My Great Pyrenees, Willow, got certified as a therapy dog in May of 2018. He surprises people sometimes if they’re not expecting him – he’s a 100-pound mass of white fur, but with the cutest teddy bear face you’ve ever seen. He shows up in some places people don’t expect to see dogs. I’m a funeral director, and he accompanies me often to meet with families who have just experienced a loss. He also attends our Coffee Hour meetings at the funeral home as often as possible, to lend a little bit of follow-up to our attendees who are a little further on their grief journey, but benefit from meeting occasionally with a group of other people who are going through the same process. Then, twice a month, we go to the Family Justice Center. The people we meet here are usually fleeing domestic violence, and are in a place of confusion and needing support. They are thankful for friendly faces, furry or otherwise.
Not that long ago, the idea of therapy dogs would have been foreign or even offensive to many people. Now, they’re popping up in all sorts of places, from Schools and Airports to libraries and hospitals. But why have they become so popular, and are they really providing any benefit or is this just another feel-good trend?
According to studies compiled by UCLA Health, the science is clear. Interacting with animals has been shown to promote the release of serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin – known as feel-good hormones. It can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, increase mental stimulation, help Alzheimer’s patients with memory and sequence, and even help children with autism increase their social interactions and use of language.
There are a number of organizations nationally as well as locally in most areas that certify therapy dogs and help connect to them to people and organizations that would benefit from their services. Here in Western New York, the SPCA runs a program called Paws for Love, which includes over 500 dog/handler teams who visit a number of people and places around Buffalo. Their frequent assignments include visiting area schools and libraries to help children struggling with reading; funeral homes to help those in grief; the airport to help passengers who suffer from anxiety while traveling; and hospitals and nursing homes to provide support and comfort to those suffering from cancer, dementia, and many other illnesses, as well as their families and caregivers, who are also experiencing trauma in their own way.
We started offering therapy dogs to our families during a high-profile funeral for a K-9 Officer, when people all over the city reached out to offer some sort of help to his family. People brought food to the funeral home for several days, provided parking and shuttle service as well as facilities, and sent tons of cards and condolences. We also received calls from some volunteers of the Paws for Love program, who wanted to bring their dogs. After all, he was a dog lover, and what better way to honor his career as a dedicated K-9 officer? So they came, and still come, whenever our families agree that it would be beneficial to them or others in the family. It’s especially appreciated when the family has young children (who are always happy to see a dog) or when the deceased was a dog lover.
I asked one of our funeral home employees, Karen, what she thought of the program. She interacts with the dogs as much as anyone on our staff, usually being the one who is here late for evening visitations when the dogs are most often requested. When Karen experienced her own loss last year, I was honored to meet with her to make the arrangements, and so was Willow. Karen greeted Willow before me, throwing her arms around his neck. He gives better hugs than I do, and she was thankful for it that day. “One of the best things I’ve seen with the therapy dogs is when there’s younger people around,” she said. “I remember one visitation when there were a lot of younger kids and teenagers there, and I watched each one of them come out of the chapel after seeing their friend, looking heartbroken and lost. And I showed them the therapy dog there, and you could see the change on their face. It was like for one minute, they forgot everything else that was going on and smiled. And I told them, it’s okay to smile, even now.”
More than anything, I think, that is the gift that dogs give to us. No matter what else is going on in our day, we can’t help but smile when we look at their furry, happy faces. They are the purest spirits we could ever hope to meet, offering us unconditional love and companionship during the good and bad times in our lives, and asking for nothing but love in return. See, life gets complicated. It gets hard sometimes. We get busy and forget to enjoy our days. We lose people, and have complex emotions and guilt and fears. We experience illnesses and injuries and bad days. We are disappointed, both by ourselves and by others. And through it all, your dog will have almost 100% good days. Even the bad days can be made good with a treat or a good walk. We could all learn a little something from a dog.
For more information about the benefits of therapy dogs, see https://www.uclahealth.org/pac/animal-assisted-therapy
The Paws for love website is https://yourspca.org/what-we-do/paws-for-love/
Willow’s (mis)adventures can be followed at https://www.facebook.com/SirWilloughbyFlufflebutt/