“Gina was a rescue beagle, shuffled between three or more households before finding her permanent home with our family and becoming the bereavement dog at the cemetery. Because she is so calm, affectionate, and well-behaved, we thought Gina would be a perfect addition to our staff. I found a trainer in the local community who worked to train me and Gina together on site at the cemetery. Over time, the demand for Gina’s services has grown among the bereaved seeking comfort. She’s trained to help people who come to make arrangements for memorial services and purchases of niches and urns. Gina helps lift families’ hearts, because no one can resist a warm, willing bit of affection.” — J.P. DiTroia, Fresh Pond Crematory
The use of therapy dogs is becoming more common, and there can be wonderful benefits to your business for having one in-house – after all, cute puppies are a great way to engage families! But as J.P. DiTroia, Lindsey Ballard, and Robert Hunsaker discovered, it’s not enough to just pick up a random pooch. The trio got together at CANA’s Cremation Symposium to tell attendees about their experiences integrating canines into the workplace. Their presentation illuminated several key points about therapy animals and the ways to incorporate the support and comfort dogs can provide to grieving families.
Dog Service—Definitions and Requirements
First, it’s important to understand the difference between therapy, service, and emotional support dogs. Therapy dogs are trained to provide affection and comfort to people in various settings, such as disaster areas, hospice, schools, nursing homes, and, of course, funeral homes. These pets have a special aptitude for interacting with members of the public and they enjoy doing so. Typically, emotional support dogs provide benefits to their owners through simple companionship as prescribed by a mental health professional. Service dogs are trained specifically to help people with disabilities such as mental illness, visual impairment, seizure disorder, etc. Due to the nature of their work, the latter two are permitted to travel with their human partners, but therapy dogs are not afforded special rights to enter a business unless they’re officially going to work there.
Not all dogs will make good therapy pets. The work—and, yes, it is work— can be tiring and stressful for the dog and requires the right personality. There are many characteristics to look for in a suitable therapy dog, including a deep love for all people (strangers included), emotional and physical calmness, and an affinity for being hugged and petted (sometimes by surprise or roughly). People have found success with rescue dogs, but caution that these animals can be particularly sensitive to certain situations and people and that may impact their training and work. Some breeds are more suited to guarding or protecting, but not emotional support.
Bella, a black Labradoodle, is the beloved Hunsaker family pet, but Robert soon identified that she would make a great addition to his funeral home staff. Not only is her temperament well-suited to working with people, but she’s also hypoallergenic so she doesn’t shed and most people aren’t allergic. This is important since she’s interacting with the public.
Fletcher, an Australian Labradoodle, was destined to be the funeral home therapy dog first, and a happy addition to Lindsey’s household second. Lindsey researched what breeds were most appropriate to the work, prioritizing that the animal be hypoallergenic, too. She chose a breed, located a breeder, and, since he would also be the household pet, made sure to identify the perfect pup for her family.
The three presenters emphasized that once you find the right dog, both the animal and the humans who work with the dog have to be properly trained. The dog needs to learn good manners and to be able to respond appropriately in various situations. The people need to learn to interpret the dog’s body language and communicate effectively with the dog. There are many organizations that can provide therapy dog certification, including the American Kennel Club, Delta Pet Partners, and Therapy Dogs International.
Unlike J.P.’s Gina, Bella wasn’t trained on site at the workplace. Because the Hunsakers hadn’t originally intended for her to be a therapy dog, she didn’t start her training until she was a little over two years old.
It’s a common misconception that therapy dogs have to be adopted as puppies and trained from the beginning. Most trainers will help determine whether you have a prospective therapy dog or not by doing a needs assessment. Bella was put through her paces by her trainers before they committed to taking her on. Robert emphasizes that it is best to make sure you have someone who’s qualified to train your animal in what you want her to do before you add the dog to your staff.
Bella was trained by Lorenzo’s Dog Training Team, a national organization based out of Ohio. Robert did his research, talked to the vet and other community members, and decided on Lorenzo’s because they’re a nation-wide organization with trainers throughout the US. Bella was enrolled in their four-week off-site training program. Lorenzo’s would bring her back to the funeral home on the weekend to train Robert in the commands Bella learned off-site that week. Having her gone for a month was rough, but the results were amazing. The follow-up training 30- and 60-days after she came home ensured that Bella maintained the skills she learned, and added a couple of new skills each time.
Lindsey brought Fletcher home on a Monday. Tuesday was his first time in the funeral home. And Wednesday was his first puppy obedience class. She had already mapped out their long-term training schedule to follow a two-pronged approach: 1. Socialization, and 2. Obedience.
Long before Fletcher was old enough to start working with the public, Lindsey emphasized his socialization with as many types of people as possible – diversity of appearance, size, and age as well as people with wheelchairs, beards, hats, etc. That way, he’d be ready for the broad range of people he’d meet at the funeral home. She took Fletcher to all of her business locations so he’d become familiar with the each different environment, including the floors, staircases, elevators, and future human colleagues. Lastly, she worked on exposing him to the diversity of experiences he might encounter: thunderstorms, interactions near caskets and during bath and meal times to make sure he would be comfortable with anything that might come his way.
Fletcher attended, and passed with flying colors, many types of obedience training at every level of difficulty. Then, beyond standard obedience, he was also trained in tricks, therapy classes, and agility classes. Once this basic work was accomplished, it was time to pick out a specific therapy group to work with. From the beginning, Lindsey knew she wanted to be part of his training every step of the way. So she chose Pet Partners, a non-profit that hosts a national registry of trainers.
Rather than certifying only the dog, both the human trainer and the pet are registered as a therapy team. Lindsey and Fletcher were trained equally as a dog and trainer to support each other, with a special concentration on teaching the human half how to read the dog’s body language and advocate for him. Once Fletcher was a year old, the duo was able to take the in-person evaluation for certification. Once certified, they’ll still need to be re-evaluated every two years to ensure continued training.
On the Job
Bella comes to work every morning, about 5:30am. She has a set area in the funeral home where she comes in, gets brushed every morning, gets her vest on, and, with that, it’s an immediate transformation from an active, three-year-old pet to working therapy dog.
She’s very visible. When a family comes in, the staff can tell immediately whether they want to engage Bella. Probably 80-85% of family members acknowledge her and want to have some type of interaction. Due to her training, Bella won’t interact until commanded to do so as some people are afraid of dogs or dislike them. She’s been well trained to stay.
If engaged, Bella will attend arrangement conferences and aftercare appointments, funeral services, and visitations. She’s active in the grief support group at Robert’s funeral home on the third Thursday of every month. She attends most of cemetery gravesite services, and some pre-planning presentations at area nursing homes and care centers. She’s very busy.
Robert is sensitive to her needs. Working dogs are constantly thinking about what they need to be doing. It’s emotionally draining for the animal. So, in the afternoons, Bella has a special place in Robert’s office that’s become her area to decompress. She’ll take a break there for an hour or two. And when she gets home after work, she’s tired just like any of us. Even if it’s not particularly physically draining, it’s a lot of emotional work.
Like Bella and Gina, Fletcher attends community events, greets families, and sits in on visitations and arrangements. For Lindsey, the biggest value of the therapy dog is greeting families. While funeral professionals are very comfortable walking into a funeral home, crematory, or cemetery, it’s often a hard step for families to take. Fletcher welcomes the families at the front door and helps to keep people at ease.
Lindsey also finds that families linger longer with Fletcher there. When a devastated husband and daughter dropped by to pick up their loved one’s urn, their visit lasted for twenty minutes. When the daughter saw Fletcher, they stayed to play with him, pet him, take selfies, and derive comfort. The dog clearly made an impression: the next day, another family member came back to pick up information on cremation jewelry and asked about the dog.
Things to Consider
There is more to the process than just finding the right dog and going through training. You will need to consider all of the costs involved (purchasing the dog, training, vet bills, food, etc.), how much time and commitment will be required for both training and daily care, the logistics of when and how the animal will interact with people at the business, and more.
Robert estimates that they’ve invested about $2,000 in Bella-- $1,600 in training and $400 in equipment (vest, collar, leash, and other needs). Then there was the initial cost of getting Bella (around $500) and monthly expenses (between $150-$200 for food, grooming, and the vet). The dog has a standing groomer’s appointment every other Thursday to stay presentable; she goes to the vet every six months to ensure she stays healthy.
Liability for having a pet on site also needs to be considered. Check in with your insurance provider to see if they offer coverage for therapy dogs. Additionally, the professional training service you use may offer some form of coverage.
Besides the monetary expenses, a substantial amount of time is invested therapy dogs as well. Robert estimated that reinforcing Bella’s training took 30-60 hours over the first three months--about an hour a day. And he still spends 30-45 minutes to get her ready every morning and reinforce things she’ll need to do that day, particularly if she doesn’t do it frequently.
Similarly, Lindsey and Fletcher maintained a continuous training schedule for more than two years of in-person and online classes. And considering that Lindsey was also completing her MBA, moving, orchestrating the remodel of one of the businesses’ locations, managing staff turn-over, and running the family business, there were some days that made prioritizing Fletcher’s training a challenge.
Robert involved two of his staff in Bella’s training to handle her when he’s absent. They know her schedule, her needs, and her commands so she can still work. He emphasized that you can’t take on this work by yourself – you’re serving families and you’re running a business, so you need buy-in from your staff to make it work.
Lindsey agrees that managing staff is key, but never thought about the great impact it would have on them. Funeral directors are often up at all hours, working extended days, and emotionally drained. For Lindsey’s staff, being able to take a moment to pet the dog and play fetch or tug with her has been great.
They’re Still Dogs
One of the most valuable lessons for Lindsey was the need to advocate for Fletcher. His afternoon breaks are key to his well-being, as are mental and physical exercise in the morning to make sure he’s focused for the day. She also stresses that you have to be ready for anything. These dogs might be staff, but they are still animals who tend to sniff people in embarrassing places, lick or scratch themselves without regard to proper etiquette, and must relieve themselves when necessary, so be prepared.
J.P., Lindsey, and Robert agree that this experience is only for those who really love animals, especially dogs. It’s a commitment for the trainer and the entire funeral home. Despite this, everyone concurred that the benefit to their businesses and the families they serve made all the effort worthwhile.
One interesting aspect of the presentation at the symposium was that it moved attendees and panelists to discuss how to memorialize the therapy dog itself after death. These animals have a big impact in the community and bring people in to the funeral home. Robert recommended having a plan to begin training a new dog for continuum of care for the community. Lindsey mentioned how a professional colleague who has maintained several therapy animals holds services and invites other bereft pet owners to come in to memorialize together. J.P. emphasized the service, the memorial, and the final placement.
This post is excerpted from Robert Hunsaker, Lindsey Ballard and J.P. DiTroia’s Therapy Animal panel at CANA’s 2018 Cremation Symposium. Save the Date for CANA’s 2019 Cremation Symposium: February 26-28, 2020 at the Paris Las Vegas Resort and Casino.
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Robert Hunsaker, co-founder of Hunsaker Partners, has been involved in the funeral industry his entire life, as his father was a funeral director and they were living in a funeral home when he was born. From an early age, he has worked for a memorial park and a group of funeral homes. He finds great satisfaction in helping families during a very difficult time of their lives and enjoys establishing relationships with all those he is honored to serve. Robert has a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from Weber State University and has worked in sales and executive positions for several companies that serve the funeral industry, including: Batesville Casket Company, Great Western Insurance Company, Service Corporation International and SinoSource International, Inc. Robert serves on the Cremation Association of North America board of directors.
Lindsey Ballard is a third-generation funeral director and owner of Ballard-Sunder Funeral & Cremation in Minnesota. She loves her work and is passionate about creating personalized and meaningful services for the families she works with. Lindsey is always looking for new and inventive ways to serve her community, including the work she does with her dog, Fletcher. Lindsey serves on the Cremation Association of North America board of directors.
J.P. DiTroia serves as President of the U.S. Columbarium Co. at Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village, NY and has worked there since 1967. He served on the Board of the Metropolitan Cemetery Association for 9 years and is now co-chair of the Cremation Committee. He presently serving on the Board of the New York State Association of Cemeteries. He has been a committee member of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association since 1979. His therapy dog’s name is Gina.J.P. serves on the Cremation Association of North America Membership Advisory Group.