AUSTIN - There are countless studies explaining that the presence of a dog can help with your health. One 11-month-old puppy in Austin is doing that every day for people dealing with tragedy and heartache.
When she was in high school, Melissa Unfred wasn't sure what she wanted to do for a career -- until her Mom starting kidding around with her.
"As a joke, my mom said, 'Well, you should work for the funeral home,' and I looked at her and said, 'I will!'" Unfred said.
Unfred eventually made her way to Austin, one of the few cities in Texas that have natural burial parks. Unfred said while she enjoys helping people out through the difficult time of a funeral, it can be draining on her as well.
"My job is really hard," Unfred said. "We're faced every day with tragedies and sad situations and it can take a toll on you over time."
So about seven months ago, Unfred decided to bring a puppy into her life -- Kermit. She got him from Waco Fuzzy Friends to help with the stress of her job.
"Kermit is like having a stabilizer there all the time," Unfred said. "He's very positive in the face of death. He's even helped me face these type of situations. Every day, I'm dumbfounded that I lucked into such a smart dog."
However, Kermit is helping out in more ways than one. Unfred realized early on Kermit had a different demeanor when he was at the funeral home with her.
"His demeanor would start to fit perfectly with the situation," Unfred said. "A lot of people have been really surprised that he's not hyper. You see that as a hand will go out to pet him, it's like an immediate sigh of relief. I've seen it over and over again, whether we're at a funeral or a nursing home or somebody has just passed away, he is there to be a calm presence."
Unfred works for Affordable Burial and Cremation Service in Austin. The owner -- Robert Falcon -- sees Kermit's impact every day.
"He just totally diffuses the situation," Falcon said. "When he shows up, he calms the room. Kermit has a presence to him."
Falcon also said there will sometimes be moments when someone starts to break down in his office, Kermit decides to come in at just the right time.
"There have been times when I'm sitting down with a family and Kermit walks into the arrangement office," Falcon said. "I'm sitting there at the desk with the family going through a tough moment, and he will come up and introduce himself. He will just sit and have a presence. He has a knack to find the person who is hurting the most."
Unfred has also noticed Kermit's ability to go to the person in the most pain.
"He's something of a chameleon -- he can kind of sense the energy in the room," Unfred said. "Sometimes I will start to go upstairs and Kermit isn't behind me. He ended up staying behind and Robert has seen him in action. He just moves himself into the position where he's closest to the primary griever."
As people deal with the struggles that go along with a loss of a life, they can find a sliver of comfort -- of calmness -- from a puppy who is just starting his own.
"Not only is he helping those that are going through death and that journey, he helps the caretakers, too -- including me!" Unfred said.
Kermit already has his good citizenship certification. After his first birthday, April 16, Kermit can be certified as a grief therapy dog, making him the first therapy funeral dog in all of Texas.
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