s daughters-in-law. “They sense when we’re upset. They just know, somehow.”


Information from: The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, https://www.berkshireeagle.com

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