Grief at funeral homes can run deep and raw as mourners say goodbye to their loved ones. But across the country, funeral directors are finding a unique, four-legged way to help people ease their pain.
Comfort dogs, such as Fiona at the Marine Park Funeral Home in Brooklyn, are ready to soothe with a gentle presence and a warm cuddle.
“There has been an overwhelmingly positive response (to her),” said Nora Pavone, Fiona’s owner who helps operate the funeral home with her family.
Pavone said the fluffy, almost 100-pound Bernese Mountain dog seems to sense when people need some extra love.
The gentle giant will make history Wednesday when the American Kennel Club announces her as is the one millionth dog to be certified in its Canine Good Citizen program since its inception 30 years ago. Dogs are trained and then undergo a 10-step test to make sure they can sit politely for petting, come when called, handle distractions, navigate crowds and display other important skills.
“It has given us so much confidence,” said Pavone, who lives with the one-and-a half year old pup in Park Slope. “Because as much as I want her to be natural, she also has to listen at all times.”
Mary Burch, AKC’s Canine Good Citizen director, said the program’s training helps build a “solid bond” between an owner and dog, and is a prerequisite for many therapy dog organizations.
“In a city such as New York, passing the CGC can help dogs and their owners get into apartments and condos,” Burch said. “(It) says a dog has both good manners and a responsible owner.”
Once Pavone and her family decided on acquiring a dog to work with them in the funeral home, they began by researching breeds. Bernese Mountain Dogs are known for their good looks and sweet, affectionate nature. Pavone said they worked with a breeder in Colorado, and ultimately brought Fiona into the funeral home at the tender age of nine weeks.
“We wanted her to get used to being in an office setting,” she said. “Once she was older, we took her out to have her meet as many people as possible — the philharmonic, Smorgasburg, playing in the park.”
Fiona and Pavone went through months of formal training. Any trace of doubt was erased quickly with the reaction of families and other people who visited the funeral home.
“(Fiona) has had really positive impact with children, especially those who are too young to really comprehend what is happening,” said Pavone. “But we also heard from people saying their dad would have loved to know a dog was here or that this is the first time their uncle has smiled since his sister died.”
Randy Anderson, treasurer of the National Funeral Directors Association, said he believes the number of comfort dogs in funeral homes will continue to grow as people witness the results. Radley, a golden doodle, has been working at his Alabama funeral home since last November.
“When we brought Radley on board, we intended for her to be of benefit to our client families,” Anderson told amNewYork in an email. “The one thing we didn’t think about was how she would affect our staff. She has been a very positive influence on each staff member … If any staff member seems to be having a bad day, that’s the one she pays the most attention to. This is one of those things that happens instinctively.”
Anderson recounted how Radley approached a weeping client, allowing the woman to pet her.
“Her tears turned to laughter as she enjoyed Radley’s attention,” Anderson said. “When she stood to leave, she said, ‘She is just what I needed today!’"
When Fiona is not working at the funeral home, she enjoys regular doggy pleasures including a romp in the park, adventurous hikes and a nap.
“The connection has really grown between us,” said Pavone, “She is like an extension of me — we work really well together.”