NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH, Mass. — Charlie’s small paws pitter-patter across the carpet, trying to keep up with the humans he so fervently adores. When he gets to the office of Jay Elias, community director at Dyer-Lake Funeral Home in North Attleboro, the dog pauses, carefully considering his next move, before making the high leap to Elias’ office chair, where he comfortably settles.
Soon, all eyes are once again on him when he escapes to the floor and pulls out a rubber bone from its spot tucked away under Elias’ desk.
The 4-year-old lhasa apso-poodle mix has become a familiar face around Dyer-Lake Funeral Home, accompanying the team to community outreach events and acting as the official sponsor of the annual Strut Your Mutt fundraiser for the North Attleboro Animal Shelter.
The private pet of funeral home owner and director Michael Lake, he spends most days quietly resting in Elias’ upstairs office away from the funeral home’s typical affairs.
But, when someone once asked if Charlie could attend a business meeting, Elias obliged.
Soon he and Lake realized the effect animals could have on families and grief — a similar transformation being seen across the funeral industry.
“We found that people sort of exhaled when they were around Charlie,” Elias said. “Everything took on a more comfortable level.”
Another family who knew of Charlie from community events asked if he could sit in as they prepared arrangements for a loved one who had died. The family member had a dog of their own, and having the pet nearby seemed to make the tough process just a bit easier.
“It’s been transformation even in times of grief, this humanity of a dog in the room brings this kind of comfort,” Elias said.
The experiences with Charlie led the funeral home to seek connections with certified therapy dog owners in the hope that the animals could provide another layer of support that perhaps humans cannot.
And they’re not alone.
Therapy dogs, certified and trained to be extremely docile and attentive to emotional needs, are typically known for services in high-stress environments like schools, hospitals and assisted living homes. In recent years, they have become increasingly popular among the funeral home industry.
Some use the dogs in all aspects, from the planning stages to the funerals themselves. Dyer-Lake reserves use for private meetings with families alone, saying the one-on-one time with the family is invaluable.
But, there is a fine line that the funeral home tries to respect.
“Not everyone is comfortable with animals, and we don’t want to put off anybody,” Elias said.
Instead they’ve taken an informal, subtle approach to introducing the pets to their business. Posters around the meeting rooms advertise the service, which is free-of-charge to families. And Lake will only personally mention the option if a family hints at a special relationship with dogs or pets.
“It’s infrequent that people ask, but when they do, we have people on hand that we can call,” Elias said. “It’s been very informal but remarkable.”
Though Charlie’s not certified as a therapy dog, Elias remembers one moment vividly where he could tell the dog’s soothing skills had been handy.
Charlie attended the funeral home’s annual Christmas party dressed as Santa and immediately bonded with a woman who had lost her husband and dog in the same year. “She had a unique connection with Charlie,” Elias said. “She sat down and put Charlie on her lap and tended to him for most of the evening. And I felt like she could instantly see that life goes on. That she still had this life in front of her. That’s when I knew we were doing some good.”
Elias said the transition is subconscious, but remarkable.
“They really seem to draw on the kindness of animals and the compassion that animal offers,” he said. “They start to focus on the dog and not themselves. They focus on making him happy instead of their own grief.”
Charlie, he said, brings life and humanity to the funeral home.
At Bolea-Amici Funeral Home in Mansfield, therapy dogs aren’t part of the typical services offered. But some families have outsourced the token of comfort.
Funeral Director John Dunderdale said a handful of families over the last two or three years have asked permission to include therapy dogs secured by other means in their loved ones’ service.
“We would never object to that,” Dunderdale said. “It’s obviously difficult for someone to come into a funeral home to pay respects to a loved one who, just days before, was alive. Dogs are a great help for some people in that process. They can be a great comfort to a person who needs it.”
And the doting humans who enjoy their presence range from small children to the elderly, Dunderdale said.
The comfort of a pet, he said, knows no bounds.
“We never ask questions why they’re here or who needs them,” he said. “We just know that there is somebody here who needs that dog — and we respect that. We’ll go over and pet the dog and say hi, too. We want to make them feel at home.”
Dunderdale said working as a funeral director has opened his eyes to how much meaning pets can hold for families. He’s also seen requests from some who want to bring a family pet in for one last goodbye to their owner or loved one before or after a service.
Again, they always oblige.
But the future role of therapy dogs in the funeral industry remains unclear, Dunderdale said. Some people might be offended by the furry pets at a traditionally quiet and solemn event.
Elias agreed, which is part of the reason Dyer-Lake limits therapy dogs to private meetings with the family.
“We’re considering where to go with this,” Elias said. “Private time is different (than a visitation or funeral), so we’re not quite there yet. We’ll take our cues from our families.”
Information from: The (Attleboro, Mass.) Sun Chronicle, http://www.thesunchronicle.com