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Grief-Therapy Dogs and Pet Therapy at Funerals

Two small children petting dog in the corner of a room

Photo by Sabina Fratila on Unsplash

Pet therapy is becoming increasingly common in care homes, hospitals, schools and even universities around the UK. Some funeral directors have started working with grief-therapy dogs to help their clients when they visit the funeral home. Some grief-therapy dogs also attend funerals.

This guide explains what pet therapy is and how grief-therapy dogs can help people cope at funerals.

What is pet therapy?

Old man in a hospital bed petting a black, white and tan therapy dog

Photo by United States Air Force on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Pet therapy, sometimes called animal assisted therapy (AAT), is interaction with a trained animal, accompanied by a handler, to improve the mood and wellbeing of the person receiving the therapy. The majority of therapy animals are dogs or cats, but shetland ponies, alpacas and even lambs can provide pet-therapy.

A therapy animal must have a calm and friendly temperament and be comfortable interacting with strangers, who might not have had much experience of pets. An American therapy dog, Norbert The Dog, has become world famous after publishing a book about his experiences.

Some therapy dogs also help encourage children in reading programmes.

young boy reading a book to a golden retriever and trained facilitator

Photo by United States Marine Corps on Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Pets As Therapy was founded in 1983 and supports volunteers bringing their dogs or cats, who have passed an assessment, into care homes, hospitals and schools in England. Therapet performs a similar volunteer service in Scotland. Recently, some funeral directors have started using-grief therapy dogs to help people after a loved one has died.

What is a grief therapy dog?

Grief therapy dogs first started appearing in funeral homes in the United States. They are generally owned by the funeral director and attend the funeral or memorial service at the request of the family. In 2018, the UK’s first grief- therapy dog, Basil the Beagle, also started working at Clive Pugh Funeral Directors in Shropshire. Basil is a ‘comfort companion’ for people who visit them to arrange a funeral and sometimes, at the family’s request, attends the funeral as well.

What can grief-therapy dogs do at funerals?

Grief-therapy can provide a calming presence for people, especially children, who are attending the funeral. They can also relax people who have never attended one before and don’t know what happens at a funeral or who have a fear of funerals. Grief-therapy dogs can also be helpful for supporting a bereaved child who have lost someone very close to them, especially if they are going to speak at the funeral.

Close-up of head of golden retriever that is lying down

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Grief-therapy dogs only attend funerals at the request of a family. Their presence is usually sign-posted at the entrance to the venue so that anyone who is allergic to dogs or afraid of them is aware of it. If a large number of people, or anyone very close to the person who has died, would prefer not to have a grief-therapy at the funeral then it is not an appropriate thing to do.

Grief-therapy dogs are still rare at funerals in the UK, but animal-assisted therapy in care homes can be helpful forsupporting an elderly person coping with grief.