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When a family came to Koch Funeral Home in Pennsylvania State College to identify a loved one before cremation, Monroe noted — staying back to protect people’s privacy, but willing to provide comfort when asked.
Monroe is not a grief counselor or therapist. He’s an Australian Shepherd and resident therapy dog at the funeral home, said Jackie Naginey Hook, a celebrant and end-of-life doula there.
“He has this affinity for people who might be grieving,” Hook said. “He’s attracted to them.”
Of course, when family members came out, they saw Monroe and wanted to say hello, Hook said. Loving him opened them up to telling others about their loss.
Colleen Dell, a Health and Wellness research chair and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said some studies have suggested that dogs – whether trained therapy and service animals or friends in our homes – have a positive impact on human life.
Just 10 minutes spent with a dog helped reduce patients’ pain, according to a March study for which Dell served as lead author.
Hook says people often don’t talk about what they’re going through when they’re grieving. The grieving process is as unique as a person’s fingerprint, and many don’t know how to be around others who are going through it, she added.
For many people, dogs can offer intuitive, unconditional, and loving support in times of grief, Dell said.
“We don’t give them the credit they deserve,” Dell said of the animals that provide the necessary support. “We don’t understand them as much as we should. When you start to dismantle it, a lot happens there.”
Hook said there are nuances people need when grieving a loved one, but generally family and friends should be there, hug and listen without talking too much.
Sounds like the perfect job for a dog.
“Healthy healing is about giving yourself permission to feel what you really feel,” says Hook. “Our bodies know how to heal from a cut, and we know how to deal with it.”
Dell, luckily for us, dogs don’t judge and have no expectations.
If someone has developed a strong bond and relationship with a dog, the animal can often sense the emotions of its loved ones, Dell said. That could mean the dog knows when to offer a gentle hug, she said.
“When we lose a significant other … a lot of people say it’s just hard to come home at the end of the day, to an empty house,” Hook said. “Having a dog there to say hello can make a difference.”
Or a dog can be a little distracted by offering to buy a game or go outside.
“When you’re sad, it’s incredibly hard to get up and go for a walk,” Dell said. “They’re really good at living in the moment. It keeps us from thinking too much about the past or even the future.
“They want to go for a walk now; now they want to play.”
When grieving and considering a dog, it’s important to think about how the animal will fit into your life and vice versa, Dell said.
“The way we relate to an animal is different than the way we relate to a human being,” Dell said. In some ways there are more benefits, but also more disadvantages, he added.
Dell is a win-win situation where the dog can provide support and the owner can provide the right amount of care and attention. But it helps to do your homework to find the right fit and be ready to make a long-term commitment.
Owning a dog can sometimes create additional stress, Dell said, whether it’s the time or financial resources to get veterinary care, the added strain of being a caregiver and exercising when you’re away.
Taking the time to learn how to train your dog can help him get the attention he craves and help you gain more insight into building a strong bond that benefits both of you, she added.
If you’re looking for a dog to keep you outside and active, look for a high-energy breed. If you’re busy but want a companion, maybe find a dog that’s more inclined to sleep. If you travel, a portable dog is the way to go, Dell said.
Often times, people who are grieving can find their patience lacking—in that case, consider a dog two years or older to avoid puppy antics, she added.
Dell says dogs are often placed in foster care after their owner dies. “That would be great,” he said. “You would really help each other out.”
But there are still ways to get the benefits of a furry friend without taking on any responsibility, Dell said.
A pet owned by a neighbor or family member may offer to cuddle and play. Or you can spend time at dog parks or places where therapy dogs can visit.
“(Grieving people) need to feel loved,” Dell said. “These dogs (are) able to provide it in ways that are off-the-cuff.”
Volunteering with a shelter or rescue group can also bring joy, she said. Dell added that simply taking time to groom or walk the dogs can make a huge difference.
“You do things that are normal, things that you think will never, ever feel normal again,” she said. “But they do.”