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After a child was struck and killed by a train in Fairmount, Indiana, last month, an 11-year-old boy who came to the visitation sat by himself in the front row and just stared at the casket, trying to understand.
That’s when Judd, a specially-trained 2-year-old golden retriever, spotted him.
“He came all the way up to him, sat beside him, put his paw on his leg and buried his head in his lap, and that young boy just cried,” Shari Wallace, the grief therapy dog handler at Armes-Hunt Funeral Home in Fairmount, told TODAY.
“Judd displays that loving gentle nature: ‘Everything is good. Just focus on me and I’m going to make it OK.’”
Judd is among the growing ranks of therapy dogs that work in funeral homes, becoming essential "staff members." There’s Lulu in New York; Kermit in Texas; Dempsey in Ohio; Gracie in Missouri and many, many more.
The friendly, furry creatures can be in the room when grieving families make arrangements, and they can attend wakes and funerals, if the mourners wish. It’s always up to the family and Wallace watches closely to see whether everyone is comfortable with the idea.
The National Funeral Directors Association doesn’t keep track of how many funeral homes in the U.S. own therapy dogs, but the number has been on the rise in the last few years, said spokeswoman Jessica Koth.
“The families love it,” she noted. “An animal changes the mood of the room.”
In a survey commissioned by the association last month, more than half of respondents said they would be somewhat, very or extremely interested in having a therapy dog present at a funeral or memorial service.
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A therapy dog can provide mourners with exactly what they need during this stressful time: comfort and the chance to relieve some of their tension and anxiety, said Marilyn Mendoza, a New Orleans-based psychologist who specializes in grief.
Stroking an animal has physiological effects. It increases a person’s serotonin and dopamine levels, which can boost mood, and it helps lower stress and blood pressure, she noted. Dogs can also immediately put people at ease.
“It has so many benefits — I just think it’s a wonderful thing,” Mendoza said. “It’s particularly good for kids. They’re more likely to talk to those animals than they are to the adults.”
Judd, the golden retriever, is such a big part of the staff at Armes-Hunt Funeral Home that he has his own profile page and Facebook page. He spent a year in obedience and therapy dog training before he began his mission comforting mourners.
When Nancy Hall's husband passed away last June, she requested Judd's presence during the visitation and the funeral.
"He sat right next to my feet, comforting me during the service," Hall said. "It was a very hard time for me... I don't know if I would have made it through those tough days without my furry friend."
Judd does his best work off the leash, approaching people and leaning into them or laying on their feet, Wallace said. He’s different from just a pet hanging around and greeting visitors because he customizes how he interacts with each person.
“He’s like a sponge: He absorbs your stress, and your fear and your anger,” she noted. “People could be crying or hanging their head, but when he approaches… he becomes a distraction from their emotions.”
In the last two and a half years of Judd working in the funeral home, there have only been one or two times when a family said, “This is no place for a dog,” Wallace noted.
She watches for signs of stress in the dog, who can become emotionally tired after so many interactions with grieving people. To mix things up, Judd visits nursing homes, schools and church events.
“He just blows me away,” Wallace said. “It’s made a huge difference in how things are done in the funeral home.”