Talk about "man’s best friend" – according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) 2017 Consumer Awareness and Preference Report, more than half of people would be interested in having a therapy dog present at a funeral or memorial service.
NFDA President-elect Randy Anderson is the owner of Radney's Funeral Home in Alexander City, Alabama, and Langley Funeral Home in Camp Hill, Alabama. He knows firsthand the comfort a therapy dog can bring, not only to those who are mourning, but to funeral home employees as well.
Radley, a golden doodle, came to us at the age of eight weeks and was quickly adopted by our staff. We have determined that most of her work is done from instinct – she recognizes when people need her attention.
When we brought Radley on board, we intended for her to be of benefit to our client families. The one thing we didn’t think about was how she would affect our staff. If anyone seems to be having a bad day, that’s the one she pays the most attention to.
One of our client family members, a widow, came to our facility one morning to retrieve her husband’s death certificates. She stopped by our conference room to express her thanks for the services we provided. She was very upset and was crying. Radley left her spot under the table and stood directly in front of her. She bent down to pet the dog for several minutes. Her tears turned to laughter as she enjoyed Radley’s attention. When she stood to leave, she said, ‘She is just what I needed today!’
The public has been very receptive to our therapy dog and people stop by the funeral home now just to visit Radley. She is literally our most popular staff member.
This trend of therapy dogs in the United States has been growing for decades. According to the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, the first formal research involving animal therapy can be traced to the 1960s, when studies showed the positive effects dogs had on humans in therapeutic situations. The practice became more formal in 1989, when certification for Animal Assisted Therapy was established.
To dog lovers, the use of therapy dogs is a no brainer. Studies have shown that simply petting a furry friend can raise levels of serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, which helps reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression – emotions many people experience when a loved one dies.
In the past few years, more and more funeral directors have realized the benefits of therapy dogs to the families they serve. These dogs sense a person’s emotional needs and respond to them with unconditional love and affection, making them a welcome source of comfort after a heartbreaking loss. They are especially helpful for children, who may have difficulty understanding or expressing their grief.
Mark Krause of Krause Funeral Homes & Cremation Service in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, added a grief therapy dog to his funeral home’s staff long before it was common to do so. Mark’s first therapy dog, Oliver, joined the team in 2001. Oliver helped many grieving families before he died in 2011. Since then, Mark’s current therapy dog, Bennie, has followed in Oliver’s paw prints, providing a calming presence for those who have lost a loved one.
"When you see a therapy dog in action at a funeral, it’s amazing to see the magic they perform,” said Mark. “They have a sense of why they are there and what they need to do – they know who needs them the most. I think every funeral home should consider adding a therapy dog to their team."
Before being registered on staff, therapy dogs must be specifically bred and trained, according to Ultimate Canine, an organization that trains grief therapy dogs and even provides puppies in training for the annual National Funeral Directors Association Convention & Expo.
“Therapy dogs are born to sense distress in humans and provide comfort to help them calm down, stemming from decades of heavily studied DNA and breeding,” said Julie Case, dog trainer and owner of Ultimate Canine. “Though therapy dogs come in different shapes and sizes, the most common breeds include non-shedding Labradoodles and Labradors.”
These puppies are typically brought to organizations like Ultimate Canine at eight weeks, where they undergo temperament tests to determine their general intelligence, as well as their ability to work under stress, solve different tasks, show affection, focus and work in a stressful environment.
The puppies that pass the temperament test are officially accepted into the training program, which takes a few months. Here the dogs learn advanced obedience, manners and therapy skills, and undergo heavy socialization and exposure to many situations and environments. They learn to perform around crowds, loud noises and things that could be scary to other dogs like wheelchairs, vacuum cleaners, sweepers, strollers and more.
When the dogs are finished with their training, they arrive at the funeral home with their trainer, who stays on-site for a few days to ensure the dog is properly acclimated. Once this is accomplished, the funeral home staff get certified as official Therapy Dog Handlers.
Today, traditional funerals are evolving to become more personalized based on shifting consumer desires. For example, cremation has outpaced traditional burial for the third straight year according to the 2019 NFDA Cremation and Burial Report, and according to an April 2019 Remembering A Life consumer survey, 71.1% of respondents stressed the importance of a funeral that reflects the person they were and the life they lived. With this changing landscape, it is no wonder that non-traditional grief support like therapy dogs are rapidly becoming a mainstay in funeral homes across America.
For more information about therapy dogs or help answering your questions about funerals, memorial services, burial, cremation and more, use Remembering A Life’s Ask a Funeral Expert tool. If you have any questions or concerns regarding planning a meaningful funeral service, call our Funeral Service Help Line at 800-228-NFDA (800-228-6332).