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Losing a dog is hard enough; setting the time and date in advance  if they have to be put down and then counting down the hours that you have left can be almost more than many can bear.

When people who have never had a dog see their dog-owning friends mourn the loss of a pet, they probably think it is a bit of an overreaction. After all, it is “just a dog.” Fortunately, most are too polite to say this out loud. But those of us who have loved a dog know the truth: Your own pet is never “just a dog.”

I remember very well an osteopathic patient coming in complaining of crying unexpectedly; having headaches; feeling cold and wanting to pass water often plus a tightness in her chest. She couldn’t understand it. She hadn’t been near anyone with flu or a cold, didn’t feel ill… but when I had a feel the biggest areas of tightness were around her heart and her kidneys. When I asked if someone she loved had died – she looked shocked! She suddenly said her dog had died a week before, but hadn’t connected her symptoms of loss and heart-break with that. As soon as she acknowledged this her whole body started to relax and heal.

Rudyard Kipling captured this sentiment in a stanza of his poem “The Power of the Dog”:

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find – it’s your own affair –
But … you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

Many times friends have guiltily confided to me that they grieved more desperately over the loss of a dog than over the loss of friends or relatives. Research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of a dog is in almost every way comparable to the loss of a human loved one. Unfortunately, we do not have the corresponding cultural grief rituals to help us get through the loss of a pet, which can make us feel more than a bit embarrassed to show too much public grief over our dead dogs.

Why Dogs Are Special

What is it about dogs, exactly, that make them so precious to us?

For starters, dogs have had to adapt to living with humans over the past 10,000 years, and they have done it very well—they are the only animal to have evolved specifically to be our companions and friends. Anthropologist Brian Hare has developed the “Domestication Hypothesis” to explain how dogs morphed from their grey wolf ancestors into the socially-skilled animals with whom we now interact in very much the same way that we relate to other people.

In fact, our relationships with dogs can be even more satisfying than our human relationships, if for no other reason than dogs provide us with such unconditional, uncritical positive feedback.

As the old saying goes, “May I become the kind of person that my dog thinks I already am.”

 Losing a Pet
Interacting with dogs makes us feel good, and just looking at them can make us smile. Dog owners score higher on measures of well-being and, on average, they are happier than people who own cats and those who own no pets at all. All great reasons to own a dog.

Dogs seem to feel the same way about us too. They have been selectively bred through generations to pay attention to us, and MRI scans show that dog brains respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food—for some dogs, praise is an even more effective incentive than food. Dogs recognise people from their faces and can learn to infer human emotional states from facial expression alone. Studies also indicate that dogs can understand human intentions, that they try to be helpful to us, and that they will even avoid people who do not cooperate with us or treat us well.

Dogs communicate with us as no other animal does. They are skilled at comprehending spoken words and using their own vocalisations to communicate with us in return.

Our strong attachment to dogs was subtly revealed in a recent study of “misnaming.” This is what happens when you call someone by the wrong name, such as when parents mistakenly call one of their kids by a sibling’s name. It turns out that the name of the family dog frequently gets confused in the same mix as other human family members, indicating that the dog’s name is being pulled out of the same cognitive pool in which the names of other family members are swimming around. Curiously, this rarely happens with cat names.

It is no wonder that we miss our dogs so much when they are gone.

Why Grief Over the Death of a Dog Is So Intense

Psychologist Julie Axelrod pointed out that the loss of a dog is so painful because we are not losing just one thing; we experience multiple losses at the same time.  We may be losing our primary companion, a source of unconditional love, a “life witness” who provides security and comfort to us, and maybe even a protégé whom we mentor like a child. The loss of a dog seriously disrupts your daily routine, even more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives, and changes in lifestyle and routine are one of the primary building blocks of stress.

A recent survey of bereaved pet owners documented the common experience of mis-perceiving ambiguous sights and sounds as the deceased pet. This occurs most frequently shortly after the death of the pet, especially among individuals who had very high levels of attachment to their pets.

To finish – here is essay another stanza from the Kipling poem:

When the body that lived at your single will,
With it’s whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

© Great Guidelines for Later Life 2017. All Rights Reserved.

If this has touched, moved and inspired you – please let me know. Has it put some things into perspective? Write a comment below and please share.


WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR E-ZINE, BLOG OR WEB SITE? You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it:

Gayle Palmer, the creator of Great Guidelines for Later Life - The world’s most thorough, comprehensive and supportive, one-stop resource for all seniors and their families who are ready to get their lives in order before they die AND help them to live out their days having a life they love, clear in the knowledge that they have done everything they need to. She has developed various courses, programmes and workshops for seniors and their families to work through, leaving no stone un-turned.

Gayle’s experience of over 25 years as an Osteopath, treating thousands of people and helping them through similar worries and concerns only strengthens her knowledge and commitment to you too. Her expertise is not only in the physical realm but emotional, mental and spiritual too. All Rights are Reserved.  

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