The loss of a loved one is hard to bear, impacting every area of our lives. Grief is an intense emotion, and its effects can be visceral and far-reaching. When we suffer after a loss, we can understand why we feel that deep pain. We can talk to family members, friends, or a therapist. This doesn't lessen the pain, but it can help us to come to terms with it. For dogs, which we now know do experience grief similarly to us, bereavement can be both confusing and devastating.
A survey study called The Companion Animal Mourning Project was conducted by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) way back in 1996. The results revealed that 66% of animals experienced at least four behavioural changes associated with grief.
A paper, written by Walker et al. (2016), showed an even higher percentage of responses to the signs of grief than the 1996 study. The authors found changes in affectionate behaviour in 74% of the dogs; out of these, 82% became more affectionate and even clingy. 50% of dogs were reported to seek out the deceased companion's favourite spot, and 42% showed reduced appetite.
Dogs strongly bonded with a human or animal suffer when a loved one dies. Grief can include the loss of a caretaker through other means and the loss of a companion dog: for instance, a dog who has been relinquished to rescue kennels after living as part of a family. So, how can we help a grieving dog to adjust to a new phase of life?
Coping with your grief
You will be mourning your loss, too, and your remaining dog/s will likely be affected by your emotional state. Turbulent emotions might further complicate this if you had to decide on euthanasia. It can also be hard if people around you don't understand how deep your grief goes – especially those who may insensitively remark that “It’s only a dog” or “Just get another one.”
It can help to have a strong family and friends support network who can empathise with the considerable space left after bereavement. Express and share your feelings rather than trying to put on a brave face. It can also help to be clear with others about needing time alone to process your grief if you feel overwhelmed by kindness. Self-care is important. Even if you feel little like eating, have small, regular, nourishing meals. It can also help if you wish to honour the memory of your loved one in some way – perhaps by lighting a candle, putting together a memory book, or planting a tree or shrub in their honour.
Note how your dog is behaving and reacting. Some dogs adapt very quickly, but others may struggle for months. Ask yourself these questions to form a mental picture of his emotional state. Is he eating well, or has he lost interest in food? Is he eating more slowly than usual? Does he appear depressed and lethargic? Has he lost interest in activities that he used to enjoy? Has his sleeping pattern changed? Is he seeking your attention more? Has he become anxious and clingy? Is he searching for his lost companion or sleeping on their bed instead of his own?
If your dog is expressing that he needs you, give generously. Give love, support, comfort, and a sense of security. Remember that you may have several people to turn to, but he has only you, and you're the centre of his (currently very wobbly) universe.
Routine or change?
Some dogs feel most comfortable when life's routines remain the same because that brings a sense of security and continuity. If this is your dog, it can help him keep to the routine he's used to and walk in the usual places at the usual times.
Other dogs benefit from a change in routine when they're grieving, and the same dog may need routine after one bereavement and change after another loss. You will know what's best for your dog by observing his demeanour.
Offer opportunities for joy.
Think about what usually makes your dog happy. Does he have a favourite human friend from outside your home? If so, ask that person to visit and make a fuss of him.
Will he take treats, even if he's not eating as much as usual? Offer tasty titbits that will nourish him, such as small pieces of his favourite meat, chopped-up sausages, or tiny chunks of cheese. Vary these to keep his interest.
Bring home some fluffy toys. Dogs, as well as humans, can find these comforting. They needn't be expensive – you can trawl through charity shops for children's toys, ensuring the ones you choose don't have plastic or glass eyes or noses that could harm your dog.
Have an adventure on walks. Gain his attention by quietly showing particular interest in a plant or area of ground. Crouch down and poke around. He'll want to know what is so intriguing to you and may well join you to investigate. His nose is so keener than yours, so he'll find something sniff-worthy to explore.
Pay attention to his physical as well as emotional health
We know our immune system can be compromised when we're feeling very low in spirits. This effect can be seen in dogs, too. If you're concerned about your dog's health, ask your vet to conduct a thorough check-up.
It takes time to adjust to the loss. Some dogs bounce back quickly, while others may grieve for an extended period. Be patient if your dog is slow in coming to terms with grief. Give him all the time and support he needs, and celebrate each bright moment when he takes an interest in something. Your pleasure will be transmitted to him and further help him along the road to recovery.