Dogs at Funerals

Main image by Darley Funeral Directors

Dogs are part of our families and for many people, their dogs are their world. When somebody dies dogs do not understand why their human isn’t returning home leading to grief and confusion. The well known story of Greyfriars Bobby depicts both loyalty and sorrow from Bobby the cairn terrier who according to the story, sat on the grave of his owner.

Our times have changed since Bobby’s day and dogs are seen as family members rather than being owned animals. They are included in our celebrations and family activities. Dogs attend weddings, and many attend funerals.

Should Dogs Attend Funerals?

Sometimes a person’s dying wish could be to have their four legged family member present at their funeral. The unconditional love and bond between them and their pet are irreplaceable, so it would comfort the person who died knowing that their pet was able to attend.  They are part of the family so it is natural that they too should be there amongst family and friends. 

Of course it is not possible for all types of pets to attend, but dogs are one of the most suited pets to attend a guardian’s funeral.  While some crematoriums and venues allow dogs, not all do.  It is important to plan to make sure the funeral can be held at a pet friendly venue meaning that their request can be met.

It is always both heart-warming and sad to see dogs present at funerals, who can forget the images of the Queens Corgi’s Sandy and Muick sat in front of Windsor Castle and her horse, Emma stood close to floral tributes along the procession route?  Saying goodbye to their mistress as her coffin passed by, it was even remarked that Emma appeared to lift her hoof as a mark of respect as the coffin passed by her. Two of the Queens biggest passions were her dogs and her horses, it was fitting that that some of her beloved animals were there.

There are some very positive reasons for dogs attending funerals, their being there can benefit those attending, they can provide a calming presence, as they can break tension and lower anxiety, helping people feel more at ease.  If there are children attending it may be the first funeral they have experienced, seeing so many upset adults around them can be confusing and frightening, a dog can help ease them and provide a calming distraction.

Dog at funerals

Do Dogs Grieve?

We know dogs are sensitive, some breeds more than others, but do they grieve in the same way we as humans do and are they able to understand what is going on when they attend a funeral? A study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has found that animals do mourn when their guardians die. They believe a dog mourns just as deeply as we do. Both at the loss of other dogs they were bonded with, but they also mourn the death of their guardian or family member.

The ASPCA’s observations revealed that at burials some dogs would stay at an owner’s grave, sometimes refusing to leave.  Their study also found that a dog can even lose their energy and appetite for weeks after a death. The story of Greyfriars’s Bobby springs to mind.

Whether attending a funeral is any benefit to them we do not really know.

Should You Take Your Dog to a Funeral?

It largely depends on the dog and how it would cope and behave at a funeral. A dog who is not comfortable with new people and unfamiliar surroundings would struggle and possibly be reactive in such a situation making what is already a stressful time even more difficult for whoever is charged with taking care of the dog during the ceremony and be distracting for everyone else in attendance. 

Likewise, an over exuberant or vocal dog could cause disruption and distractions.  If you can overcome this by keeping them entertained with a toy, long lasting chew, or enrichment activity, then all could be well. It is not a good idea to let them have a toy that makes a noise, the last thing you need is constant squeaking for the duration of the ceremony! If you don’t think they would cope or behave, then it is probably best leave them at home or with a friend.

If you are a guest at a funeral and want to take your dog then you should always check with the family, you should never just turn up with them. You would also need to check with the venue beforehand, even if it is at a cemetery or natural burial ground check with them to see what their policy is.  If you have a support animal, they are most likely an exception to pet policies. If you do take your dog to a funeral you are attending always keep it under control on a lead and clean up after it.

What About Other Pets at a Funeral?

A horse or pony can play a part by pulling the carriage carrying the coffin. Unfortunately, in some cases it would be entirely impractical to include a pet at a funeral. A six-foot long python draped around the neck of a guest is likely to have the opposite effect a dog does at a funeral, with many, not all, anxiety levels raised rather than lowered.  Even the friendliest and most chilled out cats would probably struggle with the environment, and any caged animals or birds would be better left at home as it would be far too stressful for them. 

Grief Therapy Dogs

While not yet that common in the UK some funeral directors have started working with grief therapy dogs.  Often their own pet they have found they can help clients when they visit the funeral home, in the same way they do when present at a funeral, helping to lower anxiety with their calming presence.  With permission they can also visit people in their own homes and can be a great comfort and help people feel companionship after the death of their person.  At the family’s request they can then attend the funeral.

Therapy dogs are used in so many other areas of our lives, guide dogs and assistance dogs, pets as therapy (PAT) dogs visiting hospitals and hospices, reading dogs in schools and dogs being used in universities to combat stress and boost concentration. While dogs are used in care homes assisting residents coping with grief they are still rare in the funeral industry.  Hopefully in time this will change and there will be dogs present at all funerals.