DANVERS — Losing a pet can feel like losing a family member. Fran Weil knows this well as a pet bereavement counselor, especially following the death of her Westie Paxton, a therapy dog who’s touched hundreds of souls around the North Shore.
“It’s really important to honor an animal that you’ve adored by grieving,” Weil said. “Every tear is a testament to how important that animal has been in your life.”
Paxton was 14 years old when he passed on Feb. 12. He spent most of his years comforting the sick, bringing the lonely out of their shells and sparking joy where it may be hard to find through Dog BONES Therapy Dogs of Massachusetts.
He was also the furry joy of Fran and her spouse Gail Arnold’s home in Danvers.
“He was so present,” Weil said. “He was present with me. He was present with everyone we visited. He was extraordinary. He really, really loved visiting people.”
Paxton was a regular at places like the Peabody Community High School, a special education program that serves Peabody high schoolers with emotional disabilities.
Therapy dogs like Paxton have visited these students every Wednesday for the last five years. But Paxton was the first, and has helped change the entire atmosphere of the program since, CHS Director Kevin Canty said.
“The anxiety level for a lot of our students just instantly drops when the dogs come through the door,” Canty said. “That gives them something to look forward to as well on a weekly basis.”
Paxton spent time with students of all grade levels. He even “wrote” a book with Weil’s help called “Paxton the Therapy Dog: It’s All About Love,” which Weil would read to children as they sat by Paxton’s side.
He also comforted people as their health declined, like Bob West, who died from cancer at age 86 in 2018.
That summer, West’s son Greg and daughter-in-law Melissa cared for him at their home in Danvers. He was on a tracheotomy and a gastronomy tube, unable to talk with others as he so often enjoyed doing.
Family members brought their dogs to visit with West. While they made him smile with the energetic spirit most dogs have, what he needed was a calm, patient companion.
When Paxton came to visit, he and West instantly had “an almost spiritual connection,” Melissa West said.
“Not any dog could have done what Paxton did,” she said. “Paxton had a true gift of reading people and knowing what they needed. He was truly a wonderful dog.”
Once beloved animals are gone, Weil and Arnold provide owners a place to grieve through Perfect Paws Pet Ministry, which they founded through the All Saints Episcopal Church in Danvers after another of their Westies, Preston, passed in 2008.
They put Preston down after attending church on Palm Sunday that year. It was the love and support they received from the minister and fellow parishioners during that service that made them want to help others in the same way.
“It was so validating to have people know that we were hurting because we were going to lose our little dog,” Weil said. “I kept thinking about that. We were just so moved by it.”
Perfect Paws holds a monthly worship service with live music, pet prayers and blessings. It offers support for those with pets who are ill and dying, including memorial services and free pet loss bereavement support, and hosts therapy dog certification workshops and visits through Dog BONES Therapy Dogs.
The ministry also collects pet food and supplies for the People to People Food Pantry in Danvers and oversees the St. Francis Meditation and Pet Memorial Garden at the church, where pets’ ashes can be interred.
“We’re validating people’s hurt around the loss of animals,” Weil said. “I’ve been through it so often that I feel comfortable talking to people, and it’s such a great honor to learn from other people about their relationships with these beautiful creatures who know only how to give love.”
Following Paxton’s passing, Weil has kept the advice she shares with other pet owners close to her heart.
“Embrace the sadness and the grief. Because if you don’t, it’s going to bite you,” she said. “There’s just no escaping it, and it’s a perfectly natural thing when you lose a family member, even if it’s a four-legged family member.”