Those who have lost a beloved dog understand just how painful the experience can be. Dogs are known as human’s best friend for a reason: They’re more than just a pet… more than a companion… Those of us who have loved a dog for years to decades know the truth; they’re family.
The loss of a dog can bring about feelings of grief and profound sadness. As psychologist Julie Axelrod explains, the loss of a dog is so painful because we experience multiple losses at the same time. We likely lost one of our primary companions, one of our main sources of unconditional love, our protégé whom we’d mentored like a child since they were a puppy, and our “life witness” who accepted us exactly as we are and gave us a strong sense of comfort and security. Experiencing all of these losses at the same time can make losing a dog as difficult as losing a loved one.
Psychology reveals the following reasons why parting with a loving dog is so hard:
“A dog is one of the only things on Earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
1. A Real Bond
A study conducted by the Journal of Evolution and Human Behavior examined why people love their pets so much. They found that humans and dogs form powerful bonds which are similar to the bonds created between humans and other humans.
Our brains release the same types of hormones when we bond with dogs as when we bond with our family. The study states that interacting with a pet can, “cause pet owners to derive more satisfaction from their pet relationship than those with humans, because they supply a type of unconditional relationship that is usually absent from those with other human beings.” The bonds we experience with our loving dogs are just as real as the bonds we experience with humans, and letting go of them when they pass can be equally as painful.
2. Unconditional Love
“May I become the kind of person that my dog thinks I already am.”
Losing a dog is losing a source of unconditional love. No matter how we look, how we act, or often even how we treat our beloved little furry ones, they always come to greet us with a wagging tail and a great big doggy smile. Psychologists explain that dogs provide us with pure emotional responses of love which are unfiltered and uninhibited by worry or concern for how that appears. This purity of heart is so greatly and deeply appreciated; it is how true love is meant to be, similar to the pure heart expressions of a child.
Relationships with humans are often more complicated; containing judgments, anxieties, rejections and fears which cover and sometimes block the pure flow of unconditional love. Your dog was likely ready to love you each and every day exactly as you are and were, without you needing to change anything. This type of unconditionally loving relationship makes saying goodbye and letting go all the more difficult to do.
The grieving process when losing a dog can often be more challenging to fully complete when compared to grieving for a person. Much of society expects a person to move on quickly after losing a pet. While funerals and counseling are normal practices after losing a loved one, we often don’t choose to have funerals for our beloved canine companions and most don’t seek counseling to help them process the painful event. Jobs are usually less than understanding as well when a person needs time-off to mourn the loss of their dog.
Losing a beloved dog can also reawaken similar feelings of a previous loss. Repressed, painful and unprocessed feelings from the past can re-open during times of loss, and the emotional hurt can be severe. Psychologist Julie Axelrod also explains that many people emotionally resist mourning as a suppressive way of coping. We may not want to appear weak by crying for our beloved dog, or we may fear that once the tears start, that they won’t stop. It’s important to remember to allow ourselves to have our emotional experience; including our sadness, grief, and time of mourning, and to meet our feelings with self-compassion and self-love. It’s okay to cry.
If our dog was old and had health issues before they passed, we may think, “Did I do enough for them?” or “If only I had done ‘this’ for them…” Our pup may have experienced struggle or pain before they passed, and we may wish we had pursued other surgeries or treatment. These thoughts can lead to feelings of guilt which block a healthy grieving process.
In some cases our beloved companion was suffering or for some reason the difficult decision of putting them to sleep was made. While this likely saved them from further suffering, the choice can be so painful that people end up carrying associated feelings of guilt with them for years. We spent years or decades protecting the health of our loved little doggy, and then needed to help end our loved one’s suffering. This can be overwhelming and difficult to process, and deserves to be spoken about with a professional counselor just as much as any other challenging life experience.
What Can We Do?
As psychology, science and studies have shown that losing a dog is often just as painful as losing a loved one, it’s important to remember to take care of yourself during this difficult experience. Be kind and gentle with yourself, honor and respect your very valid feelings, talk it out with a professional or trusted family member, and remember your sweet dog with love, because that’s how they remember you.
You are Loved.