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Article: Debra Fry on Grief Dog Therapy in the Funeral Home (Podcast Excerpt)

Nov 06, 2014

If you haven’t had a chance to listen to our FuneralProChat podcast with Debra Fry on Grief Dog Therapy in the funeral home, a portion of the interview was recently published in American Funeral Director (October 2014). Debra was a guest in ASD’s booth during the NFDA Convention along with her beautiful Bermese Mountain Dog, Gurt. She spoke with directors there about the passion she has for training dogs to provide comfort to the bereaved. Read below to learn more about the work Debra has done with grief therapy dogs and how other directors can become involved.

Funeral Pro Chat is a new podcast series where funeral professionals discuss funeral trends, news and customs. The goal of Funeral Pro Chat is to inform and enlighten funeral professionals on a range of subjects that interest them. American Funeral Director will periodically provide edited excerpts from the podcasts to spur the discussion on topical issues affecting the industry.

Funeral service, it’s not a job, it’s a calling.

Nancy Burban and the vice president of ASD – Answering Service for Directors, Kevin R. Czachor, chat with Debra Fry, a director at Fry Funeral Home in Tipton, IO, about Grief Dog Therapy.
Nancy Burban: Hello to Kevin from ASD and Debra Fry, who started an exciting new program, called “Compassionate Paws Grief Therapy.” She trains dogs, mostly Bernese Mountain Dogs, to work in the funeral home as employees. They provide grief therapy to families and visitors. Welcome Deb, and thank you for joining us today.
Debra Fry: Thank you for having me Nancy and Kevin.
Nancy: Deb, I’m very familiar with grief therapy and the benefits, so I’m going to turn the program over to Kevin, as he has a few questions that he’d like to ask.
Debra: Thanks, that’s fine.
Kevin R. Czachor: Hi Deb. This is a fascinating topic. I’m really curious about what sort of training your therapy dogs receive?
Debra: Kevin, my personal therapy dog has her good canine ship. She’s therapy certified and she’s an international champion – which I’m extremely proud of. These dogs do not need to be certified to be a grief dog within a funeral home, but therapy certification will allow you to take your dog into more places like nursing homes, hospitals, hospices and schools.
Kevin: What’s the training process, Deb?
Debra: We visit your funeral home, explain the grief therapy program and answer any questions that you have. Then, if you choose one of our puppies, we will make sure that your puppy has all the proper health clearances. For weeks prior to your receiving your puppy, we do temperament testing. We put the puppies through the military biosensor program. This will help your pup manage any stressful situations. The puppies come micro-chipped and we also register them with the Puppy AKC. When the puppy is ready, we will deliver him/her to you and work with you to show you what training works best for your puppies so they can become a valuable member of your funeral home staff. If you choose a puppy that did not come from us, we can still work with that puppy within the grief program, but we can’t guarantee the health of that particular puppy.
Kevin: I’m sure that there are situations where you are just absolutely amazed at the dog’s ability. Can you just describe a situation where your dog has comforted somebody?
Debra: There was a situation that I will always remember. We were working with a family whose grandma had passed away. She had grandchildren that she was very close to and the children didn’t want to come to the funeral home. Death is difficult enough for an adult, but for children, it can be extremely traumatic. The mother was able to get them here by telling them “there’s a puppy at the funeral home.” Once they arrived I brought Gurt out and they spent the entire evening sitting on the floor in the middle of the room playing with Gurt. This was great for them and wonderful for the parents. Knowing that their children were taken care of freed up mom and dad to deal with their loss. Actually Kevin, ASD did a collage for your newsletter and there is a picture of those two children sitting on the floor with Gurt.
Kevin: Yes, I remember. Deb, where did you get the idea for Compassionate Paws Therapy?
Debra: You find therapy dogs everywhere there’s grief and pain. They’re in hospitals, hospices, schools and the military. During any national crisis, the first thing they do is bring in the grief therapy dogs such as 9/11 and at Sandy Hook. Not only for those affected by the tragedy, but for those who are attending to the tragedy.
So, 13 years ago, I was attending a workshop and a funeral director and his wife were training a Portuguese water dog as a grief therapy dog for their staff. I left knowing that one day I was going to do this work. I fell in love with the Bernese Mountain Dogand wanted one in our funeral home. We imported Gurt from Poland and when we brought her to the funeral home, the response was amazing. She’s now known all over town. We’ve had people come to the funeral home door and they just want to see Gurt. It happened so much that we were interviewed by the local news channel. It was then I felt that grief dog therapy is something I really need to share with other funeral homes.
Kevin: Did you have any other concerns?
Debra: I don’t want a funeral home desiring a Bernese Mountain Dog and buying from a puppy mill. I have a breeder friend who I acquired other Bernese Mountain Dogs from and I know her program. I know how good her dogs are and what she puts her dogs through as far as testing. So I contacted her and we joined forces and Compassionate Paws was born. The breeders work very hard to make sure that the characteristics of this dog are not compromised. They guard those bloodlines very closely.
Kevin: I try to imagine my two dogs and neither of them would be qualified to do any of this work. I’ve never seen a Bernese Mountain Dog in person. I’ve seen them on TV and they’re absolutely amazing dogs, but what makes Bernese Mountain Dogs good therapy dogs?
Debra: I’ve had Bernese Mountain Dogs for years. They offer to those grieving the same type of comfort that a teddy bear offers a child. They are a very striking dog; gorgeous and a dog that you don’t see very often; a very clean breed and they aren’t typically barkers. They’re not an overly active dog either, so they won’t jump all over people. They are a breed that has to be involved. They want to work. They are highly intelligent and eager to please. Once they get older, they acquire this uncanny ability of sensing who needs them the most.
Kevin: How long does it take to get out of the puppy stage?
Debra: Well, that’s where training comes in. Gurt is a year old and a puppy at home, but she knows when that vest comes on, we have to quit being a “family dog” and we now have to be staff at the funeral home.
Kevin: Deb, do you know of other breeds that would work well and ones that would not work so well?
Debra: Oh of course. Dogs are just like you with ASD. Your staff is trained extremely well. I know from experience in many cases, when we receive a death call, the first voice that they are going to hear to represent our funeral home, is ASD. When we go home at night, we sleep very peacefully knowing that we’ve handed our phones off to ASD. So any breed is going to work, but just like with ASD representing our funeral home, you have to have a dog that you are comfortable with, that you have full confidence and trust in. You have to make sure they have the right temperament. Safety is an issue. Your dog must be trained and qualified to do what you expect of that dog within your funeral home.
When a family walks through our door, Gurt represents our funeral home. When I have Gurt in our funeral home and I’m visiting with a family who a week later becomes an at-need family, is this family going to remember our funeral home because of Gurt or because of an ad that we placed in a newspaper?” It’s branding. Families know we care.
Kevin: Deb, you attended the Iowa convention. What was your experience like?
Debra: It was fabulous! We wanted to introduce funeral directors to “Compassionate Paws” and we attended the Iowa convention. Our booth was constantly active. Funeral directors not only stopped by to see our dog once, but several times to play with him. We had funeral directors sitting on the floor and the dog was having the time of his life.
Kevin: What about people who are not dog lovers? Does that ever happen and how do you handle this?
Debra: Many funeral directors ask me “what if people don’t like dogs?” And I say that no one has to interact with Gurt if they don’t want to. Gurt is always on a leash and always with me. We’ve never had a complaint. We’ve never run into a problem here.
Nancy: Deb, you’ve used the Fry Funeral Home as your flagship funeral home for this program and it’s been highly successful. I want to congratulate you on your new business – Compassionate Paws Grief Therapy. Best of luck introducing this concept so that other funeral homes can stand out in their community just as yours does. We thank you for chatting with us .Will you be teaching and how can people get in touch with you Deb?
Debra: Thanks Kevin and Nancy. I am teaching this grief therapy program in the fall and I’ll be at the NFDA in the ASD booth with Gurt if anyone would like to stop by and say hello. I can be reached at 319-383-4985 or You can also visit
Nancy: Funeral homes interested in this program can contact Debra and she can book a consultation with you. I encourage you to do that. All the information will be on her website, the ASD website, on and Debra’s Facebook page. Kevin, how can people get in touch with you?
Kevin: You can go to our website – or reach us by phone at 1-800-868-9950.
Nancy: You can find me on Facebook or

Click here to listen to the full Podcast and hear the interview in it’s entirety.

Funeral Pro Chat is a production of Burban Turner Media

© Nancy Burban 2014

About The Author

Jess Farren (Fowler)

Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD’s company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at

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