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When A Dog Mourns The Loss Of A Human

What does a dog experience at the loss of a beloved human? People tell poignant stories of dog behavior such as waiting by a grave, but we don’t know what a dog feels in such a situation.

Certainly the dog shares the frequent human dilemma at such a loss, that of fear at how life will change without that person. The dog is unlikely to know the person is not coming back but may fear that, especially if the dog has lost a previous home.

While we can’t sit down and help the dog talk out feelings and fears, we can give a great deal of practical help to a dog who is mourning such a loss. Doing so is healthy for people and for dogs.

Death of an Immediate Family Member

Losing a member of the family to death is one of life’s most difficult experiences. When it’s someone you live with, the changes it brings to your daily life complicate the feelings. People may experience varying degrees of anger or depression or both. Responsibility for a dog may cause aggravation or seem overwhelming.

A period of intense grief is not a good time to make decisions. You may have to make many, but those that can wait will be better postponed until some emotional healing can occur.

Sometimes when something is upsetting us that we cannot change, we change other things in hopes it will ease the pain. This can be a natural way of seeking control over life that is feeling out of control. Where a dog is concerned, though, it can lead to sad choices. It is a loving memorial to take good care of the person’s dog after they have died.

Possibly the best thing for the dog is re-homing. This would be the case if you and other family members lack the resources to give the dog good care.

If re-homing is necessary, enlist the best help you can to support the dog in the new home. A responsible breeder (owner of the mother—dam--or the father—sire--of the dog) will help with a placement and will remain ready to do the same again if the dog needs re-homing in the future. It’s vital to keep this safety net, so when there is a responsible breeder behind a dog, don’t place the dog without the breeder’s knowledge. Don’t let shyness or even a personality conflict between you and the dog’s breeder get in the way.

Of course it’s ideal to get breeder information and the dog owner’s wishes before death. Some people prepare documents expressing these wishes, so look for those.

If the dog goes through a change of homes, it’s a radical change for the dog. Try to be objective and to take the time you can in making this decision. Of course if the dog would suffer lack of care in your keeping, you may not be able to wait before re-homing, nor should you. But if it’s a matter of deciding whether or not you want to take on the responsibility of dog care, the time you spend caring for the dog as you think it over will be time well spent for making that decision. It can also help the dog’s adjustment.

Losing a Home and/or a Person

When someone gives up a dog, the dog experiences the loss of not only the person, but also the familiar home and routine. That may include losing other family members, both human and animal. This profound loss for a dog often leads to separation anxiety and other problems.

It certainly helps if the dog can see that the new home has advantages over the former one. More companionship from humans is what most dogs want. Since other dogs cannot control their own instinctive behavior as well as humans can, an unfortunate combination of dogs can result in great stress and even danger for a dog. Thus, even though it might seem that the presence of another dog in the home would be a major attraction for a dog, it can be quite the opposite. A great human caretaker is far more important.

Sometimes the loss comes when a person moves out of the home where the dog lives. Does the dog know the person is still alive? If the person visits, or someone from the household goes to visit the absent person and returns carrying the scent, then the dog would know. Perhaps this is a comfort, as it certainly is to humans when we know a person is merely absent, not deceased.

The first time the dog scents the person after an absence, the dog might expect the person to be returning and might even get depressed at being again separated. But after a few repetitions of either having a visit with the person or picking up the scent on a household member who has visited, the dog would not expect the person to move back in at every scent.

So don’t give up if the first time seems sad for the dog. Repetition and time will both help. It’s also important to realize that quiet behavior from a dog doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is sad. When a dog knows people are soon to leave (we give all sorts of signals we don’t realize we are giving), it’s normal for the dog to wind down and get ready to rest. Dogs need a lot of sleep.

First Priorities

After you’ve decided to care for the dog yourself, at least for awhile, take the dog to a veterinarian for evaluation. Be quick to return to the veterinarian if the dog shows any unusual behavior or other symptoms. As with humans, stress is a significant risk factor for illness.

Any dog you acquire needs to be checked by a veterinarian within a day or two, whatever the circumstances. Write down your questions to take along to the office, and make notes of the veterinarian’s answers and other important information while you’re there. This consultation will greatly help in getting the dog settled into a good structured lifestyle, since the veterinarian can help with diet, exercise, preventive medications and other information.

If you need to change the dog’s schedule, it helps to do it in stages. For example, if you need to shift one or more meals a day to different times, moving the time 15 minutes a day would make it easy on the dog. Changing the time by an hour a day will also work if you need to do the change more quickly. You can similarly adjust the time of getting up in the morning and the time of going to bed.

A change in the times a dog will be left alone can be particularly concerning to the dog. Make sure the dog’s needs are met, so urgent need to eliminate or other discomforts don’t trigger separation anxiety. One way to head this off is to provide the dog with a relief break during the day. You could do day-board with your veterinarian for awhile. Once the dog develops the belief that you WILL come home, it gets a lot better for you both.

Avoid leaving the dog in a state of excitement. Get things nice and mellow before you leave. When you return, just walk in without making a fuss of any kind over the dog. Don’t feed or go out for an exciting activity right after you get home, either. Wait at least a few minutes first. Let the dog develop the habit of calmness at your homecoming. Get the dog out to eliminate, but calmly. Elimination is not play time, anyway.

Since we can’t explain to a dog in verbal language, doing the same things consistently is often the only way to help the dog develop a sense of security and to understand the new routine. It takes some patience while the dog adjusts to a new schedule, but dogs are adaptable and will likely adjust if given time and understanding.

Housetraining problems can occur when a dog goes through a big life change, especially if you’re not a skilled dog caretaker. Do your homework about the how-to of housetraining, and give the dog lots of support at first. As you get used to the dog’s routine and the dog gets used to yours, you may be able to give the dog more house freedom and cut back a little on the potty outings.

But your goal right from the start is to help the dog “hit the target” as close to 100% of the time as possible. This is how good habits are formed. Don’t slack off on housetraining and figure you’ll take care of that later. By the time “later” comes, the dog may become strongly habituated to house accidents. These are never the dog’s fault.

Male dogs in particular may be stimulated to urine-mark inside the house whenever they go through a change. Supervision is the key to preventing this—not punishment. If there is more than one dog in the home, their pack structure doesn’t necessarily change with the loss of a human as it does with the loss of one of the dogs. What can cause trouble, though, are management errors by a new caretaker. Dogs of the same sex are particularly likely to fight, but opposite sex dogs will fight if put in the position of competing over food, edible chews or toys they value highly.

If the dogs were already fighting, you’ll need to change the management to stop that. It’s too dangerous to keep dogs together who injure one another. If the dogs were previously co-existing peacefully, find out all you can about EXACTLY how they were managed. You might be astonished at how small a change in caretaking can cause doggie wars. Some breeds are especially susceptible, as are some combinations of dogs. Fighting becomes a higher risk when four or more live together, too.

People often ascribe their own emotions to dogs. The world a dog lives in is different from human experience of the world. Even humans, though, are often best helped in grief by someone who simply takes care of the tangible needs and lets the emotions have time to heal. It really helps if you expect the dog to be okay and avoid fretting that the dog won’t be able to get over grief—if at the same time you make sure to provide well for the dog.

New Beginnings

Humans and dogs share a drive to be useful and needed, to feel purpose in life. Once you have the basics covered, you can create new life meaning for the dog, and perhaps for yourself in the process.

A dog who was involved in a sick person’s care may be at loose ends when the person is gone because that took up the dog’s time. This is usually calm rather than frenetic activity. The dog may be especially susceptible to separation anxiety and have a greater need to spend a lot of time with a human. Just hanging out with you while you read, watch television, do chores and run errands may keep the dog blissfully happy.

If the dog was involved in dog sports or other demanding activities with the person now gone, you might think only such high-powered pastimes would satisfy. But that is not the case. Dogs are capable of living much quieter lives with our help. Both training and other handling can help a dog develop more composure. In the long term it’s better for the dog’s ability to age gracefully, too.

Training to stay in a sit, stand and especially a down position is excellent foundation for composure. Tethering the dog to your waist with a leash for a half-hour or so at a time helps tremendously, too. All kinds of training that engages the dog’s mind along with the body can aid the ability to behave calmly. While a dog involved in a frenetic activity can appear happy, a lot of stress goes with that. Every dog needs human help in developing calmness.

Of course there are dogs who are a little too calm, and need more to do. Taking a dog on outings that include training time is mentally, physically and emotionally healthy for both of you. An upbeat training class that uses positive methods can be a great adjunct to walks, rides in the car, and keeping each other company doing things around the house. Besides outings and training class, another way of helping the dog adapt to a new lifestyle and forming a great bond is daily grooming. This is some of the best training around, and at the same time does amazing things like lowering both the dog’s blood pressure and yours.

Dogs are highly adaptable. When you meet a dog’s needs and the dog is a good fit in your life, your chances of bringing the dog successfully through grief are excellent. Think in terms of giving meaning to the dog’s life. Working with the dog will likely be therapeutic as you deal with your own grief, too. You and the dog can be there for each other in a special way.

Copyright 2006 - 2009 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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