The Human-Canine Bond and Owner Loss
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 have reminded me, little is written about how to help a dog cope with the loss of an owner. Unfortunately, two factorsone canine and one humanmay combine to create problems for these animals and make those problems difficult to resolve.
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 responsibility for protecting those other people and their belongings suddenly falls on the dog. If the dog can handle this, no problems occur. However, animals whose temperament, training, age, health, or other qualities don't prepare them to assume this responsibility may succumb to a wide range of problems, and sometimes more than one.
For example, when placed in this position some animals will react more strongly to visitors to the surviving owner's home, barking and carrying on and even displaying aggression toward people or events which never bothered the dog before. Animals who were aggressive before the loss of the owner may become even more so after it. Other dogs may become overly upset when surviving family members depart; some of these animals may destroying furnishings in an attempt to alleviate their stress, while others may chew on themselves or develop stress-related medical problems. A third group of dogs may become excessively needy, constantly badgering the survivors and others for attention and heaving heavy sighs or mournfully staring at those people when they don't comply. Yet another group of dogs are 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 perfectly good sense because these animals can't relax until they know where they fit in this new mental and emotional environment.
Logic tells us that the best way to take the pressure off these animals means interacting with them in a manner that communicates our ability to handle these responsibilities ourselves. However, this brings us to the human part of these problems. We know from all those studies of the human-animal bond how incredibly comforting our pets can be at times of great stress. Seeking out and 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, the fact remains that such human displays may communicate a subordinate position and lack of human confidence to the pet at a time 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. For those animals whose fear leads them to want to keep the owner as close as possible, an overly attentive owner response serves to reinforce those animal fears rather dispel them.
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. However, 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 to do? To begin with, don't baby the dog. Instead, involve your pet in exercises and games that build the animal's confidence rather than undermine 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. However, the more we interact with our pets in a manner that takes their behavioral and relationship needs into account as well as our own, the more quickly they'll make this transition.
But what about cats? Next month we'll explore the different ways owner can affect them, too.
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