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Coping with the death of a dog

Dealing with the death of an animal that has shared your life and home is traumatic and the emotions involved are usually the same ones we experience when we lose a human friend or family member. While those who have never bonded closely with an animal may not understand how we feel, people whose dogs are regarded as part of the family go through a very real and necessary grieving process. Unfortunately, while society will accept and support someone grieving over the loss of a person close to them, people are seldom offered the same acceptance and support when they lose a pet. As a result many people will keep their feelings to themselves and try to simply get on with life in order to avoid criticism from others who don’t understand what they are going through.

Having grieved for my own animals and having comforted many bereaved dog owners, I have realised how important the grieving process is and would like to share some things that have helped me and others along the way:


  • Recognise and accept that you have a right to grieve for your dog as you would for any person whom you loved. Our dogs are a part of our lives and families and their sudden loss cannot be ignored. Because they lived so closely with us, there are constant daily reminders of them and their absence is very noticeable - often more so than that of a human friend or relative that we did not spend time with on a daily basis. Don’t feel guilty about mourning their loss; it is healthy to do so. Give yourself time to feel sad and cancel social engagements if you are not up to them. Don’t squash your feelings and try to ignore them - expressing grief allows you to start healing.


  • Accept support and comfort from people who understand how you feel. Friends and family who feel the same way about their own pets will understand how you feel and will want to comfort and support you. This was a lesson that I had to learn, as I have always tried to keep my feelings to myself. After the death of my first dog I didn’t want anyone to say anything nice as I knew this would make me emotional and I thought this was a bad thing! But running a dog school with many long-term clients who have become my friends, it was impossible to avoid hugs and words of sympathy. To my great surprise, far from finding this distressing, I found people’s love and support extremely comforting and helpful. Knowing that they understood how I felt and were sympathetic was enormously encouraging and helped me with the grieving process.


  • Find a way to remember the good times and celebrate your dog’s life. While it may seem hard to do at first, at some point it is very helpful to do or make something that serves as a reminder or celebration of your dog’s life. My way of doing this is to go through all my photos and pull out every picture that reminds me of everything that was special about the dog I have lost. I collect photos of them with the other dogs and with us, photos of them doing the activities they loved and photos of them in the places they enjoyed most. I arrange all these photos in one large frame and hang it in a place where I can see it whenever I want. Other people may choose to select one significant photo and keep that in a special place or to scatter the dog’s ashes - try to think of something that would suit you and your family (this can be very helpful for children).


  • Rest assured that you will not forget your dog. One of the worries that come with grief is that in time the loved one will be forgotten. Often we may catch ourselves smiling or feeling happy and feel guilty that perhaps we are forgetting the dog we have lost. However, starting to feel better does not mean that we have forgotten, it just means that we are starting to heal and that is a good thing. I know that not a day goes by when I don’t think of the dogs that have shared my life, but are no longer with me.



When is the right time to get another dog?

Everyone will feel differently about when they want to bring another dog into their family. Some people may wait many months before they feel ready to start looking for a new puppy or adult dog while others may want another dog straight away. Only you will know when it feels right, so don’t allow someone else to push you into anything prematurely. In this regard I feel that there are some things to be careful of:


  • Getting another dog will not stop you from grieving for the one you have lost - sometimes people are encouraged to get another dog to help them “move on”. But loving another dog will not stop you from being sad about the dog you have lost. It is not a quick fix to circumvent the grieving process - it may distract you from your feelings for a while, but they will ultimately not go away and may actually be harder to deal with in the long run.


  • The new dog will not replace the one who has died - While this may seem obvious, people who get another dog too soon often subconsciously expect the new dog to be like the old one. They may logically know that this is not possible, but a part of them is still searching for the dog that has gone from their lives and the new dog cannot help but be used as a comparison. I have even found that I tend to start noticing the vast differences between the dogs I still have and already love and the one I have just lost - while my remaining dogs may be a comfort to me, they cannot fill the gap that the old one has left. To expect a new dog to do this is very unfair.


  • Grief can affect your judgement - Because grief makes us emotional we often don’t act completely logically during this time. In a rush to try and get over the death of a beloved pet, we can make poor decisions about the next dog we get. We may make choices based purely on emotion (a dog may remind you of your old dog or a story of a rescued dog may tug at your heart) and realise that we have acted unwisely when it is too late and we already have the responsibility of another animal whose needs we way not be suited to meet.


  • Grief can cause us to be overprotective of the new dog - I have seen some very sad situations where people have lost dogs in tragic circumstances or due to illness and have gone on to become quite paranoid about the health and safety of the new dog. Often this results in the new dog having a very restricted lifestyle (no walks or socialisation) and becoming over-dependant on or smothered by the owner. This is not healthy for any dog and any number of health and behavioural problems usually follows.


  • Grief can stop you from bonding properly with the new dog - When anyone dies, we tend to always remember all the good stuff about them and forget the not so good things, so there is no way the very “real” new dog with all its imperfections will ever live up to the perfect memory of dog that has gone. On some level we may also feel guilty for loving another dog and so may keep an emotional distance from the new dog. All of this may prevent us from bonding properly with the dog we have acquired and may hinder us from forming a close relationship with them.


So, take as much time as you need before moving on - there is no rush! Don’t let anyone else tell you what they think is right - only you will know.


I think that all of us who have lost dogs we loved deeply have wondered at some point whether loving a dog is worth the inevitable sadness that we will have to face when they are gone. Would it not be easier to avoid the pain and never get another dog? However, I have found that in time, the wonderful memories and the lessons that each dog has taught us overshadow the sense of loss and it is possible to be truly grateful for having had the opportunity to share in the lives of each one. Nothing worthwhile in life is easy and while love is costly, I do believe that it is worth it in the end.

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