I am sure that nearly everyone has experienced grief over the death of a pet at one time or another. However, I want to digress from a focus on death and bereavement to address life, and its full enjoyment.
For some people, it can be as difficult (or even more difficult) to endure or reconcile the death of a dog as it is to deal with the death of a person. This isn’t a matter of displaced affections; today, we tend to be isolated from human death. Few people die at home in the arms of loved ones; most people die in hospitals. In contrast, people are much more likely to be personally involved with the death of their dogs. Many animals die at home, and often, owners are intimate with the anguish of making decisions regarding euthanasia.
Additionally, while no one would be embarrassed to admit they were upset about the loss of a human friend or relative, many people feel unnecessarily self-conscious and embarrassed when they get so upset about the death of ‘only a dog.’ But the loss of a good friend and companion is always upsetting, regardless of whether it was a dog or a person. It always hurts. It really hurts. In reality, it is part of the owner’s life that has died and the owner must now reevaluate and reconstruct.
As with the death of a relative or close friend, losing a dog can have long-lasting effect on the owner’s lifestyle. For example, I am surprised to realize that I have not been cross-country skiing or running (both previously major activities) since the death of my first Malamute, Omaha Beagle, well over 10 years ago.
Grieving is a painful, yet necessary process. At the time of the pet’s death, owners may lose perspective, tending to focus on all the bad experiences associated with the last few days, weeks and sometimes months prior to the pet’s demise. The bad experiences tend to become magnified and temporarily tend to obscure the many happy memories of years gone by. Each owner may experience different emotions, generally progressing through phases of denial, pain, anger and maybe depression. The goal, though, should be to get to the place where they can accept the death of their pet and remember the many good times along with the bad. It is essential to regain perspective on life. The loss of a pet is sad and unfair, but ultimately inevitable. We are all mortal.
And, most importantly, the loss of one life should not destroy another. The owner is still living and can have fun. The deceased pet would most certainly have wanted it that way. And when the time is right, there are other pets that are crying out for human companionship. There are so many unwanted pets that would be so lucky to have such a caring owner.
“I ask my (owner) to remember me always, but not to grieve for me too long. In my life I have tried to be a comfort to her in times of sorrow and a reason for added joy in her life’s happiness . . . One last request that I earnestly make. I ask her, for love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have another dog. I would like to feel that once having known me, she cannot live without a dog!”
– from The Last Will and Testament of an Extremely Distinguished Dog, by Barbara Meyer
I would like to echo the above sentiments. Loved ones whose loss we may grieve tomorrow are presently alive and well and living with us today. Whereas no one can even remotely comprehend the full nature and magnitude of the feelings of the bereaved over the death of a loved one, nearly everyone can recognize, enjoy, and benefit from an overt display of love and affection for the living.
For those of you who are currently sharing their lives with a happy and healthy dog: watch him, be with him, play with him, talk to him, and train him. Let today be the excuse for a party. And tomorrow. And the next day. Listen to your kids, talk to your husband or wife, visit your parents, and appreciate your friends. Don’t wait for a day of grief to evaluate your feelings for those who are close to your heart. Tell them now!
Dr. Ian Dunbar is a veterinarian and dog trainer residing in Berkeley, CA. He is also the founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and is renowned for his Sirius Puppy Training program, which he describes in his popular books and instructional videos.