Dogs grieve, too

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I was in elementary school the first time I read “Where the Red Fern Grows.” When I reached the chapter where Old Dan died, I was heartbroken, and a few pages later when Billy discovered Little Ann’s body lifeless, with her head on Dan’s grave, the tears ran down my face and dripped onto my desk. I don’t remember the name of my teacher at the time, but I remember her lofty assurance that the book was a work of fiction, and dogs don’t feel emotions. She was wrong.
Anthropomorphism is the act of ascribing human emotions to animals.  Many dog owners are guilty of this, ascribing complex emotions to their dogs.  Dogs, for example, don’t understand the significance of their birthdays.  We, as humans, may choose to make our dogs wear silly hats and pose them in front of decorated cakes.  Even if our dog cooperates with us and happily eats his cake, he doesn’t understand that the reason it’s happening is because the day has a special meaning for him.  Dogs are, however, very capable of feeling a vast array of emotions, including grief.
When I came home from the vet without Dolce a few weeks ago, her littermate sister Dazzle looked for her.  Dolce’s body remained at the vet’s office so we could prepare her grave. Every time I walked in the front door, Dazzle would look around me, expecting to see Dolce. When I let her outside, she would systematically search our large yard, clearly hunting for her sister.
Before we buried Dolce, we carried her body into the living room and arranged her on her blanket.  I sat beside her, and my son led Dazzle into the room. When Dazzle saw Dolce, her tail began to wag and she trotted over and began to sniff her. The happy wagging slowed and her tail dropped as she sniffed her from head to tail. Dazzle then walked away from the body and sat next to me. She looked me in the eyes and placed her paw on my arm, then leaned her head against me. It was clear she understood her sister was dead, and she was grieved over her passing.
Since that day, Dazzle has quit looking for Dolce.  She seeks, and receives, far more attention from me than she ever has, and while she previously would typically sleep on the loveseat, she now battles Daisy for the place on the couch next to me. She is experiencing grief, loss and loneliness.
If your dog is experiencing loss, you can help him through it. Evaluate his behavior and determine if he should see the body of his companion. I didn’t bring all my dogs in to see Dolce’s body, as most of them didn’t show any concern over her disappearance. Dazzle searched for her, so she needed to see her.
Some dogs may lose their appetites for a few days after a companion’s death, or they may act restless or clingy, or vocalize more. While respecting their grief, it is important not to coddle them in such a way that you reward the new behavior. If, for example, your dog stops eating, and you respond by adding special treats to the dish or changing food, you might teach your dog to become a finicky eater. If you respond to vocalizations by hugging and comforting your dog, you can teach him to howl. Encourage your dog to resume normal behavior by treating him normally.
Don’t be upset with your dog if he doesn’t grieve. Some dogs don’t seem to process the loss, or may actually bloom when the other dog is no longer in the picture. While Dolce played with the younger dogs at times, none of them seem to have even noticed her missing, and that’s OK.
Remember dogs are sensitive to human body language and tone. Our distress at losing a dog shows itself in our voices and our movements. Familiar routines might suddenly have changed. Dogs are most at ease when their environment is predictable and their people behave in expected ways, so keep the household routine as normal as possible, and try not to burden your surviving dog with your grief.
Losing a dog is hard on you, but remember canine members of your household might grieve as well. Helping them to move on is part of being a good dog owner.
Karlene Turkington is a lifelong animal lover who has been training dogs for over 20 years.

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