- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2021

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Sometimes, the consolation needed during someone’s most difficult time - the death of a loved one - can come simply from petting a dog.

Barbara Juchniewicz of Allentown visits occasionally at Kohut Funeral Home with Ketchup, a bright-eyed, stocky corgi, as she mourns the loss of her husband, Stanislaw, who died Jan. 29, 2014.

“I sometimes talk to Ketchup,” Juchniewicz said recently, “everything about the family, how he’s feeling. He kisses me and gives me his paw. He’s a very friendly dog.”

Madonna DiRocco also felt the warmth from Ketchup during services for her stepfather. The Allentown woman said she also met Sammy, a golden retriever residing at Stephens Funeral Home in Upper Macungie Township, last summer during funeral services for her husband’s aunt, Elaine Geiger.

“You think to yourself, wow, everybody should be doing this,” DiRocco said. “At this time, people do need comfort, and there’s nothing like a dog. They just sit there and let you pet them. They understand what you need.”

The 37-pound, short-haired Ketchup, (whose name comes from his hair color, according to his owner, funeral director Felicia L. Wiedemann) and Sammy, a long-haired, 85-pounder owned by funeral director Matthew S. Stephens, are therapy dogs.

While their roles are not unique - animals have soothed the nerves of everyone from schoolchildren suffering from trauma to nursing home residents unable to see visitors during the coronavirus pandemic - they are believed to be the only two canines working at funeral homes in the Lehigh Valley.

The use of therapy dogs at services memorializing loved ones has been growing for decades in the U.S., according to a recent blog by the National Funeral Directors Association. Citing the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, the funeral directors group said the first formal research involving animal therapy can be traced to the 1960s, when studies showed the positive effects dogs had on humans in therapeutic situations.

The practice became more formal in 1989, when certification for Animal Assisted Therapy was established, according to the national funeral directors group.

But neither the national group nor the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association had specifics on how many therapy dogs are employed by funeral directors.

“To the best of my knowledge, these pets are not common,” said Kathy Ryan, a state group’s spokesperson. “We do have a few around the state.”

‘This is my job now’

Funeral directors such as Stephens and Wiedemann have realized the benefits of therapy dogs to the families they serve. They say these dogs sense a person’s emotional needs and respond to them with unconditional love and affection, making them a welcome source of comfort after a heartbreaking loss.

With dog fur clinging to her leg, Felicia Wiedemann of Lehigh Valley Therapy Dogs waits with her corgi Ketchup for someone to come in for a visit at the Parkland Community Library in South Whitehall Township in this file photo. Wiedemann, a funeral director in Lehigh County, has also trained Ketchup to help grieving families.

Ketchup was about 1 year old around Christmas 2016 when Wiedemann first noticed the pup’s socialization abilities.

When Juchniewicz visited the home to spend quiet time with her late husband’s urn and cremains, Ketchup allowed the woman to pick him up and hold him, Wiedemann said.

“She comes in every holiday,” Wiedemann said, “and I put his urn on my table and she has little candles she brings and things. And Ketchup said hi to her. She sat on the chair, picked him up and held him, and she was crying.

“And he just sat there and was like, ‘This is my job now.’”

Wiedemann and Stephens have had Ketchup and Sammy undergo testing with therapy dog groups to be able to continue their work, whether it’s visiting local facilities or providing mourning families at funerals with an opportunity for comfort. Stephens said he attends continuing-education seminars to learn more about using Sammy as a therapy dog.

“My Sammy is amazing,” a beaming Stephens said, noting how his former owner had bred the retriever to be a show dog, but that the dog lost out on that role because of missing molars.

When people are at the funeral home, Stephens said, Sammy is usually there to meet people and be available to provide a calm amid the storm of funeral preparation.

“When a family visits the funeral home’s arrangements room, somebody will invariably spend time with Sammy and pet him,” Stephens said. “He has become my most requested employee on staff, believe it or not. He just has a gift.”

For the people who meet Ketchup and Sammy for the first time at the funeral homes, the dogs can reduce anxiety and perhaps wipe away some of the sadness. Without forcing them on clients, Wiedemann and Stephens say that is the hope.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Ketchup would visit St. Luke’s Sacred Heart Campus in Allentown. Patients and staff enjoy the friendly pooch, according to Beth Fogel, volunteer services and student relations coordinator with St. Luke’s University Health Network.

“The patients and staff love when Ketchup and his handler, Felicia, come to visit,” Fogel said. “The smiles and joy fill the hallways and group rooms as Ketchup shows off his tricks for his new friends. His playfulness and energy puts people in high spirits and we are so thankful that Ketchup and Felicia spend their time volunteering at St. Luke’s Sacred Heart Campus.”




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