Funeral director Nora Pavone knows well that for her patrons, it can be intimidating walking into the visitation room for the first time.
That is why bereaved clients who walk into the Marine Park Funeral Home in Brooklyn, New York, are immediately greeted by someone who “really can read emotions,” the director told People. It wasn’t another human being that Pavone was referring to but her Bernese mountain dog and canine grief therapy dog, Fiona.
Fiona has made the news recently, earning the unique distinction of being the millionth dog to receive the American Kennel Club’s “Canine Good Citizen” certificate. Passing a test that showed she could follow basic commands and actions like greeting a stranger, sitting, staying, and behaving well in crowded situations, including around other dogs, Fiona made Pavone proud, though not surprised.
“She really knows who’s in need of her and just gently going up to them and sitting next to them is so much more help than I could even imagine,” Pavone told Tablet.
At first, she wasn’t sure at first how the dog would fit in. The 18-month-old pup is now an indispensable part of Pavone’s operation. The young, small businesswoman had seen other therapy dogs interacting with people at nursing homes, hospitals, and schools, she said.
After deciding on getting a grief therapy dog, she knew she needed the right breed. After some research, she discovered Bernese mountain dogs, originally a hardy working breed from the Swiss Alps. Fiona, like others of her breed, is known for being “friendly to everyone, loves to make a new friend, and not shy to strangers in any way, and just gentle in everything that she does,” Pavone told News 12 Brooklyn.
After lots of training, including preparation for the American Kennel Club’s “Canine Good Citizen” certification, Pavone started introducing Fiona into the home.
“I love dogs, but I didn’t know how it would be perceived in this setting,” she told the AP. “But it seems like actually, this would be the place where it would be needed the most.”
Visitors at the home are told that they are free to pet and interact with Fiona. “We’ll walk her around the lobby, and a lot of times, that’s when the kids will get to see her and hang out with her,” Pavone explained, adding that families may also request her to be in the visitation room, where she would make laps in the room for people in need of comfort.
“It’s amazing to see her work a room,” Pavone said. Meanwhile, positive feedback about Fiona’s presence in the home has been nothing short of overwhelming. One family let Pavone know that after interacting with Fiona, it “was the first time that their family member has smiled since the passing of one of their loved ones.”
Meanwhile, Fiona has won a devoted following on Instagram and most recently the approval of the American Kennel Club. “We were training for a year to take the test, but we had no idea that she would be the millionth dog,” Pavone said, with considerable pride. “When they told us, we were so surprised and excited, it made everything even more worth it.”
Nor does Fiona just stay in the funeral home; on many occasions, she has accompanied Pavone to comfort grieving people at church services and at a 911 memorial in September 2019. “Sometimes people just want to hug her, pet her, and it just makes them feel a little bit more comfortable,” Pavone adds.