When one of our animal companions dies, for us the pain is often palpable, the intensity of our grief can be overwhelming. Our emotional response to loss can bring us to our knees, sometimes literally.
Our bodies desperately try to cope with the shock and the obsessive reaction of guilt even though you have spent hours re running the series of events and knowing in your heart you should not feel the burden of remorse.
Tearful outbursts when we least expect it, often when our routine reminds us of the absent friend, one bowl less at feeding time or a name that comes to our lips in a forgetful moment.
Our own behaviour can be irrational and confusing during this blistering time of mourning, if we cannot recall every expression and coat colouration of our lost friend we panic in our need to have that lasting memory. As the days go past we prod at our emotional pain as if it is a loose tooth, we need to “test” our level of acceptance, but acceptance of the physical loss is not welcome because once that process begins there is no turning back and we have to face a future without our beloved companion by our side. It makes little difference if this is the loss of your first dog or if you have trod this road before, each time is as individual as the relationship we shared during their lifetime. While we are in the throes of grief what happens to other dogs in our family? In multiple dog households it will depend on the dynamics surrounding the position held by the deceased, but all will certainly be affected by the change in you. There is a theory that by allowing the other dogs within the family group to see and smell the body of their erstwhile companion it will affect closure and recognition of permanent change.
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Personally, I have not seen a real difference whether my crew have been able to inspect or not but I know for others this inspection is key to their own distress as well as to the well being of their other dogs. We know very well that dogs like routine, the disruption in their accustomed daily lives can unnerve some dogs but I do think that by sticking rigidly to the pre trauma routine there is also the risk of generating habitual memory that involved the mourned dog not just for us, but for our pack as well. When it is an older respected dog that has died, suddenly there is no one to defer to at meal times for instance, on walks the strong leader of the group is conspicuous by his absence and along with a sense of confusion comes a realisation of the shifting dynamics of the pack.
I have found it beneficial to us all to walk different routes during this time and to add different scents to the home, subtle changes that will stimulate pleasure in exploration and arouse curiosity without a major disturbance that may elicit anxiety. It isn’t just the “main players” who are missed within a pack though, quite often we humans under estimate the part taken by apparently less active members of our canine family and realise that they were the glue that held the pack together and in balance. From the dog’s point of view it is a very unsettling time, their human is behaving in a very odd and distressing way, their sense of smell tells them of the remains of the lost dog’s presence but the physical body is absent.
In a household of lively, entire dogs and/or bitches the harmony may have been damaged and adjustment may cause spats to break out, this period has to be well handled to avoid clashes which may set up repeated aggressive behaviour even though, at the time, you may not feel adequate to the task. For the future peace in your household you have to re establish order and allow your dogs to feel confident in their environment again.
Dogs that had been close bonded with the absent dog may show signs of depression such as loss of appetite, lethargy or self isolation. One of the most heart rending behaviours associated with bereavement in an animal is an increased vocalisation, howling or whining can really pluck at your already taut heart strings and your natural response would be to offer comfort but just a word of caution that you don’t actively encourage this behaviour by full on, “hug you to death” support, perhaps consider giving attention when the dog is at rest or by increasing a new activity that can use this energy to better effect. It is rare for a dog to stay in this limbo land of depression for long, I would suggest that if this is the case you seek Veterinary advice as there may be a physical problem that has sneaked in , under the RADAR while you have been preoccupied.
There are no set rules to grief, there is no right way to gain acceptance, no correct time scale of mourning that we all must fit into and the same is true for dogs, some dogs may not show any outward signs of recognition of change. It has been my experience that those dogs will quite often go through a period of being reactive or unsettled several weeks later. We are only just gaining insight into how humans unconsciously develop strategies to cope with loss and trauma, it would seem to make sense that our closest companions have evolved to not just react to our distress but to share an empathetic experience at our side during what must surely be the hardest part of saying a final farewell to a friend.