Fiona the Bernese mountain dog comforts grieving loved ones during visitations and funeral services.
Fiona the Bernese mountain dog seemed to know she was needed when a woman arrived at a New York funeral home to view her mother’s body for the first time after her death.
The daughter was distraught and fearful of entering the visitation room, so the 18-month-old dog, who works with her owner at the funeral home, came to her side, stood very close and then allowed the woman to hold onto her as she walked inside.
“I could see how Fiona was clearly focused on her,” Nora Pavone, a director at her family’s business, Marine Park Funeral Home in Brooklyn, tells PEOPLE. “It’s amazing to see her work a room. She knows who’s in need of her. She really can read emotions.” Fiona, who is trained to provide comfort to grieving families, just became the 1 millionth “Canine Good Citizen,” a title bestowed by the American Kennel Club designating both responsible pet ownership and superb canine manners.
To earn the certificate, pups must pass a 10-step test showing they will follow basic commands and actions like accepting a friendly stranger, sitting, staying, coming when called, walking through a crowd and behaving politely around other dogs — no growling, snapping, biting or attacking.
The program, open to all dogs, started in 1989 and is used for such things as beginning dog training, demonstrating that rescue dogs are well behaved and as a prerequisite by therapy dog groups. Some homeowner’s insurance companies also encourage AKC’s “Good Citizen” testing, and a number of apartments, condos and businesses require that dogs living there pass the test, according to the AKC.
“The program has done so much good, from helping dog owners to teach their pet good manners to rehabilitating dogs that have had behavioral issues,” says Doug Ljungren, Executive Vice President of AKC Sports & Events.
Fiona is just one of many good dogs that have earned the certification. Another standout is Drago, a Spinone Italiano therapy dog who provided comfort to those affected by the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Drago accompanied kids and adults into counseling sessions, and spent time with children who were doing crafts and activities while their parents were busy with chaplains and psychologists.
Fiona is equally comforting, says Pavone, who drives from her apartment to work with the dog for as many as five funeral services a day.
“It can be intimating going into a visitation room for the first time,” says Pavone. “We’ve noticed a huge positive impact that she’s had.”