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Funeral Homes Using Therapy Dogs to Help the Mourning
Photo: Barry Chin/Boston Globe
Therapy dogs are now being used in Massachusetts funeral homes to comfort people struggling with their loss.

Rob Dwyer is a funeral home director in Pittsfield, Massachusetts who has helped many grieving families through their loss.

When a young girl recently became overwhelmed with emotion and ran out of her grandmother’s funeral service, Dwyer Funeral Home called on one of its special staff members to help: Greyce, a 2-year old dog.

According to Dwyer, just the mere presence of the dog changes the mood. When Greyce followed the mourning girl out and sat beside her, the tears quickly subsided.

Incorporating therapy dogs into the mourning process is a growing trend among funeral homes in Massachusetts. Dog therapy services are being offered to grieving families during planning meetings, wakes, and funerals.

According to the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, Gately Funeral Home (located in Melrose, MA) and at least six other funeral homes are currently offering therapy dog services to the bereaved.

The trend of therapy dogs assisting those dealing with their loss has been on the rise in this industry for approximately the last four years.

Dwyer began working with Greyce about one year ago, and praised the idea. He states that it makes the event more comfortable, not only for kids but to his surprise, for adults as well.

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He said introducing a dog in the beginning tends to also make the process easier for children who have never been to a funeral before. He says he knows many people who had traumatic experiences at funeral homes when they were children, and that he is happy knowing the children attending his company’s services can have a positive experience.

Melissa Sears is a Pittsfield resident who attended her mother’s funeral at Dwyer’s Funeral Home. She said that Greyce’s presence at the funeral was truly a comfort – especially for the 15 grandchildren present. Sears said the dog gave the kids something to focus on, and kept the mood calm all around. She added that Greyce helped the adults feel better as well.

John Gately, director of Gately Funeral Home, says the results of this research come as no surprise to him. He has been offering the services of his dog Tucker for nine years.

Tucker, a golden retriever, was an immediate hit. Gately stated that almost everyone loves having Tucker around for the services. Gately says he isn’t sure how Tucker senses it, but he seems to approach the people having the hardest time without being instructed to do so. He just seems to sense their sadness.

Dr. Deborah Linder is the associate director at the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction. According to Linder, there may be a scientific explanation for the comfort people find in dogs while grieving.

Linder points out that studies have concluded that there are actually physical changes which occur in the brains of humans after interacting with therapy animals. Dogs may help change our biology in such a way that works to calm us, such as lowering blood pressure and decreasing anxiety. One study showed that humans exhibited decreased levels of stress hormones after interacting with therapy dogs for just five minutes.

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Featured photograph courtesy of BostonGlobe.com