Dogs have earned the nickname ‘man’s best friend’ for a reason. If you’re a dog-lover, you’ll probably understand how a four-legged friend can cheer you up when you’re low, or calm you down when you’re angry. Dogs have an incredible ability to connect with humans on a deep emotional level – and now that ability is being used to help those grieving after the death of a loved one.
Recently there have been reports of funeral homes across the U.S. enlisting the help of canine companions to provide a comforting, loving presence during a time of great distress.
New York-based funeral director Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services has recruited an adorable Goldendoodle dog called Lulu to comfort bereaved families. Therapy dog Lulu, who is proudly listed among the company’s valued members of staff, spends time at the funeral home and can also attend funerals if requested. Families, especially those with children, say Lulu is a great comfort and has helped many get through a difficult day.
Greenlawn Funeral Home in Springfield, Missouri, welcomed Gracie, also a Goldendoodle, to comfort bereaved clients. Merkle Funeral Service in Monroe and Erie, Michigan, brought their beloved dog, Lola, into the family business, and Armes-Hunt Funeral home in Fairmont and Marion, Indiana, chose a golden retriever named Judd.
So with the practice of introducing dogs to funeral homes increasing, can pet therapy really help bereaved people cope with their loss?
What is pet therapy?
Pet therapy is the idea that interacting with animals, usually a dog or cart, can bring comfort to people who are facing challenges in their personal lives. This can be anything from depression and anxiety, to Alzheimer’s or Asperger’s. Therapy dogs are frequently used in hospices, care homes and to visit elderly people suffering from loneliness.
Pet therapy, also known as animal assisted therapy (AAT), involves an animal interacting with the therapy client in order to lift their mood and bring them comfort. People can choose to pet, hug or play with the animal if they wish, or simply watch them. Therapy animals are usually accompanied by their handler or owner.
Therapy animals need to have a certain temperament and friendliness to make them suitable. Although they are most commonly dogs, cats or horses, many different animals have been used for therapy, including pigs, ferrets and even alpacas.
Does pet therapy work?
The vast majority of scientific studies into animal therapy show positive results from interaction with animals. Studies cover many different conditions, including children with autism, people with Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, developmental disabilities, and Down’s syndrome.
Patients report feeling happier and less distressed, and researchers have noticed a decrease in the intensity of symptoms after pet therapy.
How could therapy pets help the bereaved?
The link between animal therapy and increased emotional wellbeing shows that there could be a place for therapy pets in funerals homes. The positive presence of an animal provides comfort and affection as a way of dealing with an otherwise intensely distressing time.
Of course, pet therapy won’t be for everyone. While some people love the company of an animal friend, others might not find it helpful.
It is important to recognise that a therapy dog will never be able to make grief disappear completely. Arranging and attending the funeral of a loved one will always be difficult and in some ways the grief needs to be felt and acknowledged.
What a therapy dog could do, however, is make it a little easier to deal with the most intense and confusing emotions, especially for young children. By having a friendly, affectionate animal friend beside them, mourners may be able to find a small moment of peace during especially difficult times such as viewing their loved one, making funeral arrangements, or the day of the funeral.
For more information about therapy dogs, visit Therapy Dogs International.