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Therapy dogs: 'You can really feel the tension leaving the room'

A friendly dog can be a huge help to grieving families, say two funeral directors whose own pets have become much loved and valued members of staff. Sharon Barnard reports

“I think people laughed at me at first when I introduced Chester!” admits Michael Tiney, managing director of Southall Funeral Service in London and ‘dad’ to his much loved two-year-old Labrador. But bringing his furry friend into the funeral business has proved to be a very good move for staff and clients alike.
“Chester’s picture is on the staff team display in reception and we bring him down on request for people to pat and stroke,” says Michael. “His presence is a distraction at a difficult time.
“He is a calming influence and seems to understand people’s grief. He’ll lie down at their feet or put his head on their laps.”
Rosalinda Pugh from Clive Pugh Funeral Directors in Shrewsbury is another professional who believes that dogs like their Basil, a nine-year-old beagle, can provide a valuable service to people in distress.
“Basil has a very special sense of what is needed when people are suffering loss,” his owner explains.
“When families are arranging the funeral of their loved one, their minds tend to be all over the place. Basil is very perceptive and seems to know that they need to be comforted and as such will sit beside them, letting them pat and stroke him. You can really feel the tension leaving the room
“My advice to any funeral director thinking about introducing a therapy dog into their list of services would be to choose a breed that is known for being a loving, loyal animal. A medium-sized dog like Basil is perfect.”
Michael adds: “And there are things like health and safety regulations to be aware of and adhere to. You would need to have warning signs as contractors are often coming and going – and of course not everyone is a dog lover.”
The British animal welfare charity Dogs Trust recognises that working around dogs can have huge benefits, but it also points out that the workplace needs to be enjoyable for the dog too.
“Workplaces can be unpredictable and could tire or stress any dog who visits,” it says, highlighting the Dog School classes it runs across the country. “These aren’t just about teaching basic commands, but more about helping dogs fit into normal family life and teaching owners to read their dog’s behaviour and build on their skills as an owner.”
While therapy dogs are sometimes taken into schools, care homes and hospices, there are still very few funeral homes in the UK providing this service to their clients. In fact only last year Basil was reputed to be the first funeral therapy dog in the UK.
Rosalinda believes that one of the reasons for this is that people just don’t expect to find a dog in this setting.
 “When funeral directors realise the benefits of having a therapy dog as part of their team, there will soon be a rise in the number of therapy dogs in funeral homes,” she says. “Families often remark at how helpful having Basil has been for them. This also carries on after the funeral, thus helping them with the grieving process.
“Just today a family have visited us. We did the funeral of their loved one recently and following this they telephoned to ask if they could collect the ashes and at the same time take Basil for a nice long walk.
“This kind of support is vital.”

PHOTO: Chester of Southall Funeral Service

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