Dogs have the ability to lighten the mood at wakes and funeral services, which can run the emotional gamut. Having a pet present can make the room feel more homey and comfortable, or even simply give people something else to focus on. Anyone who has worked with therapy dogs will tell you that the pets seem to know who needs their help and how to provide it.
Mark Krause, owner of a funeral home in Milwaukee, Wis., started bringing his Portuguese Water Dog, Oliver, to work back in 2001. Mark's wife had been training Oliver to visit schools, nursing homes, and hospitals, when she thought that Oliver could be just as beneficial at the funeral home. In his ten years attending wakes and services, they estimate Oliver has touched a couple of thousand families. People light up when Oliver walks in the room.
The work Oliver does can be quite powerful. Mark talks about a time when a 7-year old boy lost his 3-year old sister and completely stopped talking. But the minute Oliver walked in, the boy started chatting quietly to the pup about his sister. Oliver quickly became an indispensable part of the team. When he passed away in 2011, 150 people attended his funeral. Mark can't imagine the funeral home without a dog, so Oliver has since been succeeded by Benny, another Portuguese Water Dog.
Oliver was a pioneer when it comes to therapy dogs in funeral homes, but according to Jessica Koth, spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, more and more members are bringing animals to work--both certified therapy dogs and well behaved family pets.
Matthew Fiorillo, owner of a funeral home in White Plains, N.Y. is a recent adopter of the idea. He was inspired after seeing the calming effect a Maltese had on stressed people at the airport. Soon after he brought home a Golden Retriever Poodle mix, Lulu, and spent a year training her to be a therapy dog. Now when mourners make arrangements, Matthew asks if they'd like to meet Lulu and tells them she's available, at no extra charge, for any wake or funeral. Almost all have accepted.
The death of a loved one is a stressful and trying time. It's also a time when we need the support that only a pet can provide. The funeral home is a place where comfort animals can have a great impact and I hope to see more successful dogs in this context!