Magic comforts guests at DeJohn Funeral Homes in Ohio.

Magic, a Portuguese Water Dog, has a special trick up his sleeve.

“He makes people smile even when they don’t want to,” says Ross DeJohn Jr. of DeJohn Funeral Homes in Ohio. DeJohn and his family adopted Magic, a retired show champion who was being used for breeding, in 2008 and trained him to become a certified therapy dog. He now helps comfort DeJohn’s clients.

“He’s like a rock star at the funeral home,” DeJohn says. “People love him. People ask about him all the time.” Now DeJohn is training a Portie puppy named CoCo so she can follow in Magic’s footsteps when the 9-year-old dog retires.

Magic is one of a growing number of grief therapy dogs working in funeral homes around the country. The dogs help soothe grieving families.

“Anywhere you go where there’s pain, where there’s grief, there are therapy dogs — after disasters, tragedies, in hospice and in hospitals,” says Debra Fry, who owns Fry Funeral Home in Iowa with her husband, David. With that in mind, she thought it made perfect sense to add a therapy dog to their business.

Gurt, who loves kids, has been raised at Fry Funeral Home in Iowa.

Raised in the Funeral Home

Gurt, a Bernese Mountain Dog who’s now 2 years old, made her first visit to Fry Funeral Home when she was just 9 weeks old. She has been training on the job ever since. She has been socialized to be around people, to use an “indoor bark” and even to wave goodbye to the families she helps console.

Handlers say Gurt and other dogs like her naturally know what to do to offer comfort. “Both Max and Ernie seem to intuitively know who is hurting the most, and they’ll go and plop themselves down by that person,” says Jodi Clock, who handles the Shelties at her family’s Clock Funeral Homes in Michigan.

Grief therapy dogs, who usually live with the funeral home’s owner or a staff member, are available to help while families are making arrangements, during visitation and, in some cases, during funeral services. It’s up to the families to decide whether they’d like to have the dog around and when.

Clock says her husband wasn’t sure about the idea of having therapy dogs at first, but that quickly changed when he saw how easily people took to Max, their first canine staff member.

“It’s interesting because we’ve become known as the funeral home with the dog,” Clock says. And funeral homes that provide service dogs are starting to advertise the fact: Many include their dogs in commercials (like this one with Magic) or on business cards. And the dogs have been known to become celebrities in their communities.

A Positive Response

Tara sits close by while arrangements are made for a funeral service at a Schoedinger funeral home.

The funeral homes understand that not everyone is a dog lover. Some have chosen dog breeds that can be better tolerated by people with allergies, but most haven’t found allergies to be a problem. Overall, they’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the dogs.

“We might have maybe five families a year out of 400 who say, ‘Could you not’” bring the dogs around, Clock says. “And that’s fine — we’ll put them in the back. But it’s the rarest of rare occasions.”

Clinton Funeral Service in central Arkansas has had a similar experience.

“Ninety percent of the people who come in here to make arrangements … will ask to have Mollie out,” says Clinton funeral director and owner Darriell Ezell. He and his wife adopted 2-year-old Mollie, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, late last year. People love having her around, and many stop by just to see her.

“She’s really taken well to recognizing grief,” Ezell says. When a client was in the home for a first viewing recently, “Mollie noted that she was upset and just walked over and put her head on her knee. She’s a great comforter.”

Helping Kids Grieve

The dogs’ handlers say the canines have a way of breaking the ice in a funeral home’s solemn, stoic atmosphere.

“It’s just that tension relief, something to brighten up their day,” says Roberta Knauf, who handles Tara, a 12-year-old Lab, and Willow, a Labradoodle who’s in training with Schoedinger Funeral Service in Ohio. “It’s a calming effect.”

She and other handlers say the dogs are especially helpful with children.

Knauf describes a bittersweet interaction between Tara and an 8-year-old girl whose father had passed away. The girl asked the dog, “Tara, have you ever had any of your doggie family die?” When Knauf responded that Tara had experienced that, “she grabbed Tara and buried her face in her fur.” Then, with Tara in tow, she seemed to find strength to visit her father’s casket and bring the letters she’d written to him.

“To this day, the mother and the grandparents tell me how wonderful of an experience that was for her,” Knauf says.

Fry, from the funeral home in Iowa, recalls one mom who managed to calm her children’s nerves before a visitation by telling them there was a puppy at the home. “They just interacted with Gurt all evening, and it just erased a lot of fear for them,” she says.

Fry has been so happy with the response to Gurt that she speaks about her program at conferences for funeral directors and has joined forces with a local breeder, Steph Oswald, to create Compassionate Paws Grief Therapy. They breed Bernese Mountain Dogs and select those with the best temperament to sell to other funeral homes.

“My goal is to provide a little bit of distraction,” Fry says. “That short amount of time is extremely important. My big thing with Gurt is: Your family may smile through tears, but they’re still gonna smile.”

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