Good-natured, calm, and strong, Fiona is exactly the one you can turn to in the midst of grieving for a lost loved one. Except that Fiona is not a member of the family or your best friend, but a big Bernese mountain dog at the Marine Park Funeral Home in Brooklyn, New York.
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), Bernese mountain dogs are huge, powerful, and built for hard work, but are also generally placid and gifted with a sweet, affectionate nature.
Owner Nora Pavone, who is a director at the family-owned funeral home, has seen the gentle interaction and the solace Fiona has given to their clients. She recalled the time when a woman arrived to view her mother’s remains. The woman was clearly upset, but the big Bernese mountain dog seemed to sense her distress and pain, and came to her side. “I could see how Fiona was clearly focused on her,” Nora said. “It’s amazing to see her work a room. She knows who’s in need of her. She really can read emotions.”
Seeing how effective Fiona was at the funeral home, Nora made sure that the 18-month old, 100-pound dog was properly trained to comfort grieving families. “We wanted her to have proper manners when she’s meeting with so many different people… for her to just be polite and gentle and always in control. To gently go up to someone and nudge their hand when they just need her to be next to them.”
She enrolled Fiona in AKC’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) program, which instills basic skills that build confidence and ingrain good manners in dogs. Initiated in 1989, the program is open to all dog breeds, including big Bernese mountain dogs. Certification in the program signals responsible pet ownership and superb canine manners. Dogs need to master 10 skills including following basic commands and actions to sit, stay, or come when called; accept friendly strangers; walk through crowds; and behave politely in the presence of other dogs.
CGC-trained dogs handle themselves with grace, and become good companions for the family and great neighbors. Therapy dogs now require CGC training, and in many cases, apartments and condos are more likely to welcome families with CGC-certified pets. Upon finishing her training, Fiona earned the additional milestone of being AKC’s millionth Canine Good Citizen! Nora is acutely aware of how the program benefitted Fiona. “CGC has helped me forge such a strong bond with Fiona,” Nora said.
“The faith I have that Fiona will behave in a polite and gentle manner in all settings has allowed me to enjoy her to the fullest. For all those reasons I would highly recommend the program. Your relationship with your dog will benefit, as will your dog’s relationship with the world.”
The big Bernese mountain dog has since been putting her training to good use. Fiona has become a fixture at the funeral home, working on as much as five services a day. Funeral visits are emotionally-draining but Fiona is so effective that she has even managed to elicit smiles from visitors. Nora stated, “It can be intimidating going into a visitation room for the first time. We’ve noticed a huge positive impact that she’s had.”
Families have even requested her presence and Nora is just blown away by people’s response to Fiona. “I love dogs, but I didn’t know how it would be perceived in this setting. But it seems like actually, this would be the place where it would be needed the most.”