Features September 1998 Issue

Moving On After Losing an Older Dog

Sometimes, letting go of the past is the only way to make progress.

The occasion of getting a new puppy or dog should be just as joyous as bringing a much-wanted and long-anticipated baby into the world. In the best of possible worlds, the dog’s new family is welcoming, loving, and eager to learn as much as possible about and share as much as possible with the latest addition to the family. The transition almost always goes smoothly when the family is experienced with dogs, and already knows about providing healthful diets and gentle teaching for their canine companions.

Every so often, however, I meet very knowledgeable and caring dog people who experience undue conflict and tumult while they are getting used to their new dogs. When I know that the people involved know how to properly take care of a dog – that the problem is not simply a lack of knowledge about how to help the new dog succeed in the household – I suspect that the problem is not with the new dog. Often, I’ve found, the issue is actually one that was never resolved concerning the family’s last dog.

The last dog was the “best”

Don’t throw away pictures of that "perfect"
older dog, but make sure you give your new
dog a chance to shine, too.

Usually, we expect to outlive our dogs. Though we don’t generally think about it when we bring home a new puppy, we know that he’ll eventually grow into an adult, and then a senior dog. By the time his muzzle and legs turn white and he moves a little slower, our feelings for him will be without compare. After a lifetime together, he will become “the best dog” we’ve ever known.

By the time our old dogs pass away, most of us have forgotten that there ever was a time when our “best dogs” weren’t perfect companions. We forget the trying days of puppyhood, when a few of our favorite possessions get chewed up, and when accidents happen on our rugs. We forget about how much time it took us to habituate the young dog to riding peacefully in our cars and playing non-destructively in our gardens.

What we tend to remember is how wonderfully behaved our old friend was, how easy it was to spend time with him, how he always knew how to make us happy. So when we get a new dog or puppy, it’s difficult not to make comparisons. But these comparisons will interfere with binding a relationship and honoring the gifts this new soul brings into our lives. Remember, it will take some time for the newcomer to walk in the idealized old dog’s footprints.

Avoiding comparisons
To avoid comparisons, some people choose a dog who is totally unlike the previous pet so they will not be constantly reminded of their loss. Others prefer to have one who resembles their previous dog because the look makes them feel warm inside.

Whatever you choose to do, be open and honest with your new dog. Tell him each and every day how special he is and how honored you are to be his person. Let him know about the dog who died; tell him that your tears may flow sometimes with memories but that does not mean you will not be able to appreciate the gifts he has brought to share with you.

Unfinished mourning
Another mistake people make is to obtain a dog before having completed the mourning process for their old dog. Sometimes people have difficulty with the mourning process. They cannot let go of the memories and are devastated by the loss. Bach Flower remedies can help the bereaved in these cases. Talking and being with people who understand can also help the process; professional grief counselors and pet grief support groups can work miracles.

However, no one should ever be rushed through this process. Some well-meaning friends may say “It’s time to move on, you’ve got to get on with your life, get over it – he was just a dog, why not just get another dog,” etc. A person in this position should pay no attention to these types of comments. Some of us love our dogs very deeply, and we bond with them in special, unique ways. For us, dogs are not replaceable. We need time and understanding to heal from the loss before we will be ready to love another dog.

It’s very important that no one be allowed to force a new dog on someone else. A spouse, friend or well-meaning relative may try to buy a puppy to “help you forget.” They should be politely told that we will never forget and we do not want to forget. We will remember our lost dog all of our lives and eventually, we will remember him or her with great joy. Then, when the time is right, we would like the luxury of being chosen by our next dog!

Case in point
Once a woman came to my puppy teaching class with an eight-week-old terrier-mix puppy. She said she wanted help with what she characterized as “all the usual puppy problems,” but from the very first puppy class, I could tell she was dealing with more than “all the usual puppy problems.” She seemed very detached from her puppy. She never made eye contact with him and almost seemed afraid of him. The puppy, too, seemed to be having trouble with the relationship. He made a few attempts to engage her, and then gave up and decided it was more fun to play with the other puppies. I just figured they were getting used to each other and after a week of working with her puppy things would improve.

Share the joy and sorrow you felt
with your old dog with your new
puppy. This will help him connect
with and understand you.

Boy, was I wrong! When she came back the following week, it was evident to the whole class that something was not right. As she entered the teaching center, the puppy strained to get away from her and wanted nothing to do with her. She actually seemed relieved that the puppy had the other dogs to play with. She was content to totally ignore him during the entire class. As I worked with the class, I surreptitiously watched her and her puppy, and thought about how I could best help the emotionally distant duo.

As the session ended, I asked the woman if she could stay after class for a few minutes. I told her that I thought she had chosen a wonderful puppy. He was cute, funny, playful, and had the potential to be a great companion dog. He was very smart, very social, and really wanted to be friends with everyone. I then asked her how she felt about the pup. Her response was unemotional and non-committal. She said she liked the dog well enough but he was simply not the same as her dog who had died.

Immediately the picture was clear to me. She was comparing the puppy to a deceased dog who had lived with her a very long time. Plus, she had not chosen to get the puppy. Her dog had been dead less than a month when her husband brought home the pup “to help her get over the loss.” She wanted to like the puppy, but felt guilty, as if she were betraying the memory of her former dog. Every time she looked at the new puppy she remembered the other dog and could not shake her feelings of sadness and guilt.

We sat and talked for a while. I asked her to tell me a little about her old dog and she cried and reminisced about him. I could tell that they had loved each other deeply.

After our talk, she said she felt a little better. I then told her not to worry about the homework assignment I had given the rest of the class because I had a different and special assignment for her.

Healing ceremony
I told her to go home and light candles and incense in memory of her dog. Then I wanted her to curl up somewhere comfortable with her puppy and tell him all about her old dog. I wanted her to tell the puppy several of the memories that made her cry and several memories that made her laugh. She was to share as much of the joy and sorrow she had shared with her old dog with this brand new little dog. I told her she might feel foolish doing this but it was important.

It was immediately evident the next week when they returned to class that a miracle had happened. They came in and were bonded with each other. You could see it in their faces. The two of them actually looked physically different. Everyone in the class remarked about the change. They proceeded to become the best students in class, due to a powerful connection between them. Their love for each other was evident in every interaction they shared.

After class, the woman came up to me and hugged me and thanked me for the advice I had given her. She said she went home and did everything I had suggested. She said she didn’t feel silly, and that she had laughed and cried buckets of tears. Afterward, as she hugged and kissed her puppy, she realized for the first time how adorable his face was. Nothing has been the same since then!

You’ll be ready only when you’re ready
Some people get very stuck in the mourning process. They cannot get over the loss and vow they will never have another dog. They say the heartache of losing a dog is just too much to bear and they never want to go through that kind of pain again.

When I hear people talk that way, it hurts me to think of all the devotion, joy, and love their dog gave to them and all they can remember is the pain of the final moments. After all, in the grand scheme of things, death is just a brief moment. It shouldn’t erase the wonder of a lifetime of giving.

It seems to me, the greatest honor we can pay a deceased pet is to mourn the pet, heal during the process, and then be ready to love and learn from another dog. This says that having a dog is a worthwhile experience. The pain of losing this dog should not overshadow the joy of having a dog in our life.

When a dog leaves this life, allow yourself the time and luxury of a mourning period. There is no manual to tell you how to mourn or how long. You will mourn until you are finished with the process. When you find you are laughing or smiling at the memories of your deceased pet instead of crying at the mere thought of him, when you’re looking in pet shop windows and in the pet column in the classified ads, stopping to look at the free puppies in front of the supermarket, or just feeling that there is now room in your heart to love a new four-legged wonder, then you are healed. If you let your new dog share your truth, your love, and your heart, you’ll find that he’ll very quickly become your new “best dog.”


-By Linda Goodman

Linda Goodman operates PORGIE Teaching Center in Riverside, CA. For contact information, click here.

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