Ragnar’s Third Class

Ragnar seems to have settled into his class comfortably at this point and is noticeably better at staying focused and avoiding distractions from the dogs and humans around him. In class this week, the students practiced walking through a crowd of people. The dogs had to continue walking obediently — not straying from the course, jumping or doing anything else that dogs often do when walking through a crowd. Ragnar is well accustomed to crowded areas in his line of work as a Grief Therapy Dog, so this was nothing out of the ordinary for him. He and his classmates also practiced walking with their humans around an obstacle course, where they did figure eights, sits and sharp turns at certain points. Rags was on his best behavior here too, and managed to resist detouring over to play with his classmates as he passed by them! Ragsy is such a mellow guy that if a trainer was to find fault with him, it would probably be that he is a little slothful. One of the exercises we work on each week is greeting a friendly stranger who approaches and wishes to pet the dog. The tendencies many young dogs have, that require correcting, is jumping on the person or getting excited in some way. Ragnar, on the other hand, will often be laying down and hardly react at all if someone approaches. We’ve always joked about him being an old soul, but it really is true. He would make a great beach bum!

Ragnar’s Second CGC Class

March 7. Ragnar had a productive second Canine Good Citizen class and did a great job with the new lessons introduced by Hope and her assistant, Candice.

The first scenario Ragnar and his classmates were tested with was approaching and greeting a friendly stranger. This, of course, is nothing new to Ragnar, since he interacts with dozens of strangers every day at work! Slightly more difficult for Rags was his next classroom objective…being left to wait with another person holding his leash as me and my Mom, Mitzi leaves the room. He definitely likes to be with his family, so this one was clearly not his favorite. He stayed patiently with Candice though, and let her walk him around the room while Mom and I were in the hallway, out of sight. The last exercise of the night was one in which we approach each other from opposite directions with our dogs walking alongside us. As each person and their dog reached each other, we stopped and shook hands. Before exchanging greetings, we instructed the dogs to stop and sit. Despite Ragnar’s natural inclination to happily greet every passing dog, he did a commendable job during this as he resisted his instincts and waited patiently for the humans to greet each other. All in all, it was a good class for Rags! Before class, he had worked a visitation at the funeral home for two hours and came straight to class, so he was a little tired. During some of the exercises, Ragnar took the liberty of laying down and resting his eyes until it was his turn to perform. “A well-rested therapy dog is a happy and helpful therapy dog!” said Ragnar.

Ragnar’s First Class

February 28: Along with his human, Sam Oakey, IV and Sam’s Mom, Mitzi, Ragnar attended his first Canine Good Citizen class. Hope from High Hopes Dog Training teaches this class at Green Ridge Recreation Center.

Ragnar’s first class went great! There are eight dogs in the class and Rags is definitely one of the best behaved. Six of the dogs are related (mother and five children) and then there’s a German Shepherd separate from them. Raggy, the shepherd, and the mother dog of the kids are all trained pretty well, but the five brothers and sisters were younger and definitely have a lot of practicing to do in the next six weeks. Hope, the trainer, met Ragnar the week before at my parents’ house for a private lesson so she used him to demonstrate several of the commands we worked on last week (sit, lay down, stay, and “break/release”) and he performed perfectly. My mom and I were even impressed, since this was in a room with seven other dogs and some of them were whining, moving around, wanting to play, etc. Ragnar made friends with Corinne, one of the girl dogs from the big family. After class, one of Corinne’s brothers attacked Ragnar twice in a row when his owner brought him over to meet Rags. Rags did great though. He didn’t fight back or really even react at all other than moving away from the dog. The funniest thing that happened was when Hope was going through the commands with another dog, about 10 feet away, Ragnar was following along from where we were sitting (probably hoping for a treat!) He’d sit, lay, etc. when she instructed the other dog to do so. He was definitely getting into it and I think he enjoys the mental stimulation of learning. The picture of Ragnar by himself is in the lobby of Green Ridge before class. The collage photo is his class composite!

New Help Fur You

With 42 years under my belt and a reputation for being somewhat reluctant to change, you can imagine my reaction in 2016 when my son acquired a dog he pronounced would one day be a “grief therapy dog” at Oakey’s. Heck, I wasn’t even sure what a grief therapy dog WAS, so I sure as heck wasn’t immediately keen on the idea of allowing a canine to mix with our grieving families.

Sam spent the next couple of years at mortuary school in Nashville, and I figured by the time he returned to work in Roanoke he would have shelved the idea of his English Golden Retriever coming to work every day at our family firm.  Wrong!  And that wasn’t all I was wrong about:  Sam’s dog, Ragnar has been an incredible success with every family requesting him!

A member of my funeral study group from Columbus, Ohio related his experiences at Schoedinger Funeral Home with their grief therapy dog, and how the idea had caught on in a massive way. So I was willing to give “Rags” a shot here to show me he could actually help families at their hardest time. It didn’t take long before I was telling young Sam how wrong I had been to approach the idea of a grief therapy dog with such skepticism. Ragnar is now being requested multiple times a week and has been a calming influence on dozens of our families.

The idea is actually quite simple: our funeral directors make families aware of the availability of Ragnar and ask if each family would want Ragnar to be present for a visitation or service. We explain that the presence of a grief therapy dog can be beneficial to all in the immediate area, and that stroking a dog can lower blood pressure rates, stress, and ease respiration. Not just any dog can do this; my own border collie mix Stella would probably spaz out everyone in the building with her nervous energy!

Ragnar is actually still in training to receive his official certification as a grief therapy dog, but is getting plenty of practice until then. While I have not heard one negative thing about the concept, Rags has received tons of compliments, kind letters, and even gifts from grateful relatives of decedents. All of our staff members have fallen in love with this big, white creature who has one of the best dispositions of any animal I have ever seen. He seems to know just what to do when he is on the job, and has a particular affinity for kids. But Rags is equally adept at putting a smile on the faces of seniors and those with special needs.

To say that the entire concept has bowled me over would be an understatement. I have gone from rolling my eyeballs at the thought of a dog in the funeral home to being one of Ragnar’s biggest proponents. Having Ragnar at a visitation or funeral is a complimentary service we offer at Oakey’s, but the demand is beginning to outweigh his availability. We may one day have to acquire a second dog to help those going through grief, bereavement, and mourning. But no matter how cute, smart, and sweet that second dog might be, he could never win over the hearts of those at Oakey’s like Ragnar has!

“Why did your people call me in the middle of the night after the death in my family?”

“Why did your people call me in the middle of the night after the death in my family?”

That comment, or a variation of it, is probably the single biggest question or complaint I get at Oakey’s. It comes in the grocery store, in church, and on the comment sheets that families use to respond to me about our quality of service. It comes in phone calls, letters, or personal interactions on the the Roanoke Greenway or at hockey games. I can certainly understand why a family might be curious or even annoyed about this topic. Someone they love has just passed away, and a stranger is on the other end of their phone expressing their condolences and asking about embalming permission. The answer is one I am proud to recite as it showcases yet another example of the high level of service Oakey’s is known for.

Many (probably MOST) funeral homes these days do not have an on-duty staff at night; if a death occurs at a hospital, the funeral home will simply leave the decedent in the morgue overnight and send an employee to pick up the body the next day. These funeral homes use “on call” staff members only to go to a home or nursing facility when they are notified about a death there. Some even contract out body removals to a third-party agency.

At Oakey’s, we do things very differently. With no disrespect intended toward the fine hospitals in our region, I would not want my loved one to be taken to one of their morgues and left overnight. A morgue is cold, dark, and usually has other bodies in close proximity to one another. Having a contingent of our associates working all night long gives us at Oakey’s the ability to respond with swiftness and dignity to each and every death in which we are notified. Whereas many other funeral homes only send one employee on a “removal,” our firm sends a minimum of two to carefully bring the decedent back into our care. Again, our family believes that dignity is a key ingredient to everything we do. This certainly includes the manner in which we physically take custody of a recently deceased individual.

I know I have not even begun to answer the aforementioned question yet, but I feel the average person needs a primer in order to have a full understanding of what happens when we receive a phone call informing us that our services are needed. Our policy is to contact a family as soon as we are notified by a hospital, hospice worker, or nursing/retirement community about a death. The main reason for this initial call is to establish whether or not the next of kin wishes for their loved one to be embalmed. It’s a fact that the sooner a body is embalmed, the better the results will be. However, if a family is considering cremation or anatomical donation, embalming would simply be an unnecessary expense. This is the crux of that first call we make to a family, in addition to expressing our sympathy for their loss. Unfortunately, we are often notified about a death by a hospital several hours AFTER the person has breathed their last breath. In the middle of the night, this often results in our making a call to a family right as they are attempting to go back to sleep after learning about a death. Needless to say, this has upset a number of folks in our community, and they have certainly let me know about their strong feelings.

Thankfully, their queries allow me to explain exactly WHY we make the call that can sometimes come in the middle of the night. After hearing “the rest of the story,” families have a better understanding of our reason for calling, but they also go away reinforced they received the superior service that our company has provided for 152 years now.