Guest article by Jesselyn Parks
“We were sitting underneath a tree and looking out over the field”, Melissa Unfred said, with a palpable, reflective calm in her voice. She’s telling this story over a speakerphone, with the roar of the highway audible on the line.
Unfred is 1,100 miles into a 1,300-mile journey. She’s returning to Austin from Parkland, Fla., the site of one of America’s most deadly school shootings. The faint panting of her certified Therapy Dog, Kermit, is not far off in the distance, coloring the phone call with a repetitive beat.
Kermit loves car rides. “Kids and parents would come and sit down next to us, and just quietly stroke his fur.” During the trip, Kermit’s working vest displayed in large, bold font: Therapy Dog. Please Pet Me.
“We Are An Odd Couple”
Kermit is different than most therapy dogs, in more ways than one. To start, he’s a border collie–a diversion from the traditional golden retriever or Labrador retriever often seen on the job. “People expect [border collies] to be out in a field herding sheep,” Unfred said, laughing, “but he is so calm and approachable.”
And Kermit is different in his looks, too. His fur is a hodgepodge of black and white, and he has two bright eyes of different colors, one blue and one brown. “He kind of sticks out,” Unfred proudly stated. “Maybe we look like an odd couple out there.”
Melissa Unfred Finds Her True Passion
Melissa Unfred is a Texas native and proud resident of Austin, with a heart and sense of curiosity that see no bounds. Growing up in Lubbock, Texas, Unfred said she displayed the usual sense of teenage angst and morbidity. With her ’90s flannel and what her mother described as “gothic style,” Unfred’s mother joked that she would be suited to a job in a funeral home. So, that’s what she did.
Unfred began working as a funeral home assistant, mostly helping behind the scenes and away from darker parts of the job. “I would get death certificates signed, open doors for customers, and organize paperwork,” she explained. But later, when she had the opportunity for more “hands-on” work, to her surprise, Unfred wasn’t overwhelmed or uneasy. “I wasn’t grossed out,” she told me. “I thought it was beautiful.”
Her first summer job would become a lifelong career. Unfred completed her degree in Mortuary Science and started working as an embalmer. She relocated to Austin, and currently works at Austin Mortuary Service.
Perhaps it was the emotional toll of the somewhat macabre job, but Unfred began to feel she needed some emotional comfort in her life:
“It made sense to get a dog and not a cat for my emotional support needs, since Austin is such a dog-friendly city. There were more places I could take him. I would get out of my house more. When I’m depressed, and I have anxiety and things like that, I don’t want to leave. Now, I leave with Kermit and someone smiles at me on the street. It opens a conversation.”
Dog-friendly Austin, the Perfect Environment for Kermit
Many publications agree that man’s best friend is particularly at home here. Austin usually ranks within the top 10 of “Most Dog-friendly U.S. Cities.” With a variety of trails, dog parks, restaurants, and shops that approve of furry companions, dogs and owners are able to forge a relationship outside the home.
This open and progressive attitude gives Kermit the perfect backdrop to change lives, and help those undergoing traumatic change and loss. Unfred was so moved by her progress with Kermit that she had to allow him to help others.
Unfred pursued Kermit’s certifications, so he could join her at work throughout the funeral process. First passing his Canine Good Citizenship test, Kermit has since become an official Therapy Dog. He is the first certified Therapy Dog in Funeral Care in the state of Texas.
No Words Necessary
Kermit often joins families and children who are looking for comfort throughout the funeral process. This includes the actual funeral event itself, providing a calming presence during planning meetings, roaming the grounds of the cemetery, and sitting quietly, waiting for someone in need to reach out.
And when tragedy strikes the masses, as in the case of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Unfred does her best to get Kermit there.
Austin is no doubt a place of progressive, forward-thinking minds. Dogs are able to enjoy the sights and sounds Austin has to offer in almost as many places as their owners. For Unfred, if Kermit is able to provide a supportive calm in the face of great tragedy, she has impacted her community for good.
Whether playing fetch at Zilker Park or working through trauma, dogs hold a deep place in Austin’s heart. When some tragedies are too incomprehensible for words, Kermit is happy to sit in the silence.
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression or anxiety, please reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264).
@theAustinot wants to know:
How has your life been touched by a therapy dog?
Jesselyn Parks is an Austin transplant, with Oregonian roots. When not working as a writer, Jesselyn can be seen performing in Austin’s theatre scene. Get in touch.