This is a special blog post dedicated to those who have recently lost beloved companions. To Liz – I am so sorry you lost your special girl and to Dove – thank you for helping me through Carmac’s death, and I know how hard everyday is for you right now.
Studies have shown that for some people, losing a dog is more intense and difficult to cope with than the death of a relative. For me, this became painfully true in 2014, when I said good-bye to my first dog, Carmac. While I put on a brave face and tough exterior, the months after his death were mired in depression, an addiction to work, and poor life choices.
Since I am not a human counselor, I can’t tell people how to cope with their grief over the loss of a companion animal. But for those of us with multiple dogs, I can give you suggestions to help get your current dogs through their grieving.
I’m not sure if anyone knows if dogs “grieve”, but the loss of their house mates can certainly become the trigger for a change in behavior. Shorty, the dog I adopted when Carmac was about 6-7 years old, went from being a “me too” kinda dog to a “what now” dog.
She was present for Carmac’s euthanasia. While she had to be diverted with a Kong for the actual procedure (as she was overjoyed to have Janice the vet, whose pockets were full of liver treats, come to our home), when Carmac was gone, I called her out to his bed. She wiggled her way out, sniffed him, and panic hit – her tail tucked, she crouched down, and her face became tight and stressed. My vet took Carmac with her, and Shorty, myself, and my ex accompanied Janice and Carmac out to her truck. Janice put Carmac in the back so that she could transport him to the crematorium, and Shorty tried to jump in with him. Her best friend was gone.
For the next few days, Shorty stuck pretty close. She looked for him on hikes, and when I called for her to come, I would accidentally call for him. My good friend suggested short bonding activities, like going on our favourite trails (no matter how far we drove – 90 minutes each way to Whistler was nothing!), visiting the Tim Horton’s drive thru for Timbits, and buying some new toys (retail therapy pays off). Shorty got a new bed, toys, and a blanket.
With no longer having a renal failure dog to care for, Shorty and I eventually poured our energy into a dog training activity – ours was making friends with dogs. Shorty had terrible dog-dog skills – she likes dog, but she was not socialized so she needed lengthy, well orchestrated dog-dog introductions, and her play skills were a little rough. I became that person constantly tagging along on walks with friends, and Shorty quickly went from having to walk on leash 10 feet behind everyone to frolicking off leash with a number of friends of all shapes and sizes. She even had sleepovers. These walks had lots of positive associations with treats, and got both her and I out and exercising – key to making us feel better. Deep down, while she and I both were more than happy to hang out and read, we were social creatures. Getting out made us both feel better.
Shorty also got a DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) diffuser. One day, a few weeks after Carmac’s death, my landlord called me at work, very concerned that Shorty was crying down in my suite. The crying had stopped, but it was very sad. On my way home from work, I picked up a DAP diffuser, plugged it in beside her bed, and that eased her home alone troubles (along with her frozen peanut butter Kong).
Shorty also did some training for her dinner – short stints of clicker training. She adored little training exercises and would happily free shape with objects for minutes on end. We also did a stint in tracking (or as Shorty called it, eating kibble in a line off of the ground). A slow and methodical tracker, Shorty was a token member of Team Malinois. Again, it got us out of the house, socializing with friends, and using our brains.
As time went by, we both felt “better” – I still miss Carmac, but he was the dog that led me to my training and behavior career, which prepared me for Mulder, my Malinois. I’m sure if Carmac re-appeared, Shorty would be overjoyed to see him, but she is more than smitten with Mulder and tags along to all of his training activities, where she gets to see a new group of friends.
All of our dogs are different, and all will cope with the loss of a house mate differently – some dogs are incredibly resilient and never fall out of stride, and other dogs may require a veterinarian visit to talk about calming supplements and medications. Short, bonding moments (like the Timmy’s drive-thru) and some positive training exercises will both go a long way in helping your dog (and you) adjust to a new routine.
To all our dogs that we have lost: “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.” A.A. Milne.