By Karen A. Soukiasian
Like people, dogs grieve when they lose a beloved owner or animal companion.
And just like people, dogs may go through the five stages of grief — denial/isolation, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance.
Just as people don’t experience all five stage or go through them in any special order, neither do our dogs.
Each of us deals with loss differently. So do our dogs.
For those of us who have watched our dog suffer from the loss of a beloved human or canine companion, there is nothing sadder. We cannot explain to them what has happened, or why their human or companion pet is never going to return. They are confused. Their feelings of separation and abandonment are real to them.
Dogs grieve by expressing their feelings of abandonment through either one, all, or any combination of denial/isolation, anger, depression, and eventually acceptance.
More often than not, it is a shared loss. Yet sometimes we are so caught up in our own grief, we fail to see dogs grieve, too.
As caretaker, we need to acknowledge and help dogs grieve as painlessly as possible.
Since dogs cannot communicate verbally, we can’t sit down and over a cup of coffee share our feelings and memories with them as a two-way discussion.
Nonetheless, there are things we can do, to not only offer support and compassion, but to help dogs grieve.
Many dog owners have found that helping their pets grieve also help them cope.
The depth of the dog’s grief commonly relates to the strength and length of the relationship. Some may grieve forever.
Most are quite resilient and after a reasonable amount of time, slowly come to accept their loss.
This shared experience of loss and healing is often beneficial to both caretaker and pet. It often forges an even stronger relationship and bond.
Dogs express their grief and stress through their behaviors. Watch for these stages of grief and help your dog cope:
You may find your pet firmly planted at the door…patiently waiting. Or sitting on a “special” chair or the person’s bed, refusing to leave it. Some may hide under a bed, or refuse to leave a room. Dogs that find comfort in their crates, may withdraw into it. If it is a companion dog they have lost, they may want to sleep in their crate or bed. What do you do?
They may by habit enthusiastically respond to familiar sounds such as a car door slamming, a voice on an answering machine or a key in the door, only to turn around and retreat to their sanctuary. For a reasonable amount of time, respect their need to wait or their desire to be alone. For the majority of dogs it may take a several days or weeks, for others a month or so, but eventually most realize whom or what they are waiting for is not returning to them. Note: If they respond to the voice on the answering machine, consider changing it, rather than leaving it as a constant reminder.
Coax, don’t force them to come out and interact. Share a pleasant experience like a walk or a game of fetch. Cuddle. You both can probably use a little touch therapy.
Talk to them. The sound of your voice is reassuring. Use lots of praise when you see they are attempting to break through the barricade they have set. Let them know you are happy to be together.
Some will not be interested in eating when grieving. Do not bring the food to them. Keep it where it is usually placed. Encourage, but don’t force them to eat. You may try to entice them with a little something special in it. Usually, when they get hungry enough, they will eat. It may be when no one is there, but you’ll notice the food is gone.
More important than eating, is staying hydrated. Place a bowl of water where they have retreated. Place it far enough away, that they have to make an attempt to reach it.
Do not avoid, nor over do, using the area where they have withdrawn. Act normally.
Some dogs express their grief by reverting to inappropriate behavior. They may incessantly bark, whine, moan or cry. Or chew items even though they haven’t chewed anything in years. Others may relieve themselves in the house. They may associate this will bring their person back, if for no other reason than to be corrected or punished. They may also display their anger by uncharacteristically growling or snapping. What do you do?
Do not tolerate inappropriate behavior. Calmly and patiently make the necessary corrections. Transferring your anger onto them will only heighten the tension. Any attention from you should be as positive as possible under these circumstances. Attention may be just what they are looking for. You do not want to alienate them, but you also have to let them know inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.
A sad dog is a sad sight. Canine depression is displayed in a number of ways, most commonly lack of appetite and lack of interest in anything. Helping your pet get through this stage of grief may also be therapeutic for you too. What do you do?
Humans and dogs are creatures of habit. We have our routines and our dogs recognize and relate to them more than we give them credit. As much as possible, change your routines and their schedules. It may help both of you. Get up a half hour earlier. Go to bed an hour later. If you walk them before feeding, reverse it. If you feed in the morning, switch to the evening for a change. Don’t immediately grab your car keys and dash out of the house in the morning. Sit for a few minutes. Flip through a magazine or watch the news. Invite people they know and like, to the house. You want your dog to notice a new routine.
They need you. After a reasonable time to grieve, include your dog in more of your activities. Take them with you to work if possible. Take them with you to social activities with friends and their dogs or invite them over to your place.
Enroll in positive reinforcement, punishment-free obedience classes. Doing something new and different not only challenges your dog to use their mind, it may motivate them to participate more. A refresher course in obedience is beneficial and a wonderful way to bond. Dogs are pack animals. Few can resist socializing and interacting with other dogs in the class when given the opportunity.
Take them to a doggie daycare for one or two days a week. New people, new dogs and new environment may be just what they need to get over the hump.
If your dog enjoys car rides, go cruising. Hop in the car and go for a ride to no-where. If there is a beach or park along the way, stop, get out and let them sniff around. It’s the little pleasures that will slowly bring them back. It is also a wonderful opportunity for them to now create a new bond with you.
Go for walks. Explore together. Have field trips. Find some place new for your dog to discover new sights and smells. It will stimulate them. Few can resist the challenge!
When the time comes and you believe you are ready to invite a new puppy or dog in your pack, include your dog in that decision.
Just as you would not want someone to pick a mate for you, neither does you dog. Let them pick their new pack mate. It will make introducing a new dog into the house much easier if the two get along right from the get-go. It’s amazing how nearly all dogs will perk up; when they have a companion they can relate to canine-to-canine. It’s essential that they personally pick their new BFF.
In time, unless so severely disheartened it becomes a serious health problem, most dogs will gradually accept the changes in their life.
If your dog continues to display signs of serious depression after 4-6 months, consult your veterinarian.
By this time, their relationship with you has hopefully evolved into a positive one. They have new routines and schedules. They have positive associations of new experiences you have shared together. They will look forward to more. Plus, if you have added a new canine companion, they will keep each other so occupied and active your dog’s personality will return to that before they experienced their loss.
Bottom line: Allow your dog a reasonable amount of time to grieve. As their primary caretaker it is your duty to continue to offer new and exciting prospects of fun, adventures, training, socializing and bonding to put the zest back into their life. We have our dogs for such a short time. We want them be as happy as possible.
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