Cooper Funeral Home welcomes grief therapy dog to comfort people

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 6 June 2021 at 9:00 am

Photos by Ginny Kropf: Jake Hebdon is training his dog Thomas J., a Golden Doodle, to be a grief therapy dog to provide comfort to those visiting a funeral home.

MEDINA – Funeral director Jake Hebdon knows everyone has a different way of dealing with grief, and if there is any way he can make that process easier, he is willing to do it.

He thinks he may have found a unique way to help people feel less uneasy when visiting a funeral home.

Hebdon has owned Cooper Funeral Home since December 2018, and prior to buying it, he lived on the third floor.

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

Jake Hebdon, owner of Cooper Funeral Home in Medina, is training his Golden Doodle Thomas J. to be a grief therapy dog. Here the dog responds to the command of “Place” and takes his place in his bed.

But after deciding to purchase his own home, 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 the dog in the office.

So he did some more research and discovered Golden Doodles were hypoallergenic and didn’t shed, qualities which would be important for a dog that was going to be around all kinds of people.

He 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 movie character in the 1991 movie “My Girl,” a fictional movie 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 Macaulay Culkin, and the unique views on life of someone who grows up around the funeral business.

As Hebdon first got the dog while he was still living above the funeral home, he thought it was a fitting name.

Reed told Hebdon Thomas J.’s breed is great for this purpose, but it will take 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 him one day a week for a month.

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 have to have any interaction with the dog. He said most likely the dog would not be present at the actual funeral service, only calling hours, if the family approved.

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

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

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

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