DANVILLE — “She’s a walking fur-ball,” one student exclaimed.
“She’s so cute; I could snuggle with her all day,” another said as she wrapped her arms around Aunt Bea, a comfort dog.
The mini golden doodle took it all in stride, letting the students at Bismarck Junior High School shake her paw, ruffle her curls and coo about her cuteness. In return, she licked their faces and “smiled” at the attention.
Aunt Bea is only 1 year old, but she has an important job: Loving on people, especially those who are grieving.
Her full-time job is with Sunset Funeral Homes. Like any good employee, she gets to work on time, attends morning meetings, answers her e-mails and takes breaks to enjoy her favorite snack, Cheerios. She has business cards, and takes Fridays off.
At the end of a busy day at work, she goes home and removes her service vest.
“And becomes a dog after working all day,” said Linda Darby Dowers, who owns the dog along with her husband, Scott. Darby Dowers is a co-owner of Sunset with her siblings.
In her free time, Aunt Bea tries to romp with Motley, a 10-year-old Lab who tolerates the puppy.
One of Aunt Bea’s jobs is to visit schools and nursing homes.
On a recent day, Darby Dowers and the dog dropped by the Christian Student Involvement club, made up of fifth- and sixth-graders who meet during their lunch time at Bismarck Junior High.
The children — and adults — immediately treated Aunt Bea like a rock star.
“You can email her and she’ll answer you back,” she told the children.
She also explained how Aunt Bea got her name. Darby Dowers was at a national conference and heard a comedian joke that he named his dog Grandma. That way, if someone invited him to do something and he didn’t want to, he would say, “I can’t. I have to go home and take care of Grandma.”
Darby Dowers thought of that story while she was at a party with Mike Hulvey, COO of Neuhoff Communications, and his aunt, Bea.
"I happened to say to Mike, 'I wish I had an Aunt Bea!' Then it dawned on me ... I will name my puppy that!"
She asked permission from Hulvey's aunt, who said she would be honored.
On a more serious note, Darby Dowers talked to the children about grief and how important it is to express it.
She said about the pup, “She comes to work with me every day. Our job is to take that sadness and help people. Her job is to love on them.”
She urged the students to share their feelings and not keep them bottled up, as that could backfire. Students suggested that young people could express themselves through prayer, artwork, family and school counselors.
“When I’m sad, I love to hug on Aunt Bea,” Darby Dowers said.
The good thing about dogs is they don’t tell your secrets.
When students see someone is struggling, they can offer suggestions on where to find help and tell them that God knows they’re worthwhile, they said.
Or, Darby Dowers said, “Sometimes when people are sad, there are no words.”
After the students had returned to their classes, Darby Dowers said visitors to Sunset have given Aunt Bea a “tremendous reception. Most people just love her.”
Adults will get on the floor to hug her.
“It’s nice to have something that brings some joy in a sad situation,” she said.
A Florida resident who returned home after a funeral said she still thinks about Aunt Bea a lot.
Theresa Harris of Cocoa Beach, Fla., said the dog brought a lot of peace during a difficult time. When she was feeling overwhelmed with sadness during the visitation, she left to find the pup.
“Aunt Bea made me smile when I didn’t think I would be able to,” Harris said. “My stress and anxiety were reduced tremendously because of her. She uplifted my mood, if only for the moment.”
Even now, weeks later, she said, “I will never forget the comfort she brought me.”
Darby Dowers said she did a lot of research before buying Aunt Bea in August 2018. She wanted to get a rescue dog, but it was important to know the dog’s background. She settled on a golden doodle (golden retriever/poodle) because the dogs are hypoallergenic and don’t shed.
The dog celebrated her first birthday on April 11.
Aunt Bea is a greeter when families come to the funeral home. Sunset has six locations in the area, and Darby Dowers tries to take the dog to all sites, when possible.
“If we can make it work, we will,” she said. “She has a busy schedule.”
Aunt Bea has had training from Carolyn Daniels with Paw-a-Day Inn K9 Suites in Tilton.