A distraught Dawn Tropeano-Giaramita was draped over the coffin of her 28-year-old son at Moloney Funeral Home in Lake Ronkonkoma, not wanting to let go. She was dreading the start of his wake when she was taken by surprise.
By a dog.
“I was just so overwhelmed, and then in walks Kota,” says Tropeano-Giaramita. “Just a sense of calmness came over me. It was just so comforting having him there, getting ready for friends and family to come visit.”
Kota, a jet-black Labrador/Weimaraner mix, is a grief support dog and a new staff member at the seven Moloney Family Funeral Homes on Long Island. Kota's services are available gratis at any point in the funeral process, says Peter Moloney, co-owner of the funeral homes. “It’s a new dimension that allows people to have a sense of comfort, touches them in a different way during their time of grief,” Moloney says.
While the Nassau-Suffolk Funeral Directors Association doesn't track which funeral homes might offer support dogs, the Wyoming-based nationwide Alliance of Therapy Dogs notes that the trend is growing across the country. "I do think that it is gaining in popularity," says executive director Billie Smith. "It's just proven that having the dog there relieves anxiety and stress."
Funeral director Jennifer Gagliano, for instance, is in the process of obedience-training her three puggles, named Skye, Hunter and Luna, to be grief support dogs for Dignity Memorial, a national company that owns Claude R. Boyd-Spencer Funeral Homes in Babylon and West Islip, Claude R. Boyd-Caratozzolo Funeral Home in Deer Park, and D'Andrea Bros. Funeral Home in Copiague.
At Moloney, Peter Moloney is Kota’s handler, and the dog is on a lead and wears a vest that says, “Pet me, I’m friendly.” Kota is 3 years old, weighs 60 pounds and has smooth, close-cropped, short hair and yellow eyes. Typically Moloney will take Kota into a wake for about 20 to 30 minutes. “If the circumstances allow, and it’s a calm setting, I’ll take him off the leash and he’ll just float around the room,” he says.
“It helped my daughter and my nieces and nephews,” says Cherise Anderson, 50, of Sayville. Anderson’s mother, Rosemarie Giargente — the children’s grandmother — died of lung cancer in August at age 71, and the children, ages 8 to 14, were upset at the wake. “They were crying, and as soon as they saw the dog, they were hugging him. You could tell it just made them feel better,” Anderson says. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.”
Says Amanda Anderson, 13: "I think everyone forgot why they were there and just focused on the dog. It got rid of the emotions for just a few minutes, which helped a lot of people."
Moloney has owned Kota as a family pet for a couple of years, since one of his four children was a student at the University of Arkansas and rescued Kota, bringing the dog home to Bayport. “I recognized that he was really bright and easy to train,” Moloney says. He hired Sublime K9 Dog Training of Wantagh to conduct a monthslong training program that ended in May with Kota being certified as a Canine Good Citizen. That American Kennel Club obedience designation requires the dog to pass 10 tests, including remaining calm when exposed to strangers, not jumping on them, and being respectful to other service dogs who might be brought into a visitation, says Katie McKnight, the dog trainer who worked with Kota and will be training funeral director Gagliano's puggles.
Tropeano-Giaramita, 55, was one of the first people to benefit from Kota after her son James died of an opioid overdose in May. “No mother should ever have to lose their child to addiction. This is a horrible epidemic. My heart hurt so much it was hard to breathe,” says Tropeano-Giaramita, who lives in West Melbourne, Florida.
Moloney saw Tropeano-Giaramita's anguish and asked her grown daughter, Nicole of Dix Hills, if she thought he should bring Kota into the room, and she said yes. “Peter gave me some treats to give him. He sat by my side. Up until everybody came, he was there for me,” Tropeano-Giaramita says. “It just helped me through.”