MEDINA – Funeral director Jake Hebdon has experienced grief in his life and knows that it can be difficult to deal with.
He believes he found a unique way to help people feel more comfortable visiting a funeral home.
Hebdon has owned the Cooper Funeral Home since December 2018 and lived on the third floor before buying it. He’s always loved dogs, but he knew that having a dog over a funeral home wasn’t the smartest thing to do.
“I knew I couldn’t have a dog up there,” he said.
But after making the decision to buy his own house in Medina, Hebdon began to seriously consider getting a dog. And not just any dog.
“I did research to see if anyone had something like a dog for grief therapy,” Hebdon said. “I’ve found there is only one in all of west and central New York, an undertaker in Orchard Park. I thought having a therapy dog at the funeral home would be a nice touch. Nobody knows what to say when visiting 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 that they kept their dog in the office most of the time.
So he researched further and discovered that Goldendoodles are hypoallergenic and non-hairy, traits that would be important for a dog who will be with all sorts of people.
Hebdon got Thomas J. 2 1/2 years ago as a puppy and immediately accepted him into the training. The initial training is as a comfort dog, and finally Thomas J. is 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 training in the kennel as well as specialist training in the funeral home.
“We understand that not all humans are dog-humans, so we plan to offer his presence during office hours only if the family requests,” Hebdon said.
Thomas J. was named after a character from the 1991 film “My Girl”, a fictional play about a girl named Vada Sultenfuss, who grew up over her father’s funeral home. The film is a coming-of-age story about Vada and her best friend Thomas J., played by Macauley Culkin, and the unique perspective on the life of a person growing up in the funeral industry.
Since Hebdon got the dog when he was still living above Cooper’s Funeral Home, he thought Thomas J. an appropriate name.
Reed told Hebdon that the Thomas J. breed is great for this purpose, but it will be about three years before he outgrows the puppy stage.
After three weeks of training in the kennel, Reed came to the funeral home to work one day a week with Thomas J. for a month.
Thomas J.’s bed was placed in a secluded corner of a room where he was trained to go to “place” on orders.
Hebdon invited friends to a fake funeral to see how Thomas J. reacts.
He said that when people are aloof, they don’t need to interact with the dog. He said the dog would most likely not be present at the actual funeral, but only during phone hours if the family agrees.
Hebdon has been in the funeral business since 2007 when he worked for Tim Cooper.
“Tim has been a great mentor to me,” said Hebdon.
Hebdon believes Thomas J. is about to greet the guests at the funeral home.
“I would do anything to comfort grieving people. I was in her position and I know how uncomfortable that can be, ”he said. “If Thomas J. relaxes the tension in the room, then I’ve achieved my goal.”