Therapy dogs at funerals

Therapy dog helping a woman cope with grief

Dogs have earned the nickname ‘man’s best friend’ for a reason. If you’re a dog-lover, you’ll probably understand how just a few minutes with a four-legged friend can boost your mood and brighten your day.

Pet therapy takes this idea one step further, enlisting the help of canine companions to comfort 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.

Recently funeral homes in the US have introduced therapy animals to help the bereaved cope with grief. New York-based funeral director Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services brought in a goldendoodle dog called Lulu to comfort bereaved families. Lulu spends time at the funeral home and can also attend funerals if requested. Families, especially those with children, said that Lulu was a great comfort and helped them get through a difficult day.

Is pet therapy at funerals just a trend, or could this really be a way to help the bereaved?

What is pet therapy?

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. Finding a therapy animal through a charity or organisation such as Pets As Therapy can help make sure the animal is comfortable and well looked-after.

Therapy pets are most commonly dogs or cats, as well as occasionally horses. However, 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?

As Lulu and other dogs like her show, there could be a place for therapy pets in funerals homes and funeral services. 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. 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.