The Human-Canine Bond and Owner Loss Revisited


The Human-Canine Bond and Owner Loss

This month I revisit a topic I first wrote about in 2002: the Human-Canine Bond and Owner Loss.

Why now? Because the increased lack of that knowledge about canine behavior and the bond makes it easier not to think about what will become of the dog if something happens to the owner. But is that the kind of legacy we want to leave for our dogs?

Greyfriar’s Bobby: A touching story but…

A great deal has been written on the subject of pet loss as it affects any surviving humans or other pets, including by me. However, as several recent e-mails reminded me, little is written about how to help a dog cope with the loss of an owner. Two factors—one canine and one human—may combine to create problems for these animals and make adjusting to the loss especially difficult.

On the canine front, if a person a dog perceives as leader of the human-canine pack departs and none of those remaining in the household share that same kind of relationship with the pet, the  animal may suffer needlessly. Dogs who protected the former owner may feel responsible for protecting any survivors. If the dog can handle this, no problems occur. But if these animals’ temperament, training, age, health, or other limitations didn’t prepare them to assume these responsibilities, they may experience stress-related medical or behavioral problems.

For example, some dogs may react more strongly to visitors to the surviving owner’s home, barking and carrying on and even displaying aggression toward people or other animals who never bothered the dog before. Dogs who were aggressive before the loss of the owner may become even more so after it.

Other dogs may become overly upset when left alone for some reason. Some may destroy furnishings in an attempt to alleviate their stress. Others may chew on themselves or develop stress-related medical problems. A third group of may become excessively needy, constantly badgering the survivors and others for attention and heaving heavy sighs or mournfully staring at people when who don’t comply. Yet another group of dogs become so overwhelmed that they don’t want to do anything at all, including eat or drink much.

In terms of canine behavior, all of these responses make good sense because these animals can’t relax until they know where they fit in this new mental and emotional environment. Basic canine ethology says that the best way to address this  involves interacting with them in a way that communicates the resident humans’ willingness to accept those responsibilities themselves.

This brings us to the human part of these sad dilemmas. We know from multiple studies how comforting our pets can be in times of great distress. Petting, hugging, and otherwise babying a pet when we feel sad often makes us feel much better. Logical though this may sound to us, though, such displays may communicate a lack of confidence to the pet at a time when the animal needs our confidence the most. Not only will this kind of human response not solve the dog’s problems, it may make them worse

Other times people will excuse problems that arise following the loss of an owner instead of dealing with them: “It’s perfectly understandable that Tippy started chewing the furniture (urinating on the bed, barking constantly, etc.) because she misses Joe so much,” says Joe’s wife. But although all sorts of behavioral or medical problems may crop up following the loss of an owner, this attitude does nothing to resolve them.

So what should bereaved survivors do?  Don’t baby the dog. Be strong, even if you have to fake it. Involve the dog in exercises and games that build the animal’s confidence rather than undermines it. Create interactions that communicate, “You’re a great dog and I know you can cope with the loss because I’m going to help you,” rather than “Oh, you poor baby. How are we ever going to survive?”

Does this mean you always need to be upbeat at a time when your own feelings of loss make you feel anything but? Not at all. Owners who have been through this tell me that one of the most rewarding coping strategies for both them and their pets combines exercise/play sessions followed by those during which the owner quietly grooms or massages the animal until they both feel relaxed.

Coping with loss always takes time. But the more we interact with our pets in a way that respects their behavioral and bond needs as well as our own, the more quickly they’ll make this transition.

Note: For those who didn’t recognize Greyfriar’s Bobby’s picture, here’s a link to his story. Much as Bobby sort of looks like Ollie, feeling obligated to hang out with my remains isn’t the kind of life I’d want for Ollie or any dog to have.





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