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Therapy dogs are helping funeral homes support grieving families

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Canines are working on the front lines to help mourning humans

Flowers, food, and donations often stream in to support families who have lost loved ones. But science — and reports from those who are grief-stricken — is now confirming that a dog might be one of the best methods to console those who are grieving.

“Interaction with therapy animals has been linked to decreased perception of pain, decreased anxiety and stress, less fear and worry, and increased perception of social support. It can also affect some physiological markers of stress, such as lowering blood pressure and cortisol,” says Elisabeth Van Every, communications and outreach specialist for Bellevue, Washington-based Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on animal-assisted therapies.

As a result, select funeral homes across the country have enlisted the help of hounds to help those who have recently lost loved ones with their emotional well-being.

At Williamson Memorial in Franklin, Tennessee, a sheepadoodle has attended visitations, joined families at burial sites, and shared free hugs and cuddles. The team at Macon Funeral Home in Franklin, North Carolina trained a Bernese Mountain Dog to act as their in-house, grief-support dog.

“Dogs provide companionship, a bond, and force people to focus on something outside themselves,” says Stephanie Newman, Ph.D, a psychoanalyst and psychologist in New York City.

There’s often a hurricane of emotions as clients struggle with accepting a loss. That’s where a pup comes in, Van Every says.

“People may be struggling with their feelings while grieving or with whether their expression of grief is ‘appropriate.’ Many find it helpful to cuddle or talk to an animal when they’re grieving, knowing that the animal won’t place any judgment on them for how they feel or how their grief is expressed,” she says.

Plus, it helps them feel less alone, even when they’re not in the mood to talk to or be near other humans. More than half of Americans polled in a National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) survey said they would be interested in a therapy dog attending a memorial or funeral service. Unlike family pets, therapy dogs are trained to tune into a human’s emotional needs — and respond accordingly.

“The presence of a dog in the room can be helpful in itself, causing people to feel more at ease from watching the animal and knowing it’s there. Dogs can provide physical comfort through their presence, affection, and interaction with people, including physical contact through petting or hugging, or providing a change of mood or a respite from heavy moments through playing or doing tricks,” Van Every says.

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the best therapy dogs are confident yet quiet and calm. They’re trained specifically for therapy tasks and should be able to:

  • Tolerate large amounts of petting from a stranger
  • Sit and stay on command
  • Hold consoling postures, such as placing a head gently on someone’s lap
  • Follow directions on- and off-leash

The scientific and anecdotal evidence to support the benefits of therapy dogs has been so strong, in fact, that therapy animals now go far beyond canines. Cats, horses, donkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, domestic rats, birds, miniature pigs, llamas, and alpacas are all being used to brighten spirits and ease anxiety during stressful times.

“While dogs are by far the most common therapy animals, all of these species have unique gifts in therapy work, and we are always seeking to increase therapy animals of our other species,” Van Every says.

Photo credit: iStock

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