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Therapy dogs. You’ve seen them in hospitals and nursing homes and schools. You’ve heard about how they help veterans who’ve survived trauma, kids living with autism, and people coping with severe anxiety. Now, therapy dogs are helping yet another population: the bereaved.

A growing number of funeral homes are training and using therapy dogs to help families cope from the moment they walk through the door of the home to the time of final goodbyes. Why a therapy dog? According to University of California Health, the simple act of petting or being in the presence of a therapeutic animal:

  • Elicits an automatic relaxation response
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Provides comfort
  • Lessens loneliness
  • Provides a pleasant or even joyful distraction from sadness or distress
  • Promotes the release of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, all of which are associated with improved mood.

What’s more, therapy animals have been shown to lower blood pressure and, for those who are anxious, to slow breathing.1 In short, therapy dogs can lessen the toll that a loss can take on the bereaved’s mental and physical health.

Not surprisingly, consumer interest in therapy dogs is growing. According to the National Funeral Directors Association’s (NFDA’s) 2017 Consumer Awareness and Preferences Study, 34.5 percent of respondents said they would be extremely interested or very interested in having a therapy dog present during a memorial or funeral service, while more than half of respondents expressed at least some interest. Anecdotally, funeral directors who use trained dogs report that families and loved ones overwhelmingly find the experience to be helpful. According to Ryan Scharfencamp, Director Minnesota-based Gearhart Funeral Home, “the response that we’ve had from our families and families’ guests, the public, has been phenomenal. Everyone thinks it’s a great idea, and some people wonder why it hasn’t been done sooner.”2

In addition to helping grieving families in real time, therapy dogs also act as ambassadors for a home within the wider community. Nero, the therapy dog at Needham-Storey-Wampner Funeral Service in Indiana, doesn’t just comfort the bereaved – although that’s his main duty. He also makes weekly visits to the local fire department and sheriff’s office, holds court with senior citizens (most recently at a home-sponsored ice cream bash), and even visits inmates at the county jail. Another Indiana therapy dog, Judd, makes the rounds at local businesses, senior living communities, and even his town high school – that is, when he’s not working at Armes-Hunt Funeral Home. While not too many people regularly follow funeral homes on Facebook and Instagram, many people will follow a service dog and enjoy learning more about their forays into community life. In short, Nero and Judd – and all the grief therapy dogs like them – are making connections and forging enduring relationships with members of the community long before a personal loss takes place.

Of course, not everybody has the time or wherewithal to train a grief therapy dog. What’s more, even if your home has a therapy dog, not all family members may be on board with employing one for a given service. Yet sharing grief, especially with a beloved animal or trained canine therapy dog, can be incredibly healing.

So what’s a funeral home – or a family – to do?

There are still ways funeral directors and families can bring an animal’s healing presence into the world of grief your clients are experiencing

  • If you own a funeral home and have a therapy dog, but family members are divided about the canine, offer to allow interested parties to revisit the service via the web streaming function of TribuCast™. Although TribuCasts can and often are viewed live, the video stream also stays online for up 90 days. Thanks to this functionality, loved ones can once again watch the service, listen to the music, and cry through the memorials – but this time with a grief therapy dog to comfort and calm them as they process their grief.
  • If you don’t have a therapy dog, let your clients know that they can watch the service from home in the company of a beloved pet, either in real time or afterwards, depending on their individual needs – again with help of TribuCast’s web streaming function.
  • Find other ways to include a beloved family pet in the service. Suggest that your clients use TribuCast’s unique context portals as interactive touch-points to share memories, pictures and even video of a treasured family pet, both with and without the deceased. To learn more about the context portals that surround the TribuCast livestream, read this blog.

Finally, whatever the situation may be at your home, always remember that grief is a collective process. To truly process a loss, families and friends need to mourn together so that healing may begin. In an era when animals, and especially canine companions, are increasingly viewed as family members and friends, finding ways to incorporate them into memorials and funeral services has become increasingly important. And when a canine therapist or family member can’t be there in person, it’s good for families to know that they have another option for sharing their grief in the presence of a non-judgmental, comforting and loving animal friend: TribuCast.

Further reading:

For tips on how to choose, train and integrate a therapy dog into your funeral home business, see these recommendations from the AKC. To learn more about the 2017 NFDA survey and the consumer response to grief therapy dogs in funeral homes, visit this link. To learn more about Nero the grief therapy dog, visit his Facebook page or the Facebook page of Needham-Storey-Wampner. To learn more about Judd, visit his Facebook page or the website of the Armes-Hunt Funeral Home.

Notes:

  1. “Animal-Assisted Therapy Research Findings.” UCLA Health, Animal Assisted Therapy. https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/animal-assisted-therapy. Accessed August 14, 2019.
  2. Imani Cruzen, “Therapy Dogs Comfort Mourners at Minnesota Funeral Homes.” Minneapolis Star Tribune. http://www.startribune.com/therapy-dogs-comfort-mourners-at-minnesota-funeral-homes/510764512/. Accessed August 14, 2019.

Managing grief collectively is more effective than going it alone. Service animals help in this process. Using TribuCast and participating remotely with a service animal is the next best thing to being there.

-Bruce

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