Winston the Comfort Dog and His Role at a Funeral Home

Winston: Certified Comfort Dog at George Darte Funeral Home

I spoke with Gregory Darte, Co-Owner/Funeral Events Planner at George Darte Funeral Home about his Comfort Dog Winston.

What are the core values of your family funeral home?

Stewardship is giving of one’s time, talent and treasure. Treating families as we would want to be treated. To make sure the deceased person is safe and protected at all times, while providing exceptional care to the family members and their guests during their own journey of grief.

Tell me about the decision of having a Comfort Dog would benefit your funeral home?

My Dad (George Darte/Co-Owner/Funeral Events Planner) remarried to a veterinarian, so it was easy for me to ask him and for him to say yes. We had thought about it for a while. We researched out a nice breed that would be good with people, especially children. We found out that the Boston Terrier was of that nature. I never knew this until I got a Boston Terrier but my Grandfather – I’m the fifth generation in our family business – my Grandfather who would be the third generation, had Boston Terriers. Back then it wasn’t as accepted to have a dog in the funeral home as it is today. So, they had personal dogs that just happened to be Boston Terriers so it was sheer coincidence.

We find that the benefit is either sometimes people – guests and friends – will think that Winston belongs to the deceased or the family or they will be pleasantly surprised to see Winston when he is in the front foyer waiting for people. People will say: “There’s a dog here!” and people who have dogs or cats or are animal lovers will often enjoy a nice opportunity to give Winston a pet on the back, or a treat that we have at our front desk. So it’s nice because it’s also good for young children. It breaks the ice. Even for older people it’s a nice pleasant surprise. It’s kind of like the equivalent to having a baby in your arms, people sort of gravitate towards the baby. Anything that’s going on at a funeral home – death and various emotions – it sort of goes away a little bit for a short period of time. People might realize that there’s more to a funeral home than just a somber, dark and gloomy outlook. That there is some nice things that happen inside during a sad time.

Winston has led 17 chapel services where a family has requested for Winston to lead them in. He has been - on numerous occasions - requested to be available for families’ first visitation because usually that’s a hard time when people are seeing their loved one in their casket or coming together as a family for the first time since the death happened. People specifically request it because we have a picture of Winston on our website and on the front lobby wall with the rest of our team. He’s a certified Comfort Dog, but he’s not a Therapy dog or a Service dog. We have his diploma hanging on the front lobby wall right beside his picture and people get a kick out of it. For young kids who want to take Winston home we have a graphic arts department who created a sticker of Winston along with a brochure. In the brochure you can connect dots to create a picture of Winston and help Winston through a maze get to his bone. In a small and simplistic way, we talk about grief that a child under the age of 9 could understand. We hope that when kids and parents come here we can give them a little bit of a sense of a humanistic touch that: “Hey there’s a dog at the funeral home and we have a dog at home.” It’s kind of neat to have that mindset and people just love having Winston around. It softens the mood a little bit more.

Tell me about Winston.

Winston just turned six. My wife and I purchased him when he was six weeks old. We had him properly trained and he’s just a really good, mild-mannered dog. He will not bite, he will not bark at all. No one has ever heard him bark at the funeral home. When kids try to pull his ear or his tail, he will run the other way which is nice to see. During the arrangements is a really big time that families get to pet Winston or he’ll sit on their lap or beside them and people enjoy that for the time that they’re here because it just gives them a sense of release that they can pet Winston. He’s there to comfort them and a lot of people say: “It was very comforting having Winston beside me or on my lap.” He’s a small dog, he’s about 18 pounds. He’s not a big dog that can’t sit on your lap.

What is his role? What are the types of things that he does?

He gives kisses. Actually, he’s great for our team as well. If our team is really busy or if they’re having a hard day, they can just take 5 minutes with Winston. They love taking him outside to the washroom because they get a little break. It gives them a sense of refocus and they can recharge. They also get to express themselves a little bit, maybe not emotionally but physically because they get to play with Winston or pet him and it kind of gives them a sense of release.

For families, it does the same as well with the arrangements. People, when they touch or pet Winston they feel a little sense of release and a sense of normality during a time where things are all shaken up because of the death of the person and all these new experiences that they’re feeling and thinking about. They are not sure how to put things into perspective. It’s just a great joy of having Winston - from my point of view – here at the office but also at home as well. Most dog owners have to leave their dogs at home, they can’t take them to work. So it’s a real benefit for us to have Winston here but I think it’s a great benefit for families and our team to enjoy Winston. It’s just nice because he’s got this collar that jingles around and people know when he’s coming and going.

Then there are some people that are allergic or they had a bad childhood experience so we’ll usually ask the families prior to if it’s okay to have Winston come down on the floor for a few minutes. We’ll ask priests if they’re comfortable or not. So we just get a good feel if Winston can be made available. We have to keep in mind that we’re not offending people but we’re also letting them enjoy having Winston comfort them.

What have been some of the responses from the families when he’s involved?

We have a survey. On our survey it says, “What staff members were helpful during anytime of the funeral process”. I would say maybe 20%-30% of the time, Winston comes up. They remember Winston, they may not remember my name or another event planner’s name all the time but they’ll remember Winston. We’ve had families come to our funeral home who are dog lovers that never knew anything about us but through word of mouth people said: “Did you know that the George Darte Funeral Home has a Comfort Dog?” We don’t have people come in off the street and say: “Oh can I play with your dog?” People have come for visitations or for ceremonies and say: “Oh I’ve heard about Winston!” So it’s kind of neat to see that he’s branding himself if you will, in the community.

“Winston was very helpful for our children, for our grandchildren for the visitation for Mom.” That is some nice feedback that we’ve heard, it gives us some good testimonies. It wasn’t that we wanted to have Winston here to make our business grow or anything. It was just nice that I didn’t have to leave Winston at home and he could be well received hopefully by our team and by families and friends.

People get a kick of it when he’s around and he’s on the floor when a big service is going on. People just comment: “Did you see that? Is that a dog?” “Oh, that’s Winston!” So it’s kind of neat to hear that. I’d say very rarely we’ve had people who are offended with Winston. Society has changed from my Grandfather’s generation, even my father’s generation a little bit so who knows what’s in store in the years to come.

I know there are a few retirement facilities in our area that offer a bird or a cat or a dog and it wasn’t that where we got the idea from. Mark Krause - he’s out of Wisconsin - I’d heard of him having a Comfort Dog but I don’t know to what degree that Comfort Dog was used in their funeral home. I thought that it was kind of a neat idea. I’ve never had a dog that I’ve ever owned. So my wife and I kind of thought maybe it’s time that we try a dog and see how it goes. It’s been a real blessing and joy.

Is it something you’d recommend to not only funeral homes but other places like retirement homes for example? It seems you’ve received such positive feedback.

I would. Our florist, he bought a dog and he has his dog in his flower shop. There’s another gentlemen that does woodworking, he bought a dog and he uses the dog in his business. There’s a car cleaning business – all of these three families are families that we’ve served – and he bought a dog and the dog's at his business. So, maybe it's a coincidence, I don’t know. It’s just fun to have Winston here and to see the joy and comfort that people have in their eyes and their hearts when they get to play with him or just see him.

It’s great that you’re able to involve Winston in more of your life because it seems that all pets really want is to be with you all the time.

Unconditional love. The dog is man and woman’s best friend. I’d say – more so during the arrangements – people really appreciate having Winston there. We make arrangements from anywhere between 2-4 hours but he’s usually there for it all and people just really enjoy having that sense of warmth and comfort that he gives. He’s not doing much, he’s basically just sleeping there, lying on top of their lap but they just love having that feeling of a dog being there. That is priceless.

It sounds like he enjoys his job too.

He loves when we have receptions with food. He’s there like white on rice! He loves that, he won’t miss an opportunity to give the puppy-dog eyes and people just love that. They throw food at him and he won’t say no. I get to smell the gas at the end of the night!

For more information about Winston and George Darte Funeral Home please visit their website at www.dartefuneralhome.com