Grief therapy dog introduced at local funeral home

Jake Hebdon, owner of Cooper Funeral Home, gives his goldendoodle Thomas J. a treat for obeying a command to get into his bed. Thomas J. is being trained as a grief therapy dog.

MEDINA — Funeral director Jake Hebdon has experienced grief in his life and knows it can be difficult to deal with.

He thinks he may have hit on a unique way to help people feel more at ease when visiting a funeral home.

Hebdon has owned Cooper Funeral Home since December 2018, and prior to buying it, he resided on the third floor. He has always loved dogs but knew having a dog above a funeral home wasn’t the wisest thing.

“I knew I couldn’t have a dog living up there,” he said.

But after deciding to purchase his own home in Medina, Hebdon started thinking seriously about getting a dog. And not just any dog.

“I did some research to see if anyone had such a thing as a grief therapy dog,” Hebdon said. “I found that in all of Western and Central New York, there was only one, a funeral director in Orchard Park. I thought having a therapy dog in the funeral home would be a nice touch. Nobody knows what to say when they visit a funeral home, and having a puppy would be a great way to break the ice.”

Hebdon contacted the funeral home in Orchard Park and asked how they did it. He found they mostly kept their dog in the office.

So he did some more research and discovered goldendoodles are hypoallergenic and don’t shed, qualities that would be important for a dog that’s going to be around all kinds of people.

Hebdon got Thomas J. as a puppy 2-1/2 years ago and immediately started him in training. Initial training is as a comfort dog, and eventually Thomas J. will be certified as a grief therapy service dog.

Thomas J.’s trainer is Sarah Reed, owner of Fort Hyde Kennels in Gasport. The dog has completed intensive in-kennel training, as well as specialized training at the funeral home.

“We understand not all people are dog people, so we plan to offer his presence at calling hours, only if the family wishes,” Hebdon said.

Thomas J. was named after a character in the 1991 movie “My Girl,” a fictional piece about a girl named Vada Sultenfuss who grew up above her father’s funeral home. The movie is a coming-of-age story about Vada and her best friend, Thomas J., played by Macauley Culkin, and the unique views on life of someone who grows up around the funeral business.

Since Hebdon got the dog while he was still living above Cooper’s Funeral Home, he thought Thomas J. was a fitting name.

Reed told Hebdon that Thomas J.’s breed is great for this purpose, but it will take about three years for him to outgrow the puppy stage.

After three weeks of in-kennel training, Reed came to the funeral home to work with Thomas J. one day a week for a month.

Thomas J.’s bed has been placed in an out-of-the way corner of a room where he has been trained to go at the command to “place.”

Hebdon has invited friends in to have a make-believe funeral ceremony to see how Thomas J. reacts.

He said if people are stand-offish, they don’t need to have any interaction with the dog. He said most likely the dog would not be present at the actual funeral service, only at calling hours, if the family approves.

Hebdon has been in the funeral business since 2007, when he went to work for Tim Cooper.

“Tim has been a tremendous mentor to me,” Hebdon said.

Hebdon thinks Thomas J. is getting very close to being ready to greet guests in the funeral home.

“I’d do anything to comfort people who are in grief. I’ve been in their shoes, and I know how awkward it can be,” he said. “If having Thomas J. in the room eases their tension, then I’ve achieved my goal.”

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