A therapy dog named Oliver
Oliver the Portuguese Water dog was adopted in 2001 as a pet, but ended up spending most of his time helping out at the funeral home owned by his family in Milwaukee. He comforted grieving people by leaning on them, sitting on their feet and sometimes simply providing a distraction from their sorrow.
Seeing his picture hanging on the wall of the funeral home office, many bereaved families would request his presence at the funeral gatherings. He quickly developed a following of sorts – local TV stations did stories on him and he was featured in commercials for the funeral home.
Image is copyright of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The original caption reads: Oliver, a 5-year-old Portugese water dog, works in 2006 at Krause Funeral Home in Milwaukee with owner Joan Krause and a girl, 6.
“He made the place feel warm and inviting,” said his owner, Mark Krause. ”Funerals can tend to be the opposite.”
When Oliver died in 2011 at the age of 10, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a touching obituary for him. A funeral service was held and about 150 people mourned him with their dogs or the ashes of their pets.
Man’s best friend in times of need
Canines like Oliver are becoming more widely used as part of grief support at funeral homes. Pet therapy is not a new idea, and it seems only natural that the animals that brighten the days of nursing home residents and the disabled can also give therapeutic aid to the grieving.
Dogs are excellent listeners who do not judge, which is why many people find it easier to open up to them. Faced with someone who has just experienced a loss, people often feel a need to give advice or say something soothing, when what the grieving really need is to express themselves. Dogs are perfect for this because they are content to simply sit by you as you talk. They don’t have other places to be or things to do, so you don’t feel bad taking up their time. Their simple, reassuring presence is enough.
Scientific research has shown that petting dogs is beneficial in many ways: stress hormone levels go down, blood pressure is lowered, and the hormone oxytocin, which correlates to increased affection, is released. The relaxation you feel at petting a dog isn’t just psychological, it’s physiological.
Can dogs feel our sadness?
Have you ever noticed how dogs respond to people? My own dog approaches me, nudges my hand and places her paw on my lap when she senses that I am agitated or upset. It’s a touching and reassuring gesture. A psychologist at Goldsmiths College, University of London, devised a study to find out whether dogs demonstrated empathy. Volunteers were asked to either act like they were crying or “hum in a weird way” in the presence of dogs.
The result was remarkable. Nearly all the dogs went over to the crying person, regardless if it was their owner or a stranger, and nuzzled or licked them. In comparison, they barely noticed when people hummed. Although the experiment may not conclusively prove that dogs can empathise, it does show why people think they do. It is this perception that helps people who are emotionally distraught feel better.
Dogs in service
Professional therapy dogs were brought to Newtown after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. They were nine specially trained golden retrievers from the Lutheran Church Charities K9 Comfort Dogs team, who had previously been used to reassure the victims of traumatic events like Superstorm Sandy and a 2008 school shooting in Illinois.
The canines created a comfortable environment for the children to open up and talk about what they had gone through as they sat together, petting the same animal. Children who had withdrawn into themselves after witnessing the shootings began to communicate again.
“Our experience has shown that people can let go totally when they interact with a dog. The dogs are just there, to pet, to hug and to cry on,” said Ursula Kempe, president of Therapy Dogs International. “Their calming, loving presence can help during times of extreme grief. There is no need to talk, just to feel. The dogs can give what humans cannot.”
Most funeral directors who work with dogs agree that the dogs intuitively know whom to comfort, and will station themselves next to them. Besides being a shoulder to cry on, the dogs sometimes amuse the bereaved and guests with tricks. Simply put, they make people smile even when they don’t want to.
Debra Fry, who owns Fry Funeral Home, recalls a family whose grandmother had passed away. Her grandchildren had been very close to her and they refused to go to the funeral. They were eventually persuaded to go by their mother when she told them “there’s a puppy at the funeral home.” They spent the entire evening sitting on the floor playing with Gurt, the funeral home’s Bernese Mountain Dog – which also gave their parents the peace of mind to cope with their own loss.
Gurt, the therapy dog at Fry Funeral Home.
What does it take to be a therapy dog?
Debra started a programme called Compassionate Paws Grief Therapy, which trains puppies for funeral homes as “employees”. All students have to undergo basic obedience training and have the right temperament. The puppies are even put through the military biosensor program so they can handle stressful situations and sudden, loud noises. They are trained to use an “indoor bark” and tolerate being petted –and even tugged on – by several people at the same time. Handlers have to know when to let the dogs take a break from all the attention (usually about two hours) and let them go outside for a walk or take a nap, but for most of the time, it’s the dogs that run the show.