Cemetery owners use dog to comfort grieving customers

February 15, 2012

Building on the idea that animals have an innate ability to comfort people in times of need, a cemetery is using Sadie, a 5-year-old black Labrador retriever, to bring comfort to the grieving.

She is the pet of Trinity Memorial Gardens and Mausoleum owners Gail and Doug Manuel.

Although the Manuels had been thinking about training Sadie as a bereavement therapy dog for some time, they were missing an essential puzzle piece.

It was provided by Joshua Miller, a family counselor at Trinity Memorial Gardens in Waldorf. Miller has been at Trinity since the summer.

Before working for Trinity, Miller worked with animals in various capacities. He was a trainer at Dogtown Maryland in Brandywine and he worked for about 31 / 2 years a t Applejack K9 Academy in Charlotte Hall , where he was first a volunteer and then a full-time employee charged with the dogs’ care. Miller said he thinks working at both places put him on his current path.

Although Miller had no experience in the training or certification of potential therapy dogs such as Sadie, the Manuels thought his background working with animals would enable him to properly care for and train their dog.

Sadie has not undergone the training process for long but has adapted quickly.

“I began training Sadie in October of last year,” Miller said. “She lives on a farm, and she’d never had too much experience on the leash, but being of such a nature that she just wants to be involved, her training has excelled very fast.”

Miller is working with Sadie through Therapy Dogs International to get her accredited. There are strict guidelines.

For her certification as a therapy dog, Sadie will need to complete at least 50 visits to area businesses. Part of Sadie’s certification from Therapy Dogs International also relies upon the attainment of the Canine Good Citizen award from the American Kennel Club.

Sadie’s Canine Good Citizen test is scheduled for Wednesday. There are 10 areas with requirements that Sadie must satisfy, including walking through a crowd, responding well to other animals and strangers, not becoming distracted for too long, being well groomed and being pleasant and calm in a public environment.

After Sadie has earned the award, getting her Therapy Dogs International certification will be much easier. According to the Therapy Dogs International Web site, there is a good bit of overlap for the testing standards for both the Canine Good Citizen award and TDI certification: The only further requirements for TDI certification not seen in the good citizen award standards are reactions to medical equipment, peoples’ illnesses and children, along with giving a friendly greeting and ignoring any food dropped. Her test for Therapy Dogs International is not yet scheduled.

Sadie made her public debut for her training process at the Dec. 17 Christmas Tree of Remembrance ceremony at Trinity. Miller said she was exposed to a crowd of more than 200 people, and did “very well.”

After her success there, Miller said, it became clear Sadie could handle a larger crowd, and so he decided to take her to the Charles County Chamber of Commerce’s January mixer Jan. 5 in La Plata.

“It was a huge success,” Miller said. “We . . . eventually went into the room where the event itself was being held to see how she would handle all the sounds and how she’d react around a lot of people, and she was so calm. She lay down on the floor and she was just a happy, loving dog.”

Although Sadie is the only dog in the area being trained in bereavement therapy, she is not the only therapy dog.

At the Calvert Library Prince Frederick, the “Paws to Read” event, which began four years ago, offers young children who might be nervous about their reading skills to test them out on a nonjudgmental, furry ear. This year, about 30 children showed up to read to five dogs and even one cat.

Sadie has been able to satisfy the requirements for visits by simple trips into the community, which Miller said requires some planning in its own right.

“We always check to make sure we can bring her to these places,” Miller said. “Her behavior really could allow her to go anywhere, but we need to verify that no one has allergies or a fear of dogs or anything like that.”

Sadie’s training is progressing well, but she is not quite done, Miller said.

“We don’t foresee any problems with her, but we have to make sure her behavior is 100 percent under control first,” he said. They have not experienced any behavioral issues yet.

“If anything, she’s too good,” Gail Manuel said.

Sadie has made visits to families in need within the confines of Trinity Memorial Gardens. She is available to go to families at no cost to them, Manuel said.

“Sadie’s not a gimmick,” Manuel said. “She’s . . . here to help just as much as any of us are.” Once Sadie is certified, which Miller and Manuel hope to see accomplished in the near future, she still will continue to offer her services for love rather than money.

Miller and Manuel consider Sadie’s animal intuition to be among her most remarkable features.

“She always seems to know exactly who needs her most in a room,” Miller said. “Just the other day, I brought her into a room with a family where the husband had recently passed. Sadie walked around the room and greeted everyone, but she sat right next to the wife of the deceased. She stayed with her the whole time, and put her head in her lap. What’s incredible is this woman was not even the most visibly upset. She seemed to be holding it together pretty well, but Sadie just knew she was needed.”

Maryland Independent staff writer Meghan Russell contributed to this report.

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