Her mother, Grace Purvis McGary, had lived a long life, and her release from it was a blessing; Henry McGary knew that. Still, she wasn’t looking forward to the process of planning the funeral.
But, as she entered the door of the funeral home, she got a surprise: A little ball of fur ran up to her and danced around her feet, then jumped, wriggled and snuggled into her lap as she sat down.
The fur-ball was Dash, a tiny, 1-year-old therapy dog who meets, greets and comforts people who come into the funeral home during some of the most difficult moments of their lives.
“It’s such a sad time in our lives when we lose our loved one. Then you walk into Ballard’s Funeral Home, and there’s Dash,” said McGary, of Cody. “Dash just kind of takes your mind off of stuff and makes it a lot easier, because you can pay attention to something more than what’s going on. He’s all ready to play with you and hug you and rolls over with you — it’s such a comfort.”
That wasn’t necessarily the plan when Dash, a Morkie — part Maltese and part Yorkshire terrier — came to live with Cody Gortmaker and his family about 10 months ago, destined, they thought, to be only their family’s pet.
Gortmaker, funeral director and manager at Ballard’s, said he just happened to take the 2-month-old puppy to work with him that first day.
“We had a few families that came that day, and every family that came that day just glommed onto him, and I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something to this.’”
That prompted Gortmaker to look up information about therapy dogs. He found out that therapy dogs are used in therapeutic settings, such as hospitals, nursing homes and funeral homes, to bring comfort.
“I said, ‘That kind of fits the description of Dash,’” Gortmaker said. “We just kind of turned him into our mascot at that point.
“Even now, Dash is sitting at the front door. He will be the first person to greet you. What he’s doing is invaluable, something we can’t do as humans — break the ice, bring a little comfort to the situation.”
It is helpful that Dash doesn’t shed, and his breed is hypoallergenic, Gortmaker added.
Kim Berett, of Cody and Estes Park, Colorado, was one of the first people to meet Dash after he came to the funeral home.
“We were planning my mom’s funeral,” Berett said. “He was just so much fun. I wanted to play with him. I knew I needed to get serious about the funeral too, but it really broke the tension. It helps people feel not so stressed out. You always read about how pets are the best therapy in the world, and they are. It just brings the blood pressure down; it’s really calming.”
Berett said the arrangement seems to work well for Dash, too.
“It’s such a good environment for him,” she said. “He’s so friendly and well-behaved.”
Dash puts people at ease, and he’s especially helpful with children, Gortmaker said.
“When kids come to a funeral, oftentimes they don’t know what to do, or parents don’t know what to do with the kids while they are doing their thing,” he said. “Dash is happy to play with kids, and the kids actually have a little bit of fun in the funeral home while their parents discuss arrangements with me.”
Beyond Dash, Gortmaker advocates for including people’s own dogs in their funerals.
“They’re welcome to bring them to be part of the funeral service,” Gortmaker said. “It seems like dogs also experience loss when their master has passed away. It takes them a while to recover.”
When a dog is included in the service, “it helps the dog to kind of put it all together and know what’s going on,” Gortmaker said. “I’m no animal psychologist, but families are pretty convinced that it helps the dog and gives the whole family the opportunity to grieve and get closer.”
Gortmaker said he follows up with families a couple of weeks later and “the dogs are no longer looking around the house, sniffing and trying to figure out where so-and-so was.”
Rick Moser of Cody said he lives near the funeral home and had seen Dash outside frequently as he walked his own dogs.
“They always stop to say hi to Dash when he’s outside,” Moser said.
So it wasn’t a big surprise when Dash ran up to Moser, his wife and his sister as they walked in to plan his mother’s funeral.
“He met us at the door and wiggled his tail off,” Moser said. “He’s a great little dog. (He) brightens up your day.”
Moser thinks a therapy dog “would be a great idea for any funeral home” — though he adds that a big Mastiff probably wouldn’t have the same effect.