Gearhart Funeral Home's newest employee greets people when they visit and attends services. She also takes frequent naps, which aren't a part of her job description but are just fine with her co-workers.

Jackie is a therapy dog in training, providing comfort and attention to grieving loved ones. The Labrador retriever mix was adopted by Gearhart's funeral director Ryan Scharfencamp in October, and is working toward her therapy dog certification.

Her job is to bring an element of home to the Coon Rapids funeral home.

"I think that when you see the entire process of human life from birth to death, everywhere starting at hospitals, schools, everything, has therapy dogs or will bring therapy dogs in," Scharfencamp said. "So why not have them in the funeral home?"

After hearing about a funeral home in Wisconsin that had a therapy dog, Scharfencamp, a self-described animal lover, said that it was his own experience of having an animal to comfort him after a loss that stayed in his mind.

"I know when I experience personal losses, one of the biggest things that sticks out of my head is [when] my grandpa passed away, going home that night, and being greeted by my dog, just that comfort — my dog's name was Cocoa — she gave me," he said. "[Jackie] just brings that sense of homeyness, especially here at the funeral home because I don't think anyone there really expects to see a dog in the funeral home."

They are becoming more common, however. Hoff Funeral Homes funeral director Ashley Czaplewski said she understood the comfort and healing that animals can provide when she decided to add a therapy dog at their Winona location.

"You just think of your own pet, and when you come home and you've had a tough day and it's almost like they can sense that, and when they snuggle up with you, it just makes a world of difference. So why not bring that into the funeral home when families are already having a really tough time?" she said.

Charlie, the Hoff therapy dog, has his own title: CCO, or Chief Comfort Officer.

The two-year-old Labradoodle lives with Czaplewski and her husband but makes regular visits to the funeral home, along with nursing homes and the library. So far, he's living up to his title.

"Even in the first couple weeks we had him, it was kind of amazing because if a whole family would walk in the door to make arrangements, it was almost like he knew who needed him the most and he'd go right up to that person and just kind of sit at their feet and lean into them," Czaplewski said. "And you can just see a little bit of their tension and their stress just wash away temporarily as they're sitting there, feeling him and petting him."

She said it's important for funeral homes interested in employing therapy dogs to find ones that are mild-mannered and love people.

"That's kind of what it takes for qualifications on the dog's part. The rest, you can kind of work with them on, with the basic obedience and whatnot," she said.

"But I definitely think it is something that every funeral home should consider, because dogs really do have a tremendous impact on people that are grieving."

Up to the family

At Hoff Funeral Homes and Gearhart Funeral Home, families are asked if they are OK with interacting with a therapy dog.

"It's ultimately the family's decision," Scharfencamp said. "But the response that we've had from our families and families' guests, the public, has been phenomenal. Everyone thinks it's a great idea, and some people wonder why it hasn't been done sooner."

Although therapy dogs work in funeral homes elsewhere in Minnesota and beyond, he said he believes Jackie is the only one in the Twin Cities area.

People who are grieving might find it easier to connect with animals than other people, said Molly Ruggles, a clinical psychologist at the FamilyMeans Center for Grief and Loss in St. Paul.

Grief can be very isolating, she said, and can often create feelings of disconnection from others, something that animals can help with.

"But [there's] just that sense of others really not being able to fully understand, or even sometimes other important people in their lives not really being able to be fully present because of how painful it is, how painful it can be to be with someone else who is grieving," Ruggles said.

"And animals don't shy away from that. They can be incredibly present and kind and generous in their connection, even with someone who's in really extreme emotional anguish and pain."

'Going to work'

Just like Charlie, Scharfencamp said Jackie is good at picking out whom to approach.

"She looks forward to going to work every morning," Scharfencamp said. "She hops right in the car, lays down until we get to work.

"And then once we get home, [her therapy vest and harness] comes off, her collar goes on and she's like any other ordinary dog then. Likes picking on the cats, digging some holes in the yard."

Imani Cruzen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.