Arctic Warrior/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0
Source: Arctic Warrior/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

It is estimated that dogs have been our companions for about 32,000 years. In the United States, there are approximately 77.8 million dogs living in homes as pets. Having a dog can enhance our lives in so many ways (my apologies to cat lovers). Who else is so glad to see us when we come home or is there for us when we need comforting. Dogs tend to be more sensitive to human emotions than other animals. In my work as a therapist, I often recommend that my clients stroke their dogs to help lower their anxiety and help them relax. A study by Judith Siegel, Ph.D., indicates that petting a dog increase serotonin and dopamine levels. Additional health benefits are lowering stress and blood pressure. This is mutually beneficial, as the dog’s blood pressure is also lowered.

Today dogs are not just our loving companions but also our helpers. There are service dogs that receive special training to serve as guide dogs or hearing dogs. Some are trained to detect cancer, seizures, and low blood sugar.  There are cadaver dogs and avalanche dogs that are sent out to find the living. There are comfort and therapy dogs that go into schools to help students learn how to read, as well as hospitals, airports, prisons, nursing homes, and hospices. Some psychotherapists use dogs in their sessions. Psychiatric service dogs have been used for people with severe PTSD. Anywhere there is tension or anxiety people are likely to find a comfort dog. Comfort dogs have been used at almost every major tragedy from 9/11 to the recent flooding in Louisiana.

More recently there is a growing movement among funeral homes to utilize dogs to help soothe mourners in their time of grief. D’ann Downey, PhD, is the President of Compassionate Paws, Inc. in Rome, Georgia. She facilitates the training of the dogs and handlers and has witnessed the life enhancing benefits they provide. Dr. Downey shared with me an account of the profound impact that animals can have when utilized in health care. She related that a patient in a nursing home who had not spoken in years began to speak to the dog that she was petting. Dr. Downey also mentions that while dogs are typically used cats, small horses and even llamas have been trained as comfort animals. In Indianapolis, at the G.H. Hermann Funeral Home, they have six service dogs that work on different shifts. The dogs are very much an integral part of the funeral home. They greet people at the door and frequently are invited to accompany the mourners while making the funeral arrangements. Of course, it is always the family’s decision as to whether or not they want the dog present at any point in the process. April Williams, funeral director at the Hermann Funeral Home said they have only had two families who have chosen not to have their dog present. Reportedly many of their dogs have become “rock stars.” They have fan clubs. People come back to visit them. Children write, and send them pictures they have drawn. While all are positively impacted by the dogs’ presence, it appears that children and adolescents receive the greatest benefit. Adolescents in particular will talk to the dogs and feel free to express their emotions without fear of judgement

In any setting, the well-being of the therapy dog is of utmost importance. The dog’s best interest is always paramount. It is important for the handler to know their dog and follow their lead. Regardless of the dog’s job, the training is the same. The dogs must have the right temperament, e.g. friendly, outgoing, and tolerant and not be aggressive. They learn basic obedience skills and are exposed to situations in which there are other dogs, loud noises, many people, and other pets.  Some dogs are more outgoing and can be around a number of people, while others may do better in one-on-one situations. When animals work in these sad environments, some people might be concerned about the impact on the animal. While cadaver dogs show signs of depression when they do not find living people, presently there appears to be no adverse reaction among funeral dogs. When they are off duty, they play, eat and sleep like any other pet.

When a loved one dies, there are many things that need to be done. No one enjoys going to the funeral home to make arrangements. It is a time of much grief, stress, and tension, especially if we do not know our loved one’s final wishes. The actual service is a time of great sorrow. Having a dog that one can pet or hug can provide a brief respite from the sadness, lighten the mood, give comfort, and provide companionship. After all, we need as much help as we can get to make it through one of the worst times in our lives.

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Understanding Grief