Mary R. Burch, PhD
As far back as the 1700’s, dogs have been used in therapeutic settings to provide comfort. In the 1970’s, several national therapy dog organizations emerged in the United States. These organizations registered handler and therapy dog teams who most often volunteered in nursing homes and facilities for people with developmental disabilities.
Over the past few decades, the world of therapy dogs has evolved and dogs now visit a wide variety of settings. One of the most recent developments is the use of therapy dogs in funeral homes, where dogs provide comfort to people who are grieving. An increasing number of funeral directors are recognizing that therapy dogs provide comfort and unconditional love to those who are attending funerals. Jessica Koth, the spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association, confirmed that therapy dogs at funeral homes are on the rise.
Screening and Training a Funeral Home Therapy Dog
A funeral is no place for an active dog, exuberant dog. Overall, therapy dogs at funeral homes should be confidant, but quiet and calm.
The dog should be trained on basic skills such as those on AKC’s 10-step Canine Good Citizen test (https://www.akc.org/products-services/training-programs/canine-good-citizen/). Some of these skills include tolerating petting by a friendly stranger, sit, down, come and stay.
As with all therapy dogs, there should be an assessment of therapy-specific skills that go beyond CGC. For funeral homes, “beyond CGC” means dogs are trained on behaviors that are unique to funerals, memorial services, or funeral visitations.
AKC THERAPY DOG PROGRAM
Checklist for Therapy Dogs that Work at Funerals
- Shows no signs of stress (e.g., panting, pacing, excessive shedding, shivering)
- Tolerates extended petting (beyond CGC)
- Stays in place for petting (visiting with a friendly stranger)
- Sit stay or down stay as needed (time extended beyond CGC)
- Small dog- allows holding or sits on someone’s lap or beside them
- Consoling posture (e.g., places head on lap/knee)
- Follows directions to “go see” or works the room and does this naturally
- Works off-leash when appropriate
- Works on-leash when appropriate
- Works 20-minutes at a visitation, funeral or memorial service
Therapy dogs for funeral homes are most often owned by the funeral home director or another staff member. However, it is possible for a funeral home to team with a local therapy dog volunteer and have that person and dog team present at funerals when the family has requested a therapy dog.
When considering a funeral home therapy dog, remember that not everyone wants a dog, even if it is a therapy dog, at an occasion as solemn as a funeral. If the family wishes to have a dog present, there should be consideration for guests who may be afraid of dogs or have allergies. To ensure that everyone is comfortable, funeral directors can follow a few simple steps:
- Ask the family if they would like to have a therapy dog present.
- Determine if the dog should be at the visitation, funeral or memorial service.
- Ask if there is anyone in the family with allergies, fears related to dogs.
- Take the guests into account. A small sign with a photo of the dog could be posted near the entrance with words such as, “At the family’s request, a therapy dog is present today. Please let (the funeral home) know if you are not comfortable with dogs.”
- Depending on the number of guests and format, determine if the dog will be on-leash or off-leash.
- If the dog will remain on-leash, decide who the dog will be taken to for visiting, or will it stay in a specified area?
- If the dog is not owned by the funeral home and belongs to a visiting volunteer, brief the volunteer in advance regarding where the dog should be taken when it needs a break, the area outside where dog should be taken to relieve itself, etc.
Families who are attending funerals are often grieving and in emotional pain. A therapy dog can provide some comfort during this difficult time.
Dr. Mary Burch is the director of the AKC Family Dog division of which the AKC Therapy Dog Program is a part. Dr. Burch is regarded as a national expert on the topic of therapy dogs.