Thoughts of a Dog Therapist – Grief

Last weekend we had to say goodbye to Jess. We had 3 months longer with her than we had expected but the cancer just became too much to manage and her quality of life started to be affected, which wasn’t fair on her.

Deciding when a beloved dog has had enough is one of the hardest things that a pet parent ever has to do but it isn’t just us that has to say goodbye and it isn’t just us who will miss them. It can have a profound effect on other dogs in the household as well.

Firstly because one of their family members goes out one day and never comes back and they never know what happened to them. Secondly because they sense everything that we’re feeling so can feel our pain and grief but don’t understand why we’re giving off these emotional signals.

Ideally we would all be able to call the vet to our homes and allow our dog to transition in comfort surrounded by all of their loved ones. However I know from experience that this can’t always happen. That’s why I always bring my dogs physical body home with me, lay it out peacefully and allow the other dogs to come in and see that their friend has gone and say their goodbyes. I never force them to do anything and always leave the door to the room open so that they can leave if they want to. I have done it this way for the last 15 years and have found that I don’t have any of the behavioural problems with my dogs that other parents have reported with their dogs after the loss of one of their friends.

One of my clients came to me last year because her dog was being aggressive to a new dog that she had bought into the house. During the communication that I did with him he shared that there had been another dog in the family and that his Mum had taken her out one day and never bought her back. He didn’t know where she’d gone or why, all he knew was that she went and then this dog came and he believed that one day his Mum might take him out and not bring him back and replace him with another dog. The grief from losing his friend, the frustration from not knowing why and the fear of what might happen to him was all causing him to act aggressively towards the new dog. Trying to explain what had actually happened and put his mind at rest was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and he had a lot of questions, which just confirmed that my ‘ritual’ as people have been known to call it, is definitely the right thing to do.

When Jess transitioned this was confirmed to me further by the way one of my other dogs reacted to her. Bert went over and sniffed all round her and then laid facing her and rested his head on the outside of the bed. He laid there for around 20 minutes before getting up and moving away. I felt blessed to witness this interaction and his personal goodbye.

I feel that it’s important to point out that this isn’t the only time that us or our dogs can feel grief or loss. I worked with a dog recently who had become reactive on walks and destructive in the house since the break up of his parents. He now lives with just his Mum but again didn’t understand where his Dad had gone, he just knew that he had gone out and not come back and that his Mum was really sad and also quite angry about it. He saw his Mum as vulnerable and had therefore started to behave protectively when they left the safety of the house, and he got very upset and anxious when she left without him because he couldn’t protect her.

Other instances of grief and loss can occur when dogs have been abandoned or rehomed, when a family member goes off to university or moves out (as above) or even when their owners go on holiday and leave them with a carer. My Grandads dogs used to go off their food when he went away and one time one of them swam right out into the sea during a walk and was out by the moored boats by the time we got there to help get her back, and they were only ever left with other family members.

Nowadays I also support my dogs in the aftermath of a loss with my Canine Therapy. I use the communication to discuss things with them and find out how they feel, I allow them to self select essential oils and flower essences, I offer reiki and participate in various relaxation and mindfulness exercises with them. The best part about the canine therapy is that it forces me to work on my own grief because I have to be in the right emotional state to be able to help my dogs. So in fact it supports us all while we come to terms with our loss.