- Associated Press
Sunday, March 30, 2014

GREENWOOD, Ind. (AP) - The day had just started at G.H. Herrmann Funeral Home, and one of the key workers was just lounging around.

Jax, a laid-back black Labrador, lay on the carpet inside the funeral home office. Most of the time, he spends his days sleeping in a comfy spot.

But when a grieving family walks through the door, his demeanor changes completely. Instinctively, he approaches slowly, offering companionship and a furry head to pet.

“They can come in under the worst circumstances, to plan the worst thing that they’ll ever do, and if Jax can slip in there, put his head on their foot, it really helps. You can just see it,” said Jeff Herrmann, owner of G.H. Herrmann.

The dog has become an invaluable tool for the funeral home in helping local families deal with their grief. Jax, along with fellow dogs Lady, Gracie and Birch, are trained therapy dogs, certified to provide comfort to those dealing with the death of a loved one.

A gesture as simple as laying their heads on a grieving person’s lap or being there for a crying child to pet can make dealing with the process remarkably better, Herrmann told the Daily Journal (https://bit.ly/1iSeVpF ).

The dogs are at the funeral home office or hallway all of the time. People who aren’t interested in interacting can usually just step over or around them, Herrmann said.

Not too many people pass up the chance.

Some people even ask to bring the dogs with them to the cemetery, providing them with some comfort while they visit the burial site of a loved one.

“I’ve been in the funeral business for 40 years and met with thousands of families. I have never seen anything that can put a smile on someone’s face in a time of distress like these dogs,” Herrmann said.

Therapy dogs have become useful in treating physical, emotional and mental health issues.

Interacting with a dog has been proven to lower blood pressure and releases endorphins in the body that have a calming effect on people.

Therapy dogs have been shown to help people feel less isolated and alone when they’re depressed, and assist children in working through speech and emotional disorders.

“Our experience has shown that people can let go totally when they interact with a dog. The dogs are just there, to pet, to hug and to cry on,” said Ursula Kempe, president of Therapy Dogs International. “Their calming, loving presence can help during times of extreme grief. There is no need to talk, just to feel. The dogs can give what humans cannot.”

But while therapy dogs have become common in hospitals, mental health facilities and schools, G.H. Herrmann is unique in using certified therapy dogs in its funeral homes.

Herrmann came up with the idea about using therapy dogs in his funeral homes after a discussion with a long-time friend. Kevin Knartzer, director of training and canine development at Bargersville Veterinary Hospital, trains service dogs for the disabled.

One afternoon, Knartzer stopped by the funeral home to see Herrmann. He had brought Lady, a golden retriever he was training.

A family was planning the funeral of their father and grandfather who had died. But once the dog stepped into the room, the small children stopped crying and focused their attention on Lady.

“They’re planning for their grandfather’s funeral, and they’re crying. Then all of a sudden they see a dog, and they smile, their eyes light up and they felt better,” Herrmann said.

He and Knartzer immediately seized on the potential good that a therapy dog could provide. Lady didn’t have the right personality to be a service dog but would be perfect for comforting those devastated by loss.

“It lifts people’s spirits. Dogs give people a chance to take a break from their biggest worry and really have a moment to think of something else,” Knartzer said. “People almost transfer their feelings to the dog. It gives them that respite for a moment.”

The training program to become a therapy dog is extensive, Knartzer said.

He works with them just as he would with assistance dogs. The animals learn, through positive reinforcement, to walk without pulling on a leash and to stay when commanded.

The dogs also mold their personalities.

“You want one that’s laid back, a dog that enjoys seeing people, but doesn’t have to. You want a dog that likes people enough to want to see them, but not enough to jump up all over them,” Knartzer said. “It’s really a fine blend.”

The dogs get their first introduction to human contact through their breeder, who uses the dogs to work with inmates at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.

Specially-chosen inmates hand-feed the puppies for the first year of their life, play with them, train them and get them used to being around people.

Dogs with the proper demeanor - friendly around people and not easily distracted - move on to therapy dog training.

The program at G.H. Herrmann started tentatively.

Herrmann was concerned that while some people might enjoy having a dog present while they planned a funeral, others would complain.

But after three years, he has yet to hear anything negative about the program.

G.H. Herrmann now features four dogs, which split time among the three Herrmann locations.

Each dog has a handler who takes him or her home at night, feeds them and cares for them. All of them work for the funeral home.

Each of the dogs has become a celebrity inside the funeral homes.

Funeral director April Williams has seen how people have latched onto the dogs, coming back months and even years after a funeral to see the dog that comforted them.

“They really have a fan club. Kids will write them notes, color pictures. It’s really a form of grieving. Typically their parents are pretty upset, and they can share where they find comfort,” she said.

Lady is the diva of the group, according to both Herrmann and Knartzer. She loves string cheese and getting treats.

Birch loves to catch the Frisbee.

Jax, who works primarily in the Greenwood location, is a cancer survivor. Veterinarians found a tumor on his side, which Herrmann had surgically removed.

When the tumor reappeared two months later, Herrmann feared for the worst. But Jax was taken to Purdue University to participate in a breakthrough radiation therapy the school’s veterinary program had developed.

And today, the jet-black Labrador is cancer-free and healthy.

Each has a Facebook page with thousands of likes from people around the community.

An announcement on Jax’s page that he would be returning to work after cancer treatment garnered more than 700 likes and 28 comments.

The newest dog, Gracie, just joined the team in November. She is working two or three days each week, easing into the rigors of meeting with new people every day.

Herrmann prefers to take plenty of time to make sure the dogs are comfortable.

“Even for a fully trained service dog, it takes a long time to acclimate them. You really have to watch their demeanor,” he said.

The program has already exceeded what Herrmann envisioned when he started it, and he sees it continuing with more dogs.

Eventually, he would like to plan sessions where the handlers can take the dogs to local assisted-living facilities to interact with seniors.

The potential exists for them to work with special needs children as well.

“We’re so busy at the office, and it’s hard to pull them out of their element there,” Herrmann said. “But a lot of places have been asking us to bring them there.”

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