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This Therapy Dog Works in a Funeral Home

Legacy / Linnea Crowther

"Ally" the goldendoodle is trained to comfort people as they grieve

In some of the worst times of our lives, dogs are there to help us feel better. Some of them do it on a strictly amateur basis as our beloved family pets, but others are professionals. Funeral home therapy dogs are trained in the art of comforting humans as we grieve.

I had a chance to meet Ally, a goldendoodle who works as the resident therapy dog at Carson Celebration of Life Center in Maquoketa, Iowa. I talked to her owner and her trainer about how Ally does her job and why dogs are such a great fit for funeral homes. And I discovered that the future of grief support is furry and has a cold nose.

When you walk into Carson Celebration of Life Center, Ally is likely to be one of the first things you see. Her perch is right inside the door, prominently labeled: "My name is Ally. I am a registered therapy dog. I'm friendly. Ask to pet me." More often than not, Ally is sitting on her seat with her "Therapy Dog" vest on, waiting for someone to approach her. But if she's not there, it may well be because she's actively comforting a griever.

Ally's owner is funeral director Don Carson, who brings her to work with him every day. And every day, he sees firsthand how Ally is able to comfort the families he serves. One family specifically reached out to tell Carson how much they appreciated the extra care provided by a therapy dog. "Having Ally here was such a comfort to them," he says. "In fact, I remember the son, who's probably in his 60s. He got right down on the floor by Ally and was just comforted so much by just being around her."

Ally was trained by Jason Rowan, who owns K9 Comfort, a training and boarding service in nearby Bellevue, Iowa. Almost four years after her initial intensive training was completed, Rowan still works with Ally regularly and takes her out into the community to socialize at nursing homes and schools. He's also seen how effortlessly Ally can help comfort people.

"You would think that therapy dogs have this miraculous ability to sense grief," Rowan told me. "But I'm just kind of a realistic, down-to-earth person. And what I've witnessed in the last several years is that it takes people out of the moment they're in, just for a few minutes, to talk about their old farm dog they used to have, or the dog that they have at home now. And then, you find yourself talking about some silly dog story that doesn't have anything to do with what's going on in your life today. That's just a nice distraction."

Almost invariably, Ally is there whenever anyone comes to the funeral home. When families arrive to make arrangements for a funeral, their grief still very fresh and raw, Ally greets them. They may stop to pet her on their way in and out — and Ally might comfort them with her signature move of an extended paw for them to hold.

In the days that follow that arrangement conversation, Ally will be there again to greet the family and their loved ones as they arrive for the visitation and the funeral. While family and friends sit together at the visitation, Ally accepts their attention — and she has her eye out for the people who might need her most. 

"Sometimes, she can really pick out someone who's really hurting," said Cathy Easterly, the funeral home's hostess and funeral assistant. Carson agrees: "She'll go right to the person who's maybe having the hardest time." Easterling describes how Ally might interact with that person: "She'll just kind of sit down right on your feet. Just right there, close to you."

There are times when Ally can provide a much-needed distraction — for example, when a child is having a hard time behaving during a funeral service. Rowan says that's a perfect moment for Ally to intervene: "I just get Ally off of her place and we just walk over and sit right next to that kid. And all of a sudden, it's like somebody flipped a switch and the crying stops."

Ally has a great disposition for a funeral home therapy dog. She's friendly and easygoing, and she's not too apt to jump on you or lick you. She also has rock-solid obedience skills, thanks to months of training. She lived with Rowan and his family while he prepared her to earn her Canine Good Citizen certificate — the first step on the way to becoming a registered therapy dog. Her training has made her feel comfortable and confident around all kinds of people in all kinds of moods. 

Life isn't all work for Ally, though. Now that her initial intensive training is years in the past, she lives with Carson and his family full-time, and she loves playing with toys and chasing squirrels in her downtime. But she loves her work, too. Many dogs thrive on having a job to do, and it's especially positive for a dog when her job is to show affection to humans. There's a natural bond between the two species, and extending a friendly paw is an easy job for a dog to fulfill. 

There aren't many funeral homes with therapy dogs just yet. Carson estimates fewer than a hundred in the U.S. have made the commitment. But those funeral homes that have made the leap to train a dog and include it in their day-to-day business have found, like Carson, that the impact is entirely positive. 

"What she does is very subtle," he says. "It's an extra little care that we're able to provide for families. It may not be something that's visibly seen every single time, but it's there. It's just one of those things that you've got that helps the family through a difficult time. And we're very proud of her. It was a great decision to make, to bring her in."