For people, losing a pet is an inconsolable pain. It is hard to continue life without my dog, Wynne. I look around at her food bowls, bed, toys and favorite spot on the couch.
I vocalize my pain and look through photographs to remember how much Wynne has been in my life. Then, I look at my other dog, Remy, studying my face with a confused look. He watches me clenching the toys Wynne played with. I had to make the decision to let her suffering end, and even if my head knows I did what was best, my heart will always question it. Now I’m left to question how Remy and Indy, my other dog, will handle the loss. How do I tell them she's not coming home? Am I humanizing my emotions on them? How do I know if they are grieving?
I have seen a lot of sadness in my 16 years as a registered veterinary technician. I have been there for clients that put their beloved family member to rest. I have also been there to see the surviving members grieve, even the furry ones. Some pet parents have brought the other dog to say "goodbye," but the other dog never seems to really understand what is going on. I don't think the concept of dying is something that dogs really know or understand, but they do understand the lack of the presence of the now deceased dog in a familiar space that is at home.
How My Dogs Processed Loss
Dogs may not be able to talk or cry but they show sadness in their own way. Indy became very clingy. She followed me around and didn’t know how to make me happy, which upset her. She tried to play with Remy, but he would walk away. She became the court jester trying to please me and doing tricks to get Remy to play. When nothing worked, she was sad she failed and went off sulking.
Remy, however, became truly sad because he wanted his friend to return. One day Wynne was there, and now she isn't anywhere to be found. I found him wandering the house, waiting by doors and going to strange locations. He was isolating himself and not sleeping in his normal spots. He lost interest in playing with his toys and didn’t have much energy at all. Dogs don't have the ability to reason or understand so I couldn’t sit down and explain what happened. I couldn’t read him a book or take him to therapy.
I didn’t know what to do to help him so I researched and tested multiple different theories. The day after Wynne passed, I collected anything that reminded me of Wynne and put it in a box in the basement. I thought that, if dogs have short term memory, they might forget her. I realized after a few days of Remy looking for her and acting depressed that idea didn’t work. One day, I came home from work and found Remy in the basement (an off-limits spot for the dogs) sniffing the box of Wynne’s belongings. His desire to get Wynne’s scent was stronger that obeying the rules. I brought up her favorite blanket and bed they used to share. I let the dogs have access them, if they wanted to. The next morning, Remy pulled down the blanket and snuggled with it. He took the dog bed to the bedroom where it originally was. The scent was comforting him. He stopped wandering and looking.
How to Move Forward
Returning to work after losing Wynne made me more aware of the surviving dogs, and I began offering advice to other pet parents on how to help their dogs cope and knowing the signs of dog grieving. Many determined which type of grief their pet was having, based on hearing about Indy and Remy’s reactions. The “Indy grief plan” needed owners to stick to a routine and try to stay active with them. The “Remy grief plan” required a scent from the deceased pet and grieving time. Both of my dogs did better after I forced myself to get more active. More walks, car rides and pet store visits.
So, what can we do to help our pets deal with the loss of a canine companion? Don't rush to throw out items that belonged to the deceased pet. Keep a blanket or other reminder that belonged to the pet that died. Pay extra attention to your grieving pet, but don't go overboard and create a larger problem. Try and stick to regular routines, if possible. Give your dog some time to adjust before making a decision about bringing another dog into your family. If you bring another pet home while they are still missing their friend, they will resent the new family member. Behavior problems and fighting will develop.
The pain and sadness we feel may be displayed differently in our pet family members, but it does exist. Being able to see the signs and determine how we can help them cope may help us too. You can develop additional hobbies and friendships by taking your dog to the dog park or on outings. They should have other fun things in their life they can still enjoy after their “Wynne” is gone.
Find out more information on pet loss and grief:
- Argus Institute Counseling and Support Services
- Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine Pet Loss Support Hotline
Image: courtesy Naomi Strollo
Naomi has been in the veterinary profession for 24 years. She became a Registered Veterinary Technician in 2000 and has over 10 years of experience working with trauma and critical care. She equally enjoys client education and prevention training techniques and has a special interest in behavioral training. She has personally trained therapy dogs, as well as show dogs, and has passed the 10-step test to earn her Canine Good Citizen Certification.