Why Losing a Dog Can Be Harder Than Losing a Relative or Friend

“Many bereaved pet owners will even mistakenly interpret ambiguous sights and sounds as the movements, pants and whimpers of the deceased pet.”

John Unger cradling his beloved senior dog Schoep in the calming waters of Lake Superior to help alleviate his arthritis.  Schoep lived to the ripe old age of 20.



Originally written and published by Frank McAndrew of Knox College on The Conversation



Recently, my wife and I went through one of the more excruciating experiences of our lives – the euthanasia of our beloved dog, Murphy. I remember making eye contact with Murphy moments before she took her last breath – she flashed me a look that was an endearing blend of confusion and the reassurance that everyone was ok because we were both by her side.

When people who have never had a dog see their dog-owning friends mourn the loss of a pet, they probably think it’s all a bit of an overreaction; after all, it’s “just a dog.”

However, those who have loved a dog know the truth: Your own pet is never “just a dog.”

Many times, I’ve had friends guiltily confide to me that they grieved more over the loss of a dog than over the loss of friends or relatives. Research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of a dog is, in almost every way, comparable to the loss of a human loved one. Unfortunately, there’s little in our cultural playbook – no grief rituals, no obituary in the local newspaper, no religious service – to help us get through the loss of a pet, which can make us feel more than a bit embarrassed to show too much public grief over our dead dogs.

Perhaps if people realized just how strong and intense the bond is between people and their dogs, such grief would become more widely accepted. This would greatly help dog owners to integrate the death into their lives and help them move forward.

An interspecies bond like no other

What is it about dogs, exactly, that make humans bond so closely with them?

For starters, dogs have had to adapt to living with humans over the past 10,000 years. And they’ve done it very well: They’re the only animal to have evolved specifically to be our companions and friends. Anthropologist Brian Hare has developed the “Domestication Hypothesis” to explain how dogs morphed from their grey wolf ancestors into the socially skilled animals that we now interact with in very much the same way as we interact with other people.

Perhaps one reason our relationships with dogs can be even more satisfying than our human relationships is that dogs provide us with such unconditional, uncritical positive feedback. (As the old saying goes, “May I become the kind of person that my dog thinks I already am.”)

This is no accident. They have been selectively bred through generations to pay attention to people, and MRI scans show that dog brains respond to praise from their owners just as strongly as they do to food (and for some dogs, praise is an even more effective incentive than food). Dogs recognize people and can learn to interpret human emotional states from facial expression alone. Scientific studies also indicate that dogs can understand human intentions, try to help their owners and even avoid people who don’t cooperate with their owners or treat them well.

Not surprisingly, humans respond positively to such unrequited affection, assistance and loyalty. Just looking at dogs can make people smile. Dog owners score higher on measures of well-being and they are happier, on average, than people who own cats or no pets at all.

Like a member of the family

Our strong attachment to dogs was subtly revealed in a recent study of “misnaming.” Misnaming happens when you call someone by the wrong name, like when parents mistakenly calls one of their kids by a sibling’s name. It turns out that the name of the family dog also gets confused with human family members, indicating that the dog’s name is being pulled from the same cognitive pool that contains other members of the family. (Curiously, the same thing rarely happens with cat names.)

It’s no wonder dog owners miss them so much when they’re gone.

Psychologist Julie Axelrod has pointed out that the loss of a dog is so painful because owners aren’t just losing the pet. It could mean the loss of a source of unconditional love, a primary companion who provides security and comfort, and maybe even a protégé that’s been mentored like a child.

The loss of a dog can also seriously disrupt an owner’s daily routine more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives. For owners, their daily schedules – even their vacation plans – can revolve around the needs of their pets. Changes in lifestyle and routine are some of the primary sources of stress.

According to a recent survey, many bereaved pet owners will even mistakenly interpret ambiguous sights and sounds as the movements, pants and whimpers of the deceased pet. This is most likely to happen shortly after the death of the pet, especially among owners who had very high levels of attachment to their pets.

While the death of a dog is horrible, dog owners have become so accustomed to the reassuring and nonjudgmental presence of their canine companions that, more often than not, they’ll eventually get a new one.

So yes, I miss my dog. But I’m sure that I’ll be putting myself through this ordeal again in the years to come.



40 thoughts on “Why Losing a Dog Can Be Harder Than Losing a Relative or Friend

  1. Melanie:
    That was a wonderful article about grief and dogs. I have been through it three times unfortunately. You’re right it can’t be much more difficult than losing a human loved one. I can tell from your profile as well as your article that you are a wonderful human being and there should be more like you in the world.

  2. I lost my precious Reba 6 months ago, my grief is still so profound, and yes more so than it was after the loss of friends and family. She was the reason I hurried home , after her death I found myself so lost. Even now, I can’t think about her without crying.

  3. This is very true. Not a day goes without me mourning over my Goofy. Its just 5 months and his crossing the Rainbow bridge has left a huge void in our lives.

  4. Truly one of the most painful experiences in life is losing a beloved dog.

    But wonderfully, what one discovers when the grief lessens, is that the love remains.

    It’s yours to keep forever, and is just one of the many gifts our dogs give to us.

  5. I had my boy Finn just short of 12 yrs. I got him when he was 10 weeks old. When my partner left… I told her she could have everything but Finn. On June 6th 2016 I kept my promise to him. He blind and for 3 weeks before I would carry him outside to go potty every hr. Then I thought I was being selfish. Well I sang “you are my sunshine” like I did for every thunderstorm . The 2 words the vet said will stay with me forever ” he’s gone” . But I was holding him in my house on his couch. Thank you for this article… there is NO SUCH THING AS JUST A DOG!!!

  6. The same can be said for birds. I lost my precious Marcie suddenly last year to an infection. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t tear up just thinking about her. I saved her from immediate death and nursed her back to health–it took over a year to do that. No person could be as close as Marcie was to me. That bond can never be broken. Thank you for the affirmation of our grief over our pets’ passing.

  7. Well said all of you. The only way I can get over the loss of Buster and many more before him is to find or let them find me, is to take another one home. We can’t let them be alone. I know we have love can help someone.

  8. It is so heartbreaking when someone loses their dog. I have lost my 16 years old dog and he was with me all the time, i still miss him and no other dog can take his place.

  9. It´s very difficult to lose a pet. They are with us for many years and can be our best friend. They travel with us and live with us. They keep us company when we are lonely and feeling down. They are happy with us when we are happy. They are great friends.

  10. I have also lost a dog. It´s a terrible experience. He was like a member of the family. We had him for years. It was especially difficult for the children. They cried for days. I wonder if there are dogs in heaven.

  11. My buddy’s dog of 14 years just passed away and he said he’s cried harder about her than he did when his mentor passed. You spend so much time with them, they’re always there, and when they leave, there’s a huge hole in your life left.

  12. So where do you start with dog obedience training? You could take a class, but it’s not necessary; You can do it yourself In fact, with the right attitude >> pic.twitter.com/XBx8NMj1aT

  13. I’m so sorry for your loss. I work in the pet fashion industry myself and have personally known countless people who have gone or are going through the pain. Nothing can replace your little friend but you can always count on time to heal yourself and cherish the beautiful memories.

  14. To all those who have had their lives enriched by dogs and have had to say good bye to them-they are always with you, they never leave you. I still grieve the loss of mine, but know I will be able to see them again and feel their soft fur, their doggie kisses and watch them run and play like they used to.

  15. Losing a dog is exactly has hard as losing a friend or family member because a dog is family. Perhaps it can be harder because often the owner has to make that decision, rather than nature or a random event deciding for us.

    I currently am on the first dog of my adulthood and I’ve had her for almost a third of my life. I have no idea how I am going to handle it when it’s her time to go.

  16. Hello and my heartfelt condolanances to all who have lost beloved fur babies .My dog of 12 years had to be put to sleep after a severe stroke.And it was devastating. I found a website 10 years ago, that was a Godsend called Critters.com.There I could write my memories,share my grief,and loss with other owners .I posted pictures and chose songs to accompany the memorial.I paid a one time fee,that was very reasonable,and her site remains up and active to this day.It was wonderful and so healing to have the forum to share and loving support this site provided.Check out Critters.com ,And visit my dogs Memorial site Samantha Melissa and say hi. My prayers are with you all.Lisa Little

  17. Thank you very much for this article, written from the sensitivity. A dog is part of the family and his love is so absolute and his loyalty so great that losing it breaks our hearts. There are no words and his memory will always be with us.

    greeting from Spain

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  19. I have not experienced the loss of a dog yet, but my dogs are currently 11 and 4 years old and the first ones I have ever owned. They hold such a special place in my heart and do everything with me. Moving to college is hard because I rarely get to see them but I know that they will show me unconditional love when I get back. If you would like to read my blog post about dogs, visit https://shylasfascinatingblogs.blogspot.com/2018/11/are-dogs-really-mans-best-friend.html and feel free to comment!

  20. had a dog when i was in highschool. Dobbler was her name. when we came home from a daytrip we found her dead. i was so pissed at myself for not being responsible enough to know what heatstroke was at the time. after that incident i found it hard to really get another dog. she was just special. i love dogs but learn from me, one should be responsible enough to take good care of and train ourselves as much as we train them… this i think would be helpful… https://bit.ly/2Lgruib

  21. I used CBD Oil for my dogs when we go to our Vet. They are so excited when we go outside. I gave them CBD Oil 15 to 30 minutes prior. CBD oil for our pets can treat health issues such as digestive or upset tummy, inflammation, joint pain or even allergies. I tried this in my dog, I gave it when I know he faced a stressful situation. And as I have done researching, I came across to this article
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