By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
NILES — Brown Funeral Home’s newest employee is furrier than most.
That’s because the Niles funeral home has a 4-month-old English retriever to help families cope with the loss of a loved one.
Known to many as Sir Winston Bailey Brown, the 50-pound pup is half grown and can regularly be seen walking side by side funeral home director Tim Brown.
Since joining Brown at the funeral home in late October, Sir Winston has met with at least three dozen families in their time of need during arrangement conferences, visitations and funerals.
In one of Sir Winston’s first visits, Brown recalled a child sitting on some steps inside the funeral home. Brown knew the grief-relieving dog would fit in well after Sir Winston came downstairs, sat next to the lone kid and gave him a lick on the face.
“The kid just grinned from ear to ear. Really, I think it made his day here at the funeral home much easier,” Brown said. “For a lot of kids, it’s an uncertain experience to be in a place like this. This is true even for adults. It’s not the most comfortable place to come. There’s something about having the dog around that makes it easier.”
Sir Winston can generally sense things well. During visitations, Sir Winston knows it’s time to work. This is especially true when Brown puts the blue and white bow tie around the dog’s neck.
Sir Winston is available at no additional cost to offer comfort to families and those who attend services at the funeral home. Therapy dogs have been used extensively in hospitals and nursing homes. Brown said several families took note of how therapy dogs helped their loved ones along the journey, which encouraged him to find one of his own.
Brown contacted a well-known breeder out of Fenton, whose dogs are generally bred for show. However, Brown was able to convince her to give them one for therapy.
Choosing a name for the helpful pup ended up going public, when Brown opened it up to the community. A committee, put together by Brown, took more than 400 responses and suggestions.
The dog’s first name would be inspired by the late British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill.
Sir Winston Bailey Brown gets his middle name from Bailey Bennett, who died of cancer this year at the young age of 10. Given Bailey Bennett’s reputation in the community during his battle with cancer, the boy’s mother and others suggested Bailey as a name for Brown’s dog.
“His mother had suggested using his name,” Brown said. “The comfort dogs were a huge help for him while he was fighting cancer. It just felt like an honor to have his name and let his legacy live on.”
Sir Winston has been alongside Brown every hour of the day since he got him in October.
He sleeps next to Brown’s bed, comes to work with him everyday. He travels to and from home, with a kennel beside Brown’s office.
Brown said Sir Winston has acclimated quite well to his position after the first two months.
“Most times during visitations and funerals, he does come down and spends time with families,” Brown said. “He’s been a big hit. We thought the kids would love him, but we think the older crowd loves him just as much.”
The Niles funeral home is not the first one to introduce a therapy dog to its clients.
Duffield & Pastrick Family Funeral Home in Coloma still has its own therapy dog named Seger. The chocolate lab that presides in Coloma is now 8 years old.
Brown had been considering adding a therapy dog to its services for about a year before doing so. One of the local gentleman who helped Brown find the right dog was a man who runs the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame.
It was there that he introduced a dog to the Basilica. That dog would go on to become a sort of unofficial mascot for Notre Dame for many years, Brown said.
Going through puppy training now, Brown said Sir Winston’s therapy training hasn’t officially started yet. In addition to learning all things puppies need to know in their first few months, Sir Winston is being conditioned to people and how they react when in grief.
The rest of his training will help him sense emotions and how to respond to specific ones. For example, Brown said if a kid pokes him in the eye, he’ll learn how to respond to that in a positive way.
What’s surprised Brown the most since introducing Sir Winston to the community is how popular he’s become.
In addition to the nonstop visits from those familiar with the puppy, the funeral home has received an overwhelming amount of toys.
Initially, Brown and Sir Winston were getting so many toys and gifts that they donated a large portion of those to Pet Refuge in South Bend.
“The acknowledgement and support Sir Winston has gotten has been a welcome surprise,” Brown said. “I’m also surprised by the families’ response to him. We work very hard to make sure this is a very smooth and easy part of a journey for a family. We spend countless hours getting their loved ones ready and making videos. But what comes back in our ‘thank you’ notes are how fantastic it was that Winston was around.”
Once his training is finalized, Brown said they are hoping to use Sir Winston in the capacity of a service dog for shut-ins, hospitals and any place where he could be useful.
That includes being on scene to offer comfort if there is a large traumatic experience involving a mass fatality.
Until then, Sir Winston will continue to be a comfort to the funeral home’s guests and staff.
“He’s been as much a blessing to our staff as well as families,” Brown said. “Sometimes we forget that we carry a lot with us It’s not just another day at the office for us. There are a lot of emotions tied to this job. He’s acted as a relief valve to us.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 3, 2017)