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Pets & Animals

Funeral home therapy dog brings comfort and unexpected smiles to grieving families

After she lost her beloved brother Stephen just days before his 25th birthday, Chelsea Sules thought she'd never smile again.

But she ended up finding healing and comfort in an unexpected place: Lulu, a funeral home's therapy dog.

"I walked into the funeral home and Lulu came running toward me and my sister," said Sules, 26, whose brother died on June 17.

Courtesy of Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services
Lulu at Ballard-Durand Funeral and Cremation Services.

"We (were shocked) when we started giggling. She immediately started to comfort us just by her presence alone."

The affectionate goldendoodle became the newest "staff member" at Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services in May 2015.

RELATED: Therapy dogs bring smiles to children's hospital patients

Courtesy of Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services
"She immediately started to comfort us just by her presence alone," Chelsea Sules, who lost her brother last month, told TODAY.

Matthew Fiorillo, president of the White Plains, New York, funeral home, said he came up with the idea for a therapy dog during a stressful moment at the airport in 2014. He was fuming over a cancelled flight when a lady walked by with a Maltese.

"A wave of calmness washed over me and after it happened I was like, wow, that was really powerful!" Fiorillo, 45, told TODAY.

"I started researching the benefits of having a dog around and ways to implement it in the funeral home."

Courtesy of Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services
Lulu comforting a grieving client. Since the dog arrived at the home in May 2015, many clients have specifically requested her presence at memorials.

Having Lulu around has done wonders for his grieving clients.

"She's developed an uncanny knack for knowing who needs her," Fiorillo said. "She'll park herself right next to an older person to let them pet her one minute and the next she's prancing around with kids. It's been really impressive to watch."

Possibly the most impressive trick Lulu has up her sleeve is how she reacts when Fiorillo tells her to pray.

Courtesy of Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services
"She's developed an uncanny knack for knowing who needs her," Matthew Fiorillo, the funeral home's president, said.

RELATED: Boy's service dog poses in yearbook: 'She's part of our school'

"Lulu was with us for both of the wakes and out of nowhere we see her kneeling on a bench with her head down and praying in front of my brother's casket," Sules said. "It blew us away."

As word of the dog has spread, most clients request Lulu's presence at their memorial services.

Courtesy of Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services
Matthew Fiorillo and Lulu on the day he got her.

"She's part of the team, no question about that," Fiorillo said. "It's clear she's eager to be part of what we do and wants to help people."

And since the atmosphere at Ballard-Durand is often so emotional, Fiorillo, who cares for the pup, said it helps to have a "buddy" around during the workday. They also eat breakfast together every morning.

Courtesy of Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services
Lulu at Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services.

"Humans need to touch," Fiorillo said. "Even just petting her can be a subtle distraction from the tremendous amount of grief people are going through."

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Therapy dog brings comfort to nursing home residents

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