Claire the comfort dog services are being offered to the community by Theresa Zollars of the Gorden Funeral Residences in Allegan and Hopkins. (Photo by Virginia Ransbottom)

New staffer at Gorden’s is a community asset

By: 
Virginia Ransbottom, Staff Writer

There’s a new staff member at the Gorden Funeral Residences in Allegan and Hopkins. She’s a redhead who loves to hold hands and console people who need it most. She also loves belly rubs.

Her name is Claire. She is a Golden Retriever and her job title is “comfort dog.”

“About 10 years ago I read about comfort dogs in funeral homes but it was a trend that didn’t take off in the south where folks considered it taboo not to stick to tradition,” said funeral director Theresa Zollars, who moved here more than a year ago from Virginia. “But I said that was what I was going to do one day.”

With two dachsunds as family pets, she knew they were too obnoxious to fit the job qualifications but after they passed, Zollars began reading up on what types of dogs made good comfort dogs.

“The Burnese Mountain dog was one but everyone loves a Golden Retriever,” she said.

At 8-weeks-old, Claire became part of the family, including Zollar’s husband and fellow funeral director Tim and their 3-year-old daughter Vivian.

Groomed to be a comfort dog from the start, Claire is now 2-years-old and started her job full-time a month ago; however, she’s taking her responsibilities gradually so as not to be overwhelmed or overwhelming to those bereaving a loved one.

“If I know the day is going to be too hectic, I’ll leave her at home,” Zollar said. “Or if the family is not too crazy about dogs.”

Claire’s already earned her keep. She’s licked the tears of a sobbing boy who lost his grandpa, knew who to give hugs when a son lost his mother and served as an icebreaker when greeting families at the door.

“When we put on her work scarf and leash she fits right into her role, knows what to do and who to go to,” Zollars said. “When it’s off, she goes back into wild puppy mode.”

Puppy mode includes playing fetch until “she passes out” and romping around with her stuffed octopus and squeaky pig.

Those are the toys Claire picked out from the store as a present for graduating from basic obedience school. She is continuing her intermediate training at Briar Wood Dog Training and is being introduced to different environments, emotions and people.

Claire has visited Pine Trails Elementary to help students ease their anxiety during M-STEP testing and West Ward Elementary for career day. Claire’s also visited a Girl Scout troop and would love to visit a retirement home in the future.  

“She’s getting used to lots of social settings, different ages and walks of life,” Zollars said. “Especially with children who have a tendency to pull her ears or her tail, which is what my daughter does.”

At the funeral home, it’s hoped that Claire will change the way funeral services are viewed—that death is not scary or a thing to be afraid of.

“We want to ease that anxiety but we’re not just training Claire as an asset to the funeral home,” said Zollars who has also served as a hospital corpsman in the Navy. “It’s also an asset for the community.”

Once certified as a therapy dog, Zollars wants to offer Claire as a Pet Partners volunteer.

Pet Partners’ mission is to improve human health and well-being through the human-animal bond by interacting with a wide variety of clients including veterans with PTSD, seniors living in nursing homes, students facing school or literacy challenges, patients in recovery or those testifying in courtrooms.

“Studies show bonding with dogs improves medical conditions, lowers blood pressure, has a calming effect and is especially helpful for anxiety,” Zollars said. “Claire will be available to those in the community who’d like to experience that interaction.”

In light of a significant number of pet owners trying to pass off their pets as service animals, Zollars wanted to point out the difference between comfort/therapy dogs and service dogs.

“Service dogs have been trained for those with disabilities and have rights to enter public buildings,” she said. “Therapy dogs do not have rights by the ADA and are by invitation only.

“It is unethical to pass off a dog as a service dog.”

For those who would like to extend an invitation for Claire to visit, Zollars can be reached at (269) 673-3652.

Virginia Ransbottom can be contacted at vransbottom@allegannews.com or at (269) 673-5534.

This story appeared in the June 21, 2018, issue of The Allegan County News.

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