Therapy Dogs are Helping Funeral Homes Support Grieving Families

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 non-profit 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.
 
At Williamson Memorial in Franklin, Tennessee, two-year-old Sheepadoodle Mac attends visitations, joins families at burial sites, and shares free hugs and cuddles. The team at Macon Funeral Home in Franklin, North Carolina is currently training four-month-old Bernese Mountain Dog Mochi to act as their in-house grief-support dog.

Calculate Your Funeral Expenses

We call them funeral homes for a reason: we want them to be welcoming for those who are mourning — and celebrating the life of a loved one.
 
“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.

How to Support Someone Who Is Grieving

According to the American Kennel Association (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.

Find a Preneed funeral home partner in your state

This article may contain links to third party websites, but Great Western Insurance Company is neither responsible nor liable for their content, accuracy, or security. Review our Terms and Conditions to learn more.

Photo credit: iStock


Free My Careletter Program Helps Families Cope with Loss

Great Western Insurance Company created the My Careletter® program to help families cope with bereavement. It features 12 free, monthly newsletters about grief support that are sent following a loved one's funeral. Sign up to receive the newsletters in the mail.


Sign Up for Free

Find Grief Support

Search for grief support resources, such as in-person groups, online forums, and phone hotlines, available in your area.

Submit

Related Articles

Preplanning after a Loss: How Do You Want to be Remembered?

After losing a loved one, it's natural to start wondering, 'How do I want to be remembered?' Preplanning can help you record your answers.

Read More

Funeral Etiquette Guide: What to Say, What to Wear, and More

From the funeral viewing to the post-funeral reception, this funeral etiquette guide will help you properly pay your respects.

Read More

Grief Support is Available in More Ways than Ever

Grief support groups try to connect you with others, but not everyone feels comfortable sharing their emotions. That’s why finding the right format to receive grief support is as important as seeking it in the first place. 

Read More

How to Help a Child Grieve a Loss

Children grieve in a much different way. Their perception of death and their grieving process change in each developmental stage. That's why it’s important to explain death to a child in an age-appropriate manner.

Read More

Grief Books and Blogs for Coping with Loss

If you don’t have time to attend in-person grief support groups or seek grief counseling, the following grief books and blogs can offer assistance on your schedule.

Read More