I know, you think that’s a mistake, aren’t you? But, no, it’s not. If you have more than one dog, then there is an excellent chance that one of those dogs also has his companion dog. And when one dog dies, other dogs may grieve in much the same way as you, the pet owner, goes through the grieving process.
I see it all the time in multi-dog households. Some dogs bond more closely than others. I suppose a person could talk about hierarchies, alphas, betas, and omegas, oh my! And we could analyze forever why some dogs bond to one another, and others couldn’t care less. But the fact is that often one dog will form a significant attachment to another dog. A lot of times, this happens when a puppy is introduced into a household with older dogs.
So here’s the scenario – you’re dealing with your grief, but something seems off with your remaining dog. You suspect that he is also going through a grieving process. There’s an excellent chance you’re right, so how are you going to help your remaining dog? Let me start by telling you a story.
My friend Alanna has experienced the death of a dog’s dog first-hand. She has five dogs (and yes, before anyone asks, she does need five dogs!). Her most recent addition was Jimmy, a golden retriever. When she brought him home, she watched in wonder as Gordon, her three-year-old Saint Bernard, went over to little Jimmy and then turned to look at her with eyes that so clearly said, “Oh, wow, Mom, you got me a puppy!” Jimmy, all wide-eyed, was like, “You got me a dog!”
There you have it; match made in heaven. And for years, Gordon and Jimmy were fast friends. They played together, ate together, and slept together. Of course, there were other dogs in the household, but Gordon and Jimmy were all about each other. Then, at age four, Jimmy started losing weight. Alanna had a wonderful vet, Dr. Byron, at her local animal hospital. Dr. Byron did everything he could, but the problem was leukemia.
Alanna buried Jimmy in the backyard amidst the flowers and tried to move on.
A few weeks later, Gordon appeared to be losing weight. So, of course, Alanna was thinking, “Oh God, please, not again!” So she took Gordon to the vet’s office to see Dr. Byron, who performed blood tests, did x-rays, and pronounced Gordon to be in the peak of good health. So what was wrong?
Dr. Byron asked several questions. When did the weight loss start? What about the dynamics with the other pets in Alanna’s household? Did Gordon have friends in the pack? Perhaps a special canine companion?
Finally, with many probing questions and detailed answers, Alanna and Dr. Byron hit on the problem: Gordon was grieving.
How Dogs Grieve
As Dr. Byron explained, dogs feel all the same emotions that we feel – love, anger, fear, hatred, frustration, sadness – and yes, grief. Grief manifests the same way in dogs that it does in humans – they may become listless or irritable, and they may also stop eating.
So, what can you do?
Grief eases in time, and you have to let it run its course. However, there are things you can do – something that Alanna did or could have done – that will help your bereaved dog. So let’s talk about those things.
1. Let the remaining dog be present at euthanasia
As you might expect, Alanna had Jimmy put to sleep before leukemia could claim him. But, sadly, she did not realize that much of the distress Gordon was experiencing was because he was waiting for Jimmy to come home, and of course, that was never going to happen.
If you’ve ever experienced your grief over a loss, can you begin to imagine how much worse it would have been had you not known what happened to your loved one? Many vets suggest having other pets present for euthanasia. That way, they know that their friend will not be coming home.
2. Allow your remaining dog to be present at the burial
Sometimes you can’t have family or other pets present when a dog is euthanized. For example, if the dog has died of a sudden cardiac arrest or been in an accident and has no hope of surviving, the last thing you want to do is waste time loading people and other pets into your vehicle.
In a situation like this, you might want to choose a home burial. Let the surviving dog view his departed friend, or if the deceased dog is wrapped up in a blanket, allow the survivor to get a good sniff. He’ll know what’s happened, and he’ll understand that his friend is no longer with him.
3. Stick to a routine
You undoubtedly have things that you do every day, regularly, with your dogs. For example, you feed at certain times, take walks, perhaps go to the dog park, and snuggle before bed. Keep up the routine.
Your family has just been broken, and the remaining family members need to feel that there’s still some consistency in their lives. This applies equally to grieving animals and grieving humans. Things will not be normal for a while, but try to keep them as close to normal as possible.
4. Understand that the hierarchy may have shifted
In a multi-dog household, there’s always a hierarchy. Ideally, it would help if you were the boss, always. However, if your deceased dog was the leader among the rest of the pack, a surviving dog might be very bewildered. What happens now? Does he have to be a leader? If he was submissive, what then? Who’s going to tell him what to do? Where does he belong?
This is a confusing time for any surviving dog, regardless of his pack position. Understand if he seems a bit aimless, and again, stick to a routine.
5. Play a bit more
Gordon and Jimmy were so bonded that they kept each other amused, playing tug of war, chasing, pretending to be mad at each other, and all the other things that best canine companions do. They loved playing with Alanna, but they didn’t need her.
If this sounds like the relationship your dogs had with each other, you need to know right now that the suffering dog most definitely does need you. So encourage him to play more than you usually would. Right now, you may be all he has.
6. Expect behavior changes and be alert to signs of depression
It’s perfectly normal to grieve following a loss. Feeling sad is to be expected. It should begin to ease in a month or so, though. If your dog continues to show signs of depression, like refusing to eat, not wanting to play, or a change in sleeping habits, that’s not good. Your dog could be in a profound state of depression, and a visit to the vet’s office is warranted.
The reason for the behavior changes is, in all likelihood, depression. You should still see your vet, though, to rule out the possibility that your canine companion is ill from something other than grief.
7. Consider medication
If you have never been in the grip of clinical depression, you probably know someone who has. It’s depression so deep that sometimes the only way out is through medication. If your dog is feeling sad, that’s one thing. If he’s making himself ill with grief, that’s another thing entirely, and you may want to think about medication.
Dogs can benefit in the same way as humans can from anti-depressants. It doesn’t have to be a long-term solution. Talk with your vet about ways to treat your remaining dog’s depression.
8. Think about a new dog, but don’t rush it
Have you ever lost a beloved pet and said to yourself, “I’ll never have another; it hurts too much losing them”? But, on the other hand, have you ever rushed out the day after, looking for a new pet to help heal that gaping hole in your heart?
Your dog could also want a new dog right away, or he might prefer to wait for a while. Rather than rushing into getting him a new friend, you might want to consider seeing how he feels about other dogs. For example, take him to the dog park or to visit a neighbor’s dog. If he reacts positively, you can think about a new dog. If he reacts badly, give him more time to grieve.
9. Consider keeping some of your deceased dog’s belongings
One of the hardest things about a beloved pet’s death is that you’re going to see his leash, collar, blanket, toys, and so on scattered throughout the house. Some grieving pet owners choose to get rid of these things right away. Others find their presence a comfort.
In the same way, a grieving dog might take either approach. You might try leaving a few items out. Keep an eye on your surviving dog and notice if he seems to find his friend’s belongings soothing or if he reacts by whimpering and turning away. If he’s distressed by the reminder of his friend, you can remove them. On the other hand, if they comfort him, there’s no harm in letting him have the items.
10. Invite friends over
If your dog enjoys human companionship, invite a few of his favorite humans to visit. He’ll appreciate the extra attention.
No amount of human affection is going to eliminate your dog’s grief. However, this does provide a bit of variety in his day, giving him something other than his loss to focus on.
11. Plan for when you’ll be out
It’s probably not realistic to think that you’ll be able to spend all day, every day, with your dog. Even if you’re a stay-at-home dog parent, you’ll have to dash out from time to time to get groceries, go to the post office, attend appointments, and so on.
The ideal solution is to have someone stay with your dog when you can’t be there. If this isn’t possible, explore options that will help keep him entertained. For example, you might hide treats around the house in places where he can sniff them out. You could also provide him with a fillable toy – one that can contain peanut butter or yogurt. Working to get the good stuff out of the toy will give him something other than his lost friend to think about.
12. Switch up the routine
I know; I’ve already said that you should stick to a routine. I’m suggesting here that although you shouldn’t stop going for walks, feeding at certain times, and so on, a few minor changes can be beneficial.
If you always take the same route on your morning walk, for instance, do it in reverse. You’re still taking the same course, but you’re starting where you usually finish and finishing where you typically begin. This adds a bit of interest to something familiar.
13. Talk to your dog
We all talk to our dogs. They love to hear our voices! So there is no better time than after a loss to take talking to your dog to the next level.
Of course, keep the baby-talk (which I’m sure you do whether you’ll admit it or not!) but add normal conversation. For example, talk about your daily routine – “Okay buddy, time to put away the laundry. First, we put the shirts on hangers. Now we’re going to fold the jeans. See how we roll up the socks?” This sort of talk might feel a bit awkward at first, but many people do it as a matter of course. You’ll get the hang of it, and the sound of your voice will be a comfort to your surviving pet.
14. Don’t punish vocalizing
Your dog may also want to express himself vocally by howling or whimpering. This is typical behavior in grieving dogs and should never be punished. If you have neighbors, though, they may find constant howling a bit problematic.
You may be tempted to give your unhappy dog a treat to get him to quiet down. That’s not a good approach – what he learns from this is, quite simply, “I howled, and I got a treat.” Instead, tell him “Quiet.” If the howling continues, don’t scold. Ignore it, but keep saying “Quiet.” When he finally is quiet, seize the moment and give him the treat. As he works through the grief process, eventually, the reward of a treat will be more gratifying than howling.
15. Borrow some kids
If your dog has been exposed to children and is good with them, invite a few over to play. Most kids will wear out most dogs in no time at all, and then your best buddy can enjoy a nice, long sleep, hopefully with good dreams. Dogs can have nightmares just like humans do, though, so if you hear him whimpering or howling in a way that suggests distress, wake him gently.
If you have no children living close by, consider contacting local daycares to find out if it would be okay to bring your canine friend over for a visit. The corollary to this is that if your surviving dog is elderly, he might prefer to visit a seniors’ home. Most assisted care facilities welcome visits from friendly dogs.
You don’t have to do everything on this list of suggestions. Instead, pick and choose the ones that work for you and your dog. There are bound to be some that will offer at least a modicum of comfort.
You know that the story of Alanna, Gordon, and Jimmy does not exactly have a happy ending. It never can when a beloved pet dies or has to be put to sleep. Jimmy’s time with Alanna, Gordon, and the rest of the pack was far, far too short. And yet, life goes on.
Last week, Alanna was browsing the classifieds. And here’s what she found:
Free to a good home. Mixed breed puppy, very affectionate. She wandered into my yard, and I think she might have been a stray for quite a while. I think she’s about five months old, but I can’t be sure. Pretty markings, black and tan and a bit of white. Floppy ears. Not sure of breed. I have cats and can’t keep her. If you can give her a good home, she’s yours.
I guess I don’t have to tell you what happened next. That little homeless girl isn’t homeless anymore. Whether she and Gordon will end up soulmates like he and Jimmy were, it’s probably too soon to say. But they seem to be getting along so far. Gordon’s appetite is better, and his ears are a little perkier than they used to be. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Don’t ever assume that dogs don’t feel grief. They grieve the loss of their dog friends, and sometimes, tragically, their human friends. I know this, and so does Alanna. So I guess the takeaway from this post is to treat your dog’s emotions kindly and gently. They are feeling the same things that you feel. And when they have a loss, they need help to get past it, the same as you would.
If your dog is grieving a loss, love him and comfort him how he would love and comfort you in the same situation. He is confused, and his heart is hurting, but you can give him the emotional support he needs to work through the healing process.
And sometimes, a new puppy couldn’t hurt, either.
People Also Ask
What do I do if my dog just died?
You have a few options. If you have a nice yard, you might want to go with a home burial. If the ground is hard or rocky, you could hire a backhoe to dig a grave for your dog; if you live in an apartment and have nowhere to bury your dog, call your local animal hospitals to find out which ones offer cremation services.
What could cause a dog to die suddenly?
The leading cause of sudden death in dogs is cardiovascular disease. The second most common cause is poisoning, usually by ingesting a toxic substance. Finally, trauma, such as being hit by a car, is the third most common cause.
Do dogs want to be alone when they die?
Do you? I think you’d rather be surrounded by those who love you. A dog with no human will try to isolate himself when he’s dying to keep himself safe from predators. But, on the other hand, a dog with a loving human will want that human with him when he passes.
Can dogs die of a broken heart?
We don’t know. What is known, though, is that when a human or dog is under stress, the immune system and heart function can be adversely affected. So it is perhaps not unreasonable to think that extreme stress could lead to “broken heart syndrome” in dogs, leading to death.
What does the vet do with dead dogs?
If you don’t want to take your dog’s body home to bury, the vet will have it cremated. You can choose group cremation (your dog is cremated along with other dogs) or private cremation (your dog is the only one cremated, and you can have the ashes returned to you). Private cremation is more expensive than group cremation.
Can you throw a dead dog away?
In many jurisdictions, you can. Unfortunately, some garbage collectors might refuse to take a large dog’s body. But if you’re considering disposing of your deceased dog in this manner, I urge you strongly to think again. The fact that you’re reading this article tells me that you care about your dogs. If you can’t afford cremation and don’t have access to a yard, ask friends or family if they can provide a spot for burial.
Is there any way to humanely euthanize a dog at home?
There is no good way. Veterinarians use a combination of medications to euthanize, and these medications are not available to the average pet owner. The only way you should consider home euthanasia is if you absolutely cannot get to the animal hospital and your vet can’t get to you. Maybe you’re storm-stayed? If that’s the case, call your vet for advice on how to achieve the next-best end for your dog using over-the-counter meds that you may have in your home.