Advertisement
  1. News

Funeral home director works to save dog that changed his life

Published Mar. 24, 2012

Rain pounded the roof of the carport where the scrawny black dog sought shelter. She looked up, soaked and sad-eyed, toward the employees at Tom Dobies' funeral home in Holiday.

"Looks like we got a new mascot,'' one of them said to Dobies.

"Like hell we do,'' he snapped.

Dobies had a dog when he was a boy many years earlier. It got hit by a car and died. Whether it was the pain of that loss or just that he got too busy building a thriving business, he never got another dog. He never wanted one.

And then he met this mutt, a Labrador mix with no tags, but with a gentleness that made her welcome. Okay, he said, maybe she can stick around until we can figure what to do with her.

A veterinarian checked her out. She was about eight years old and in pretty good shape. Somebody had cared for her, crafted a pleasant personality.

Dobies took her home. He named her Lucy.

Then he began to change.

Dobies had grown up in Tarpon Springs, far from the silver spoon. His dad worked as an auto mechanic; mom a housekeeper at Helen Ellis Hospital. Tom went to a mortuary college in Kentucky and in 1978 converted an old Montessori school into his first funeral home. He worked hard — 97 services that first year.

That would be his pattern over the next 30 years as he opened four more funeral homes in Tarpon Springs, New Port Richey and Hudson. Dobies remained independent as others sold out to the big corporations. He never took more than five days off. He got wealthy.

When Lucy showed up, he altered his work style. Each morning that she hopped in the car with him, they went for a breakfast of corned beef hash and scrambled eggs. She joined him on calls to families who had just lost a loved one.

"Folks,'' Dobies would ask first. "Ya'll afraid of dogs?''

Lucy's gentle nature seemed to comfort them. Children hugged her neck. Dobies bought a special tag for her collar: Grief Therapy Dog.

The more Lucy became part of the team, the more Dobies transformed into a self-described "animal nut.'' He kept treats in his car to lure strays. He fed them Wendy's burgers, got them checked by a vet and delivered them to shelters for adoption. He even picked up dead dogs and brought them back to the funeral home. If there was a collar he notified the owner.

His love for animals didn't stop with dogs. He spent $1,500 to repair a stray cat's bad hip and found homes for several others. He adopted one stray, and even though she was female, he named her "Bill McQueen'' after his friend who runs a funeral business in St. Petersburg.

Who says morticians don't have a sense of humor?

Dobies contributed thousands of dollars to the local SPCA and Humane Society. He paid for six specially-trained German shepherds for the police in Tarpon Springs, New Port Richey and Port Richey, the latter honoring him by naming a dog "Dobies.''

Former Pasco Sheriff Bob White made Tom Dobies a special deputy, and in appreciation for Lucy's role as a comfort dog, he named a small thoroughfare at the Land O'Lakes jail "Lucy Dobies Court.'' It shows up on a Google map search.

Lucy had become a celebrity, but she was also growing old. She came up lame and Dobies paid for knee ligament surgery. Still, she managed to continue her duty. Then one night last April, Dobies and his fiancee Pam Montana heard her thrashing about on the floor where she slept with their two other rescue dogs, Rosie and Amber.

"We thought she was dreaming,'' Montana said. "She woke us up.''

Lucy wasn't dreaming. She was convulsing.

"I couldn't bear it,'' Dobies said. "I cried and cried and cried.''

They took Lucy to their vet, who gave her some medicine that seemed to calm the problem. But by midsummer, after Lucy suffered another spell, Dobies insisted on an MRI. She had a tumor on the front of her brain. A specialist in Tampa referred Dobies to a noted veterinarian at the University of Georgia who in September removed the tumor as veterinary students watched.

"She went in on a Tuesday,'' Dobies recalled. "The next day she walked up to us.'' She licked her master's hand. By the end of the week, they were on the road back to Florida.

Montana worked with Lucy, walking her in circles, exercising her legs. And soon, though blind in the left eye from the surgery, the dog returned to work. She eagerly woofed down her morning corned beef and scrambled eggs. She made people smile through their grief.

Then, perhaps predictably, the old dog broke down again — this time as she lay on a pillow in Dobies' office. The seizures were so bad, Dobies scooped her up and raced to an animal emergency room. He got the Tampa neurologist on the phone. They ordered another MRI.

All that technology could not determine Lucy's latest problem. She lost the use of her left rear leg. Dobies put her on a stretcher normally used to transport bodies and brought her home.

He and Montana fashioned a sling to lift her when she needed to go outside. "Pam was tireless,'' Dobies said. "She just worked and worked with Lucy, and she got better.''

Last week she was walking fine, improving after twice weekly sessions with a physical therapist in Odessa. Dobies long ago stopped worrying how much all this costs.

"Lucy is a family member,'' Montana explained. "We are committed to her, and she has the will. Until that is gone, we're not quitting.''

For a man in the death business, Dobies can hardly talk about Lucy passing away. The very thought leaves him in tears, his throat burning.

But in the few moments when he gathers his composure, when he faces the reality that he has witnessed every day since he opened that small funeral home 34 years ago, he describes the plan he has for this noble dog that made him a better man.

"We'll have a full-fledged funeral,'' he says, wiping his eyes, "with a private burial. I've picked out a solid bronze casket like Michael Jackson's.''

Nothing but the best for the best.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. JAMAL THALJI  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office believes the man tried to kill the woman, then shot and killed himself.
  2. Eboni Wiley, left, testifies at the trial of her ex-boyfriend Granville Ritchie who is accused of raping and killing 9-year-old Felecia Williams in 2014. Wiley led the girl to Ritchie, according to the state. Hillsborough Assistant State Attorney Jennifer Johnson, right, questions Wiley in a Hillsborough County Courtroom.Octavi OCTAVIO JONES  |  Octavio Jones
    Eboni Wiley was a friend of Felecia Williams’ family. She told jurors how she brought the girl to the man standing trial for raping and killing the 9-year-old.
  3. Students and community activists marched in Tampa last year after the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. The attack killed 17 people and gave rise to Florida’s school guardian law, which this year was changed to allow classroom teachers to be armed. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the measure into law. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
    Damien Kelly, the director of the Office of Safe Schools, told lawmakers that 11 districts have said they would like the option to arm instructional staff, but it wasn’t clear if all 11 had...
  4. This Jan. 31, 2017 photo shows the entrance to SeaWorld in Orlando, Fla. JOHN RAOUX  |  AP
    Gustavo “Gus” Antorcha cited a “difference of approach.”
  5. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The 15-year-old student was arrested Monday after shouting the threat out loud, according to St. Petersburg police.
  6. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, a Republican, has asked for a City Council vote on a resolution asking congress for gun control measures. DOUGLAS CLIFFORD  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the Republican’s symbolic resolution will almost certainly fail.
  7. A homeless Vietnam War veteran in Clearwater answers questions for a Pinellas County homeless survey. A shortage of affordable housing is considered a major cause of homelessness among vets in the Tampa Bay area. [Times files]
    Local agency leaders called on members of Congress to increase national affordable housing options as a solution to veteran homelessness
  8. Check tampabay.com for the latest breaking news and updates. TMCCARTY  |  times staff
    The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office said it is obtaining a search warrant to start looking for evidence inside the house.
  9. Josh Hensley was known for dressing as Jack Sparrow. Facebook
    Joshua Hensley, 43, was found dead Monday morning. He went missing after setting out on a paddle board Saturday.
  10. Yesterday• Pinellas
    Ele Fox, Kiwanis Club of Dunedin member, and Joe Mackin, president of the Dunedin Cares Food Pantry are pictured in front of the case of meals they received to be distributed to families in need in the Dunedin area. Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Bessette. Stephanie Bessette
    Local Kiwanis clubs supply food in service project
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement