Imagine you’ve just lost someone you love very much and have arrived at a funeral home for their memorial service. As you take your seat and wait for the service to begin, the reality of the situation hits you – you will never see your beloved person again. You begin to weep, feeling somewhat awkward because you don’t know the people sitting near you and don’t usually cry in front of strangers.
Suddenly, as if one cue, you feel a warm presence. You glance over and realize a fluffy, reddish-brown dog is standing right by you. Decked out in a blue vest that says “Therapy Dog,” she stares up with soft brown eyes and gently wags her tail. You can’t resist smiling as you begin petting her soft, curly head. And although you’re still sad, you realize with wonderment that some of the stress and tension has melted from your body. All thanks to a little canine grief therapy.
Wouldn’t it be great if all memorial services included therapy dogs? While this trend has yet to spread widely across the funeral home industry, at Ballard-Durand Funeral & Cremation Services in White Plains, New York, it’s very much a reality – in this case, in the form of a one-year-old Goldendoodle named Lulu. Known as a “comfort companion,” the friendly, sweet-natured pup is made available upon request at any wake, service, or ceremony to comfort mourners while providing a subtle distraction from their grief.
Since her arrival at Ballard-Durand last spring, Lulu has become a welcome fixture at both of the company’s funeral home locations, whether she’s lounging around the office, welcoming visitors in the main hallway, walking through the chapel, or sitting next to people and waiting to be petted. Specially trained to sense grief, she always seems to “know” when someone needs her calm, soothing presence, says Ballard-Durand CEO Matthew Fiorillo, who is also Lulu’s “dad” and handler.
“It’s just amazing how her presence creates a sense of calm for people, especially when they walk in,” he says. “Wakes and funerals are always an awkward situation, but Lulu just softens the mood. I don’t know if certain people look different to her or she senses something, but she has an uncanny knack for knowing who’s going to appreciate her presence more. She’s just a great addition to our staff.”
Whether they’re used in hospitals, schools, rehabilitation centers, hospices, psychotherapy offices, nursing homes, universities, airports, or crisis situations, therapy dogs can provide invaluable psychological and physiological support to individuals in need. After all, the act of simply petting a dog has been shown to decrease stress hormone levels, regulate breathing, and lower blood pressure. And since the death of a loved one can be a very traumatizing experience for people, it makes sense that therapy dogs would be a great fit for the funeral home environment.
All that began to make perfect sense to Fiorillo after an experience at an airport helped him fully appreciate the healing power of dogs.
“I was stuck in an airport in South Florida two years ago around New Year’s, and I was frustrated because my flight was delayed about five hours and all the gates around me were canceling one by one,” he says. “It was stressful because I needed to get home and I was worried my flight was going to get canceled. Tempers were flaring, there were arguments at the gate, people were pushing and shoving, it was just a scene. All of a sudden a woman walked by with a little white Maltese dog, and I just watched as this wave of calm washed over everybody who interacted with this dog. Even if they didn’t pet the dog, everyone was looking and saying, ‘Oh, look at the cute little dog.’ It came all the way across to where I was sitting, and I felt that wave of calm and felt included. And I thought, wow, this is such a powerful thing, I have to implement this at the funeral homes!”
Inspired, Fiorillo went to work researching therapy dogs and the best breed types for the role. With their naturally friendly, easy-going temperaments and hypoallergenic coats, the Goldendoodle seemed like the best choice for Fiorillo’s funeral homes.
“A Goldendoodle is a first-breeding of a Golden Retriever and a Standard Poodle,” he explains. “If you get that litter, you run the risk of either having all Golden Retriever and a tiny bit of Standard Poodle or vice versa, and I didn’t want that crapshoot of what I was going to get. So the breed I got was an F1b, which means a Goldendoodle bred with a Standard Poodle, or a Goldendoodle once removed. You’ve got the intelligence of the Standard Poodle, and it sort of makes sure the dog will be hypoallergenic.”
After more extensive research, Fiorillo found a Goldendoodle breeder in Orlando who specializes in therapy and service dogs, selected Lulu with the help of careful temperament testing, then placed the pup in the expert hands of Jocelyn McGuiness of Barn Yard Ventures, a nonprofit that breeds and trains F1 and F1b service Goldendoodles in Clermont, Fla. Although Fiorillo didn’t meet Lulu in person until McGuiness brought her to him last April, he didn’t miss a step of the puppy’s yearlong training process via regular updates, conference calls, and photos.
“During her training Lulu was a weekly visitor to Disneyworld, and she was taken to farmers’ markets, train stations, bus stations, anywhere it was really loud and there was a lot of commotion,” Fiorillo says. “She learned to accept affection from kids, people old and young, and had to learn to not get spooked by sounds, loud noises, or people of all different shapes and sizes.”
He continued, “After about a year, Jocelyn drove her here from Florida, then shadowed Lulu and me for a week. She followed me wherever I went, with my normal routine now involving a dog, to make sure anything I did didn’t mess Lulu up or scare her in any way. Besides making sure she could correct anything that happened, she was also there to train me as Lulu’s handler.”
Although Fiorillo decided to hold off a few weeks and let Lulu adjust to her new life before putting her to work, it wasn’t long before the smart pup realized what she was meant to do.
“After a few weeks of bringing her to the funeral homes a few days here, a few days there, she just fell into her role and embraced it,” Fiorillo says. “Her tail would go up, her ears would perk up, and she would just walk in and prance into the chapel as if to say, ‘Who needs me? Where do I need to be?’ She really knew what her job was, and she just owned it – it was amazing.”
In the few short months she’s been part of the Ballard-Durand team, Lulu has already interacted with hundreds of people at dozens of funerals and wakes, doing her best to provide unconditional love to clients in need.
“I had one client who wanted Lulu there every step of the way, for the first wake, the second wake, and the funeral in the morning,” Fiorillo says. “I’ve had kids lie with her on the floor and put little flower buds in her hair to try to dress her up. I overheard one little girl, who was there for her grandfather’s service, say to Lulu that she missed her grandpa. She was just talking to the dog because she felt that Lulu’s purpose was to listen to her.”
Besides learning to master basic and more specialized commands, Lulu has also perfected the art of serious cuteness, to the delight of many of the younger Ballard-Durand clients.
“She says a prayer,” Fiorillo says. “She’ll put her paws up on the kneeler, put her head down between her paws, and stay down for a little bit. It’s great when we have young visitors at the funeral home, especially if they’re afraid to go up to the casket and kneel down and say a prayer, she’ll go up with them. I’ll tell them, ‘Lulu’s going to say a prayer with you. Why don’t you come with me?’ Then I’ll walk her up on a leash, and I’ll have a treat ready, and she’ll do the prayer. It puts a smile of their face when they don’t want to smile.”
Like most therapy and service dogs, Lulu is calm and focused while on the job but playful and puppy-like once her vest comes off. Besides cuddling with Fiorillo and his wife at home, Lulu loves going for walks around the neighborhood, playing Frisbee, chasing balls in the yard, and lying on her belly in the cool grass. But when it’s time to go back to work, it doesn’t take much to put Lulu back in her zone.
“She knows what she can get away with and what she can’t when she has the vest on, but when the vest is off, I give her a break … I let her be a dog,” Fiorillo says. “She just decompresses when the vest comes off. Not that she doesn’t like the vest on, because she does, she just perks up in a different way.”
There’s nothing like interacting with a sweet, friendly dog to lighten the human heart – Lulu is proof of that. Sort of a grief counselor with fur, the gentle pup has not only assumed her calling as a comforter of the bereaved, but has also managed to work her magic on the Ballard-Durand staff in the process.
“The staff has really embraced Lulu, and they get really excited to be able to offer something so unique that no one in my market has thought of or has the ability to do,” Fiorillo says. “They love it when they walk down the street or if they’re in a local restaurant and somebody asks, ‘How’s Lulu?’ She’s brought a really great atmosphere to my culture at the funeral homes, and she’s a blessing for my staff and me. It’s fun to watch my funeral directors roll around on the floor with her in their suits and ties.”
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About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom, and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, she is especially focused on using her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website.