FOR many people, funerals can be some of the saddest days of their lives. It’s a final farewell to loved ones we have cared for and cherished for many years, and is often only a small part of the grieving process.
But one of man’s best friends is doing everything she can to help people through such a difficult time.
Meet Maisie – a four-year-old French bulldog – who lives with Philippa Hawkins from Fareham, a celebrant of five years.
Together, the pair have done a number of funerals together and have become quite the dream team.
While Philippa is at the front of the crematorium, celebrating the life of the departed, Maisie will be on the lookout for anyone who is particularly upset or distressed, offering them a helping paw and a cuddle to get them through the service.
Maisie’s natural instinct to give love and support to those who need it the most was first discovered when she comforted a grieving family at a funeral directors in Denmead.
‘I met Maisie when she was just four weeks old, when she belonged to my neighbour,’ Philippa said.
‘I fell in love with her straight away – she has these beautiful brown eyes and I could immediately tell she was really quite special.
‘I popped into Southdown’s Funeral Directors in Denmead for a catch-up with the owner. There was a family in the waiting room that had just lost their mum and Maisie went straight over to them.
‘She sat with them, played around and the mood in the room changed entirely – it hit me in that moment that Maisie was naturally a very caring dog.’
Maisie’s recognition of grief is practically instantaneous, even in crowded funeral services, and she has a knack for looking after people who are particularly struggling.
Instead of needing any particular training to become a funeral therapy dog, she is allowed to simply wander around and keep an eye out for anyone who needs some love and attention.
‘She loves giving and receiving affection from others, but more importantly she can be a more direct help than I can,’ Phillipa explained.
‘There was one funeral a couple of months ago – three or four rows back there was a woman who hadn’t caught my eye, but Maisie saw her and noticed how upset she was. She ended up spending the whole service keeping her company.
‘It’s been a very natural process for her; French bulldogs aren’t necessarily easy to train but she will literally do anything to comfort others.’
During these funeral services, Maisie may spend her time strolling up and down the pews, but knows her cues to return to the front of the chapel and will respond to certain movements made by Philippa.
The celebrant loves the working relationship she has been able to develop with her pet.
She said: ‘We’ve built up a great rapport with one another, which comes off really well during services.
‘She responds well to me and I’m able to incorporate what she’s doing into services.
‘I think most dogs are intuitive but its about honing that and allowing it to grow.
‘I’m so proud of Maisie – we make a great team, if I do say so myself. I don’t have to worry about her, she just gets on with her job.’
The pair can most often be found doing services at Portchester Crematorium, but work right across the surrounding area.
Maisie’s outfit, which matches her owners, says ‘Pat Therapy Dog’ on it – aimed as an encouragement to give the Frenchie some love.
‘When she didn’t have the outfit, people weren’t quite sure if they were allowed to pet her or not,’ Philippa explained.
When she’s not hard at work, Maisie is simply a run-of-the-mill pet, who enjoys the finer things in life like going on walks, having playdates with other dogs and chasing squirrels.
She certainly earns her keep, and is handsomely paid for her work – with biscuits and cuddles aplenty.
Philippa said: ‘Outside the crematorium, she’s just a normal dog.
‘Outside Portchester Crematorium there are quite a lot of squirrels – she gives me this look and I know she’s thinking about chasing after them! It must take a lot of willpower for her not to.
‘She just loves running around in general.’
It is believed that Maisie is one of just a few funeral therapy dogs in the Solent region, but Philippa says its a service that should be more widely provided.
She claims that 95 per cent of families agree to having a funeral therapy dog in their services, with particular popularity when there are children attending.
‘People often say they want to run away with Maisie, she’s just so adorable,’ Philippa said.
‘My job is to focus on celebrating the life of the deceased, but having Maisie around helps people with their grief.
‘It’s ideal for funerals where there are young people coming along because it can take their mind off the person they’ve lost, without taking them out of the service. It puts a smile on their faces and that can spread across the whole room.
‘It can be very difficult for people, but Maisie has a big heart and lots of love to give.’