Many people may recall the heart-warming story of Greyfriars Bobby, a a Skye Terrier who was the faithful companion to John Gray, a night watchman, during the long, cold nights of Edinburgh while John patrolled the district. When John succumbed to tuberculosis, Bobby spent the next 14 years at John’s grave, even in the worst of weather conditions, until he died himself in January 1872.
Moved by the dog’s devotion, a statue of him was commissioned and placed opposite the churchyard (Greyfriars Kirkyard) with a headstone that reads: “Greyfriars Bobby – died 14th January 1872 – aged 16 years – Let his loyalty and devotion be a lesson to us all.” (The photo at left, courtesy of TripAdvisor, is a picture of the statue.)
Since then, many of us have seen the heart-wrenching photos of military dogs lying at the casket or grave site of their veteran-partner killed in combat. Our contributor, Tere J. Scott, considers what happens when a dog suffers the loss of someone he or she loves:
Compared to the expected life span of a human, a dog’s life seems to pass far too quickly, and dog owners are usually the ones who have to deal with the grief of bidding farewell to a faithful, lifetime friend. But, what happens when a dog’s owner passes first, or maybe one of their dog, cat or other friends die? Like humans, dogs seem to go through a process of grieving. It is important to be aware of this so you know how to help your dog.
Some years ago, a Swiss-American psychiatrist and a pioneer in near-death studies, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, initially defined grief as a process of stages, which include:
1. shock or disbelief
These stages affect humans on several levels: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While we humans do not fully understand the emotions or spirituality of dogs, we are able to observe physical behavior to give us clues into how to help our canine friends.
It is not uncommon for dogs to show signs of depression after a loss. Some of these signs are similar to those shown in human depression. Dogs who are mourning may lose their appetite, have lowered water intake, become sluggish, and lose interest in play or physical activity. The dog may even begin howling in a mournful way.
Some ways you can help your dog during the process of grief are:
1. Be patient and understanding;
2. Understand that your dog’s emotional reaction may not match your human emotions. Observe the dog’s behavior to give you clues into how they are coping, but don’t impose human sadness or other emotion on their every behavior;
3. While it is natural for humans to try to coddle the dog to show concern, be careful not to create a negative emotional connection. For instance, if the dog refuses to eat and gets more attention for sitting next to the bowl of food than for eating it, the dog may associate the positive reinforcement with refusing to eat;
4. Maintain a normal routine. As much as possible, try not to make any major changes right away;
5. While maintaining a normal routine, there is one thing to add to the routine. Add more play time to the dog’s daily activities. This will raise the serotonin levels in the dog’s brain which lifts depression;
6. Keep your dog busy throughout the day and, as much as possible, don’t allow the dog to be left alone for extensive lengths of time;
7. If you have another pet in the house, expect to see an attempt to shift the social order. There is only room for one top dog. When a dog appears to be mourning (lowered activity level, less interest in its environment, etc.), the existing dogs will vie for that position. For instance, the dog may begin to bark more or to begin eating out of the other pet’s bowl;
8. Don’t introduce a new dog or family member/owner immediately.
In the last decade, we have come a long way in understanding dogs. That a devoted animal does not sense or realize their human partner is missing, is to refute the evidence that dogs or other animals have a rich and varied emotional repertoire. Such an attitude may contribute significantly to lessening our understanding and appreciation of the dog. We hope the steps described here by Ms. Scott, will help anyone whose service dog or pet is suffering from the loss of a family member or friend.