JOJO, a certified therapy dog, with Travis and Amber Watkins of Watkins Brothers Funeral Homes.
A 7-month-old certified therapy dog has joined the Watkins Brothers Funeral Homes team to offer warm, fuzzy support and companionship to those struggling through grief. JoJo is a brown-eyed, curly-haired Labradoodle – a popular crossbreed created between a Labrador and a Standard Poodle – who will be available to greet clientele and offer friendly, no-questions-asked comfort.
“We’d been talking about getting a dog for a couple of years, actually,” shared Travis Watkins, Watkins Brothers President and Funeral Director. “So, 2021 just kind of worked out for us for a therapy dog we’ve been talking about since 2018. It’s just been a long process of getting her, and I think she came at a really good time.” He outlined some of the hard realities of grieving during a pandemic, with so many people limited from having “that outside support” they would normally have.
Travis, along with his wife, Amber, became intrigued by therapy dogs after Travis attended a national funeral home convention a few years back. They discussed it for about a year before entering into the lengthy process of finding the “right dog at the right time,” said Travis. They were on a wait list for another year before being matched with JoJo.
JoJo’s training and placement are from Ultimate Canine, an organization out of Indiana that offers expert, customized dog training, including therapy dogs, service dogs, police dogs and more. Being a Labradoodle is a boon in the funeral home business as the crossbreed often has the same hypoallergenic coats as their Standard Poodle ancestors, meaning they do not have fur, they have curly hair, with little to no dander. So minimal dander and shedding in a funeral home setting is ideal.
Labradoodle dogs are also known to have a calm temperament and are extremely intelligent and affectionate. Easy going, generally gentle personalities aid in the dogs making great therapy animals.
Amber explained they have already tested JoJo’s hypoallergenic coat on her sister, who is extremely allergic to dogs and she did not have a reaction.
When considering a therapy dog on par with JoJo, know that it will take a conscientious effort, however.
“We had to graduate to get JoJo,” Amber shared. “She trained for 15 weeks at the facility, and then the trainer came here and trained us for three full days.” Amber explained it took “a lot of practice.” They had to repetitively go over JoJo’s verbal commands and the proper corrective measures to take in facilitating her training. She is fully certified, but the training will be ongoing.
Starting out, JoJo will be slowly “eased” into the business, coming to work with Travis for short periods. When she is approximately a year old and completely acclimated to the area and her new life, her position will become full-time.
“It’s definitely a family-by-family thing, too,” Travis said, talking about clients. “If they want her or don’t want her, it is all up to the family.”
Travis added, “One of the big things I have seen is when families are coming in right now, they are grieving differently than they use to, which is even harder than before. JoJo can be there just to ease that, help those stress levels go down just a bit.”
The grief process has been made more complex during the pandemic due to social distancing and COVID-19 protocols.
“You can usually see it in people’s eyes when they come in,” Travis said. “The last place they usually want to come into is a funeral home, so when they come in and see a little puppy that is happy to see them, and be able to reach down and be able to pet her, I think that is a nice ice-breaker for coming into the facility.”
The couple is very committed to JoJo’s ongoing training, which involves a minimum of one-hour per day and brush-up trips to Indiana. No worries, though, JoJo has plenty of puppy playtime, too, and has already become a member of the Watkins family, enjoying special moments with their children – and helping with their own stress levels, as well.
As for what the community can do to help people who are grieving right now, Travis suggests, “Don’t forget those people who have had a loss, because it is so easy to forget right now because maybe you weren’t necessarily there. There are a lot of private services right now, so it’s easier to forget this other person is still grieving and they haven’t had those outlets they usually have to release that grief. Remember those people are still there and they still need your support.”
Watkins Brothers Funeral Homes includes locations in Owosso, Laingsburg, Durand, Corunna, Perry and Bancroft. For more, visit www.watkinsfuneralhomes.com.