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

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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.



17 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.


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